The term, ‘island mentality’ may be connected with being an island, but it means far more than just geography. Here is one dictionary definition (urbandictionary.com)
‘An island mentality is a psychological state more than a geographic state of a person: a belief in a community’s or culture’s superiority, correctness, or specialness compared to other communities or cultures. Inspired by positive-minded well-meaning groupthink, increasing homogeneity over time, isolation-induced ignorance of other cultures or communities, fear of the unknown or being outnumbered (and a desire to compensate for their smallness amid the world), and lack of conflict with/lack of destruction by other communities (improving relative progress and social harmony and giving some credence to their feelings of superiority).’
There are two countries that come up on search engines when you look up ‘island mentality’. One is the UK; the other is Japan.
The Japan Times calls Japan ‘an amazing island nation success, a country that contributed to the world, without actually being fully part of it.’ But it also warns that Japan’s islander insularity is ‘no longer compatible with its modern reality’. In other words, in a global world an islander mentality is not advantageous. (japantimes.co.jp).
Whether you agree with that or not, it does seem to suggest that island mentalities lead to an inward-looking state of mind, and to an unusual mix of ambition together with a certain unwillingness to participate in some aspects of change in the wider world. It also suggests that island mentality can lead to a bit of an inferiority complex and a need to make up for small size in other ways, such as empire building, perhaps.
Of course there are many differences between the UK and Japan, not least in the fact that Britain has become a multi-cultural society to a great degree, while Japan has not. But it hasn’t always been like that. When the Romans first arrived in Britain in 54CE, they were not exactly welcomed with open arms.
After braving the tides of the channel, the landing on the beaches of Deal, followed by a pitched battle in incessant rain against a seriously narked tribe of Celtic Brits, Julius Caesar had had enough. He fled back to Gaul and only after another year of mulling things over did he decide to give it another shot. Again, the weather was foul, and the gales unexpected – and the inhabitants even worse. ‘They are a strange barbaric breed’, Caesar wrote. They have no understanding, he added later, of lawfulness or discipline. They were, in short, markedly different, even from the Gauls, whom Caesar had just defeated in true gladius-thrusting Roman style. They were islanders, and Caesar was just beginning to understand that a small island surrounded by water is going to be hard to change.
It was a full hundred years before the Romans returned, but this time as we know, they made a decent go of it. Only Ireland and Scotland were not fully Romanised. Ireland because the prospect of another sea journey proved too much to stomach for the Romans by then; it was hard enough dealing with what they already had to contend with anyway, and as for the Picts, they looked even more formidable than the Germanic tribes that had given so much trouble on the fringes of Gaul.
Despite not appreciating Caesar’s ships on their shores, pre-Roman Britons had traded with Gaul, modern-day France. Goods had been brought over in small but sturdy sea faring boats by mariners that knew the tides as Caesar did not. But even so, the population of Britain had no real wish to venture beyond their own island. They were an insular people and would remain so until the Romans showed them that there was more to life than a round house, a decent brew of mead and a field of crops.
There was underfloor heating, running water and law. At first these things did not seem particularly appealing, but as time went on they did, although interestingly, not for everyone. Roman Britain became divided between the mead drinkers and the wine drinkers, the toga wearers and the trouser wearers. Still, in the end, Gaul served only as an example to the beleaguered band of resisting Brits that it was better to play ball with Rome if you wanted to stand a chance of making it into the future generation of Anglo-Saxons.
When the Romans eventually left in the fifth century, Britain had other problems to deal with beyond the reaches of the water that surrounded it. The vast European continent that spread to the south was the least of its concerns. It was only much later in 1066 that Britain and France started to eye each other’s land more seriously over the straits of the channel. Claiming that Edward the Confessor had promised him the throne, William of Normandy engaged Harold, Earl of Wessex, in a battle for the English crown. He won of course. But the upshot of it all was that the descendants of William the Conqueror began, eventually around 1340, to stake their claims the other side of the channel. Like a boomerang that comes back, the matter of the English crown became a claim for the French one, and the argument lasted until the 19th century, which is a long stretch of time to be battling with the French, and more than a mere century. Perhaps it would have been better if the matter of the crown had been left alone in the first place, since all it brought was misery, plague and a love/hate relationship that was to last until another European power emerged further to the north to bring trouble on a different scale.
After the hundred years war with France was over, the British effectively abandoned the idea of conquest by land and took to the seas instead. They became a formidable naval power, and the idea of holing themselves up on a single island seemed limiting when there was so much to get busy with elsewhere. A small island grew in time to a large empire, with all the problems it entailed. Ironically we basically became very similar in some ways to the Romans who had landed on our shores; we took on the mantle of those who had given us such a hard time back in 60CE. Rome was not an island, but it still had the kind of aspirations that made it both great and notorious. The question is, are we heading the same way? Will it be decline and fall, or will we fight our way out of the corner we have backed into? If we do, I hope that it won’t be with a gladius.
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