Grand Old Flag

An Interview with Tim Marshall

Another example: Macedonia and Greece. Macedonia has had a referendum, its parliament has agreed to change their name to the Northern Republic of Macedonia because the northern part of Greece is called Macedonia and there's been a row over it. And again, on their maps, it's very important what they're called.

This has always been the case. And the basis of it is geography, obviously: here's this river, here's this sea, here's this desert. These themselves forged the cultures of peoples living within them. The British are framed by the sea. And so what we call things and what we say are things on maps are part and parcel of that physical process.

Another example, which has cooled down a lot: the Falklands. The Argentines call them something else: Las Malvinas. And on their maps, it's shown as that. If you produce a map in Argentina in which you call Las Malvinas the Falkland Islands, it's a criminal offense.

OR: Your third book deals with another facet of national life: walls. How has the idea of the walled border come to influence our thinking both about culture and about politics?

Marshall: Flags are about identity; identity flows from geography. Walls, again, are absolutely tied up with all this.

We've built walls ever since we stopped being hunter/gatherers. Because the moment you stop being a hunter/gatherer — and we began to stop about 12,000 years ago — you have a fixed spot, something that you hold precious. Whether it's other people around you or all your livestock or your crop that year. Life being what it is, you're not sure that somebody else from the next valley might not covet those goods. On that thought we started building walls. And we've never stopped.

The walls of Constantinople stood for 1,000 years before they were breached; others were less successful. They signify “us and them.” I'm not a big fan of them, but I don't expect them to go away any time soon. 65 countries now fence or wall themselves off — a third of all the nation-states in the world. Of all the walls and border fences built since the Second World War, more than half of them have been built this century. We remain divided.

Technology and the internet have allowed us to communicate; trade routes are better than they've ever been. Yet the nation-state and people's sense of identity appear as strong as ever. And up come the walls. The most famous in the world is the Israeli/Palestine one. But the Indians have fenced off the entirety of Bangladesh, all two-and-a-half-thousand miles of it, because of the movement of peoples. Turkey has just finished a 700-mile concrete wall with Syria. Kenya has just fenced off Somalia this year.

Europe, this great continent where we are all so open, has got fence after fence after fence. Greece and Turkey, Bulgaria and Turkey, Macedonia and Serbia, Serbia and Hungary, Austria and Slovenia.

OR: Do you see the politics around walls changing?

Marshall:  I don't think this is going to change because I don't think mass movement of peoples has peaked yet. Why would it? If you accept current models of climate change, then a third of Bangladesh will be underwater within 20 years. That affects tens of millions of people. Where are they going to move? If you accept the projections about Africa — there are currently 1.2 billion Africans; by 2060, there will be 2.2 billion — I'm not sure that Africa has the capacity to employ all those people. I suspect many of them will move north.

At the very time when this mass movement of peoples seems set to continue and climate change appears to be advancing, so does automation. Again, I'm only going by what the experts say. But the experts tell me that about 50 percent of jobs will fall to automation within two or three decades. So if that's the case and we have tens of millions of people on the move seeking work and yet the jobs are drying up, I don't see why you would project stability. I don't see why you would project total confidence in liberal democracy.

I think it's going to be extraordinarily bumpy in five to 10 years. I think if we can get the politics right and if we can have the proper political conversations that are required and if we can somehow slow down climate change and invest in places where people think they need to move from, then we can come out of the other end of this bumpy period and continue what has been a 200-year journey towards where we are now. I'm a big fan of Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now. I do think that our systems have brought people out of poverty and educated them all over the world and I think we can continue on that trajectory. But it's going to be very rocky for a few years.