Photo Credit: xpixel/Shutterstock
After four years of negotiation, it all came down to fish. Britain left the European Union on January 1, 2021–but only after a last-ditch deal secured increased quotas for Britain’s fishing industry.
At first glance this minor part of the British economy appears a surprising sticking point. But, as critics have noted, fishing rights represent the kind of emotive issue at the heart of the Brexit project: taking back control.
The issues at play here–over territorial waters, national identity, and fish–have historical parallels in the ‘Cod Wars’ of the twentieth century and call to mind Britain’s historical naval supremacy and proud identity as an island nation. But it is the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), when the English crown was locked in an enduring conflict with France that also transformed relations among the nations of Britain, that casts the longest shadow over our present moment. Attending to this deeper history not only clarifies why fish suddenly became an integral part of Brexit negotiations, it also reveals fractures in British identity that form an ill omen for the future of the Anglo-Scottish union.
Fishing accounts for only 0.1% of the British economy, a drop in the water compared to other economic sectors at stake in the agreement. The financial services industry, for instance, is 169 times larger, but not covered by the transition document.
The Leave campaign primed the stage for a showdown over fish by appealing to the fishing industry frequently during the 2016 referendum, including the spectacle of a Brexit ‘flotilla’ of fishing vessels sailing down the Thames (92% of fishermen planned to vote leave). Tensions over fish increased during the final few weeks of negotiations, culminating in the fish-dinner of scallops and turbot British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen shared at the start of December. Ultimately, arguments over reducing the amount of fish EU boats were entitled to in UK waters almost caused the collapse of negotiations.
The Brexit agreement states that EU fishing rights in UK waters will decline by a quarter over the next five years. After this initial transition period, these rights will be subject to annual negotiations. The importance of fish was underscored by the fish-themed tie Johnson wore when he announced the deal on Christmas Eve.
Access to fishing waters have dogged the European project from its inception. The Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) provides a framework for member nations, resolving questions of who is allowed to fish what, where, and how much through a quota system. But it often left much to be desired. For Norway, fishing rights, and the unsatisfying CFP, were a decisive factor in the country’s vote not to join the European Economic Community (the forerunner to the European Union) in 1972. Gaining control of the CFP, and changing quotas so that they fell in Britain’s favor, fits within this broader history of contention.
Looking back to the late Middle Ages demonstrates how fish have been used as a signifier of national identity. In 1377, fishermen of Great Yarmouth were stopped from fishing for herring in the North Sea by French barges. A year earlier Great Yarmouth had been granted exclusive rights to sell herring by a royal charter. Disrupting the work of fishermen would devastate the town’s economy. The English fishermen were so intimidated they dared not leave land. But supporters rallied, and five ships of armored men were deployed to protect the fishermen as they worked.
The French, seeing they were outnumbered and outgunned, retreated. This story appears as an entry in a historical chronicle, the chronological accounts of historical events that form vivid images of late-medieval life. Often such narratives are designed to exemplify broader historical and political points. In this case, the chronicler ends his story on a nationalist note, stating that “the fishermen resumed their customary occupation, providing for the necessities of their country.”
The nationalism is underscored by the entry’s heading in the chronicle: “The French, preventing us from fishing, are put to flight.” Cut to December, 2020 and we see a very similar scene: when it looked like Brexit negotiations would fail due to the conflict over fishing rights, four navy ships were made available to protect British fishermen in the English Channel in the event of incursions.
For both the medieval chronicler and today’s Brexiteers, the sea marks a testing ground rather than a boundary of national sovereignty. The plight of the Great Yarmouth fishermen is a microcosm of the broader conflict between England and France at the heart of the Hundred Years War. In 1337, the French king had died without a clear successor and Edward III, King of England, claimed the throne as grandson of Philip IV of France. The French refused his claim on the grounds that the throne cannot pass via the female line, instigating a series of conflicts that would last for more than a century.
Throughout the period, France and allied forces launched coastal raids against English towns, leading to an increased awareness of how these spaces serve as emblems of national identity, as the chronicler suggests. Indeed, in the fifteenth century, one English poet makes the case that England should seize control of the English Channel to protect its commercial interests. (It is ironic that England’s identity as an island is refined during a period when the English realm was not coterminous with the boundaries of Britain: from 1347 until 1558, Calais in northwest France was English territory; and English kings maintained claims to Gascony in southwest France until 1453.)
At the same time that England traded blows with France, its insular identity was transformed through conflict with Scotland. And again, fish were used as an avatar of national identity.
Just as English kings sought to expand their control over continental territory, similar efforts were made in Britain. Edward I conquered Wales in 1284 and sought to do the same in Scotland; later kings including his grandson Edward III continued these claims. Yet despite continued attempts, medieval Scotland was never completely conquered.
A popular fifteenth century narrative of William Wallace, who became a prominent leader against English aggression and was later immortalized in the film Braveheart, details an incident in which the Scottish hero is radicalized by an encounter with an English lord who demands he hand over fish–what else–that he has caught. Horrified by this theft, Wallace goes on to lead campaigns resisting English control.
If fish could be conscripted to bolster England’s sovereignty, they could also serve the same purpose for Scotland–and highlight a division between Scotland and England. Although England staked a claim to bounteous waters, Scotland was more renowned for its fish. As one fifteenth-century satirical poem puts it, “England is swimming in beer, Scotland in fish” (it works better in Latin, trust me). Through decades of resistance to English aggression, Scotland’s marine life became an example of Scotland’s independent identity.
“Among all the regions of the world,” one Scottish medieval writer tells us, “Scotland is said to abound in multiplicity of fish.” This line is found in a monumental work of premodern Scottish literature, a vast chronicle of the history of Scotland written in the mid fifteenth century.
Around the same time that writers in England were asserting English control over territorial waters, this Scottish historian makes specific claims for Scotland’s marine supremacy. In an instance of fishy one-upmanship, the chronicler details how in Scotland “there are many other rivers that are more useful than the rivers of Britain … for their shellfish, sea fish and freshwater fish, such as crayfish, oysters, whelks, cod, turbot, skate, sturgeon, salmon, lampreys, eels, crabs, conger-eels, mussels, carp, cockle-shells, sea-eels, mackerel, pike, murena, whiting, scallops, mullets, herring, trout and the like.” Inventorying Scotland’s waters in this manner enables the historian to argue for the superiority of Scotland.
The vision of an abundant Scotland that emerges through this chronicle stands in stark contrast with England, which is shown to be an isolated realm, and the island’s other, less productive rivers. Analysis by the Scottish government has revealed that the victory for Britain’s fishing industry trumpeted by Boris Johnson comes at a cost to the Scottish fishing industry: although Britain has increased its quota of mackerel and herring, this is balanced out by cuts to cod and herring, cuts that will adversely affect Scottish fishermen.
As the medieval Scottish chronicle reminds us, English claims about Britain often disguise their Anglocentric bias.
The Brexit vote not only revealed the fracture between Britain and Europe, but also the national and regional divisions within Britain itself. Although the overall vote split 52% leave, Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU (62% to 38%), Northern Ireland also voted to remain (56% to 44%) and while Wales voted to leave (53% to 47%), research suggests that voters who identify as Welsh (rather than British) were strongly in favor of remaining in the EU.
Looking back to the Middle Ages does not provide a solution to our present predicament. But it does offer a warning. While Boris Johnson presides over the dissolution of one political union, it looks increasingly likely that his actions will lead to more division. The sudden elevation of fish as a matter of vital national importance reveals the imbalanced relations among the nations of Britain. As the Westminster government argues that Brexit launches Britain into a bold new future, Britain may instead be returning to its past: a fragmented island of nations, locked in intractable conflict with its European neighbors.
Daniel Davies is a medievalist teaching at the University of Houston, where he will join the faculty as an Assistant Professor of English in Fall 2021. This essay is based on research forthcoming in Modern Language Quarterly 82.2 (June 2021).