Britain, it is safe to say, is in a state of distress.
As it stands, the Johnson government’s reaction to the COVID crisis has oscillated between two general states: farcical almost-comedy akin to a Carry On flick (Dominic Cummings’ Barnard Castle odyssey and the ensuing media firestorm), or that specific brand of exceptionalism-gone-outsourced that can only be brewed from the finest synthesis of Etonian hubris and neoliberal antilogic (see: ‘world-beating’ Track & Trace app fiasco). During times like these, governments should be assuaging their citizens’ fears, but recent YouGov data indicates a widespread feeling among Britons that their elected officials have failed them. Last week’s Commons vote, which shut down hopes of extending free school meals across the holidays, typifies the disconnect in priorities that exists between establishment Britain and Britain proper.
This is not the only divide that exists. Britain is a nation full of polarisation: North versus South, Republican versus Monarchist, Brexiteer versus Remainer. Even our language can be seen as a hodgepodge of local dialects and slangs. Thus, it is harder than ever to identify a unitary British identity, and the half-life of our patriotism is showing in heightened calls for a more federalised form of government or, in the case of Scotland, complete secession. Sure, decentralisation could be a step in the right direction, but I say we go further – much further. In the fight for true representation, a more radical (and direct, given that you can do this from the comfort of your own garden) solution can be found in the form of the micronation.
A self-declared micronation, at least according to the website of the renowned Principality of Sealand, situated on a defunct Maunsell Sea Fort off the coast of Suffolk, is ‘an “unofficial” state which is often very small in size’. Note the parenthesis surrounding unofficial. The likes of Sealand are often rather bitter in regard to their lack of recognition from the wider international community. This exclusion from recognised statehood is what separates these entities from, say, a microstate like San Marino – though it rarely inhibits them too much in their own proclamations of sovereignty. Yes, self-determination is a requisite for ‘micronationhood’. Many issue out their own currencies, stamps, medals, and passports. Bogus titles and constitutions are in abundance. Moreover, thanks to the internet, diplomatic relations have been established, treaties signed, and transglobal summits attended to by scores of couch potato demagogues. Such geopolitical moves have, by the looks of it, been a roaring success. There are no current micronation wars as far as I’m aware – that’s already a leg up on the real world. Granted, manifest destiny is going to be less ruinous if it only extends to your front porch.
While it is true that the internet has been a key player in this phenomenon, there is a rich and storied history of the micronation that stretches back centuries. One could argue that its precedent stretches back to the Grecian polis, or the Sumerian city-states of Uruk and Ur. By modern definitions, though, the Republic of Cospaia has been credited as being the original micronation. Cospaia was birthed in Umbria, borne from the settling of a land dispute between Medici Florence and the Papacy that unintentionally left just over a square mile of land unaccounted for. A fully-fledged republic emerged in which all of its few hundred inhabitants had equal legal standing and freedoms – a remarkable development given that it preceded the French Revolution by some 340 years. The Cospaiesi would benefit economically from no longer being under Tuscan and Papal jurisdiction, allowing them to operate as a prototypical tax haven as well as consolidate a booming tobacco industry, the production of which was otherwise banned throughout Italy. This one-mile Republic did not hang up its boots until the early 1800s, when it was finally enveloped into the Papal States.
Accounts of micronations are peppered throughout the rest of the nineteenth century. In one rather sinister case, famed Scot, Gregor MacGregor, invented the fictional Central American paradise of Poyais as means for defrauding hundreds of investors over a sixteen-year period. However, as with pretty much every other seminal cultural development, it was during the 1960s that things really kicked into gear. Revolution was in the air, and some reckoned that the commune and kibbutz life was not quite cutting it as far as radical living goes. Leicester Hemmingway (brother of Ernest) kicked things off in 1964 by invoking the little-known Guano Islands Act of 1856 to lay claim to an ocean bank off the coast of Jamaica. ‘New Atlantis’ – in effect a floating barge of bamboo and metal – operated as a bitesize democracy with Leicester acting as its elected President. Sadly, hopes of it becoming a coveted hub for marine research were dashed within a few years when tropical storms destroyed the vessel.
A similarly tragic case of a micronation taken before its time was that of Rose Island. A platform built in the Adriatic by a maverick engineer, the island’s declaration of independence elicited a pretty excessive response from the Italian government who, deeming it no more than an elaborate a tax evasion scheme, deployed the navy. The platform was boarded, occupied, and summarily blown up. But is it not the micronationalist success stories that the sixties are remembered for? Correct, that is exactly what they are remembered for.
The aforementioned Sealand nation has survived, aside from a brief armed attack and even briefer hostage episode, uninterrupted since 1967. Embedded in the hills of Liguria in north-western Italy, the Principality of Seborga has so far evaded an armed response from the Italian government. This micronation was the brainchild of a humble flower farmer, whose private scholarship led him to discover that his beloved little town was so insignificant in stature that it had technically been overlooked during Italy’s unification. Giorgio I, as he came to be known, quickly won the support of the several hundred-strong population, some of whom continue to serve in the Crown Council as advisors to the reigning monarch. It exists to this day, benefiting from a steady revenue from tourism and its sole industrial enterprise: a flower co-operative.
So far, more than four hundred micronations have been recorded, and more pop up every year. While manifest destiny may be a bit of a stretch, these little nations, more often than not, centre on a commitment to self-assuredness and individualism that is hard to malign. Novelty aside, one cannot help thinking that some of these bitesize rulers may be onto something in their search for alternative means of governance. So, if the encroaching arms of globalisation are stressing you out, assemble your bubble cohorts and draft a constitution. If nothing else, it will kill a few lockdown hours.
Written by Jack McGlone
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MacEacheran, M. “Sealand: A peculiar ‘nation’ off England’s coast.” 2020. Accessed 22 September, 2020. http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20200706-sealand-a-peculiar-nation-off-englands-coast.
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“What is a Micronation”. www.sealandgov.org/what-is-a-micronation/.