How Brexit has changed the mental map of Britain

Artistic and statistic cartography projects show the U.K. divided like never before.

  • Stumbling from one Brexit delay to the next, Britain is paralyzed by its political division.
  • Stark new work by Anish Kapoor reflects on the U.K.'s deep internal divide.
  • "Archipelago maps" show Britons living in two separate countries — much like Americans.

March 29th was supposed to be Brexit Day. As clocks struck 11 p.m. across the U.K., the country should have departed from the European Union. Instead, Britain became a country-sized version of Schrödinger's cat: nobody knows anymore when — or if — the U.K. will actually leave the EU.

Following two years of arduous negotiations, Prime Minister Theresa May finally managed to work out a Withdrawal Agreement with Brussels, only to prove unable to get that deal okayed by her own Parliament. This forced her to ask the EU for an extension of Britain's exit.

With April 12th the new deadline, Parliament took control of the issue. But the House of Commons couldn't muster a majority for any of the eight options it considered. Only yesterday, the PM admitted yet another defeat: she asked the EU for another extension, and implored Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, to work with her toward a solution — angering the right wing of her own Conservative Party.

A fault at the heart of Britain

Whose fault is this? Image source: The Guardian / Anish Kapoor

Few expect that a solution is close at hand. Faced with the biggest crisis since the Second World War, the British political class has failed to rise to the occasion.

As former Conservative parliamentarian Ann Widdecombe commented on BBC's Newsnight earlier this week, "We've got the worst prime minister since Anthony Eden (…) the worst leader of the opposition in the entire history of the Labour Party (…) and the worst Parliament since Oliver Cromwell."

To put that into context: Eden was prime minister in the 1950s, the Labour Party was founded in 1900, and Cromwell dissolved the so-called Rump Parliament by force in 1653.

Britain's current political paralysis reflects the deep divisions between "Leavers" and '"Remainers." This recent work by Anish Kapoor translates the political into the geological: Brexit as the fault that's literally tearing Britain in two. Created for the Guardian newspaper, the work's title refers to the nonsensical terrors contained in nursery rhymes: A Brexit, a Broxit, We All Fall Down.

The artist has updated a tilted orographic map of the Britain and Ireland by adding a violently red gash across the length of the British mainland — roughly from Glasgow in Scotland down to the Mid-Sussex town of Haywards Heath.

Overnight, an impenetrably dark chasm – the artist has a copyright on Kapoor black – has overtaken the familiar landscape and consumed Britain's spine. The wound on the map seems to be pushing apart what remains of the island in two opposing directions, similar to what the Great Rift Valley and the San Andreas Fault are doing to East Africa and California, but at a much slower pace.

The work thus suggests that Britain's deep divisions lead not just to paralysis, but eventually to a disruptive cataclysm.

One suggested solution to end the current deadlock would be to have another referendum. That's anathema to Leavers, who see it as a ploy to reverse the outcome of the first one. Remainers argue that only now do voters know enough about Brexit — talked to death in the years since the referendum — to make an informed decision.

Most Remainers indeed hope for a different outcome, but opinion polls show strong continued support for Leave, suggesting the divide is not merely one of mere political opinion but of a more fundamental cultural outlook. That's not unlike the divisions between Democrats and Republicans, charted as two distinct archipelagos by Tim Wallace for the New York Times straight after Trump's shock election victory (see also #810).

Scotland, Remain UK's mainland

Image: ESRI UK

Scotland is definitely part of Europe, the rest of the UK: not so much.

These maps were developed by the UK division of ESRI, the California-based supplier of GIS software, web GIS and geodatabase management software. They asked themselves the question: What would the UK look like if one only kept the land areas that voted Leave or Remain?

Based on the referendum results and electoral maps, they answered that question: as two very strange and distinct groups of islands. As with Tim Wallace's original maps (not to mention the earlier example of a Palestinian archipelago – see #370), the design team decided also to provide some names to the new geographic features on the map.

Scotland is the main island of the Remain Archipelago. The next-biggest islands are the larger, southern and western portions of Northern Ireland, and a similarly-sized but much more populous one in southern England, containing London, Brighton and Oxford. Apart from a sizeable chunk of Wales, all the other Remain islands are fairly small (and mainly urban): Norwich, Liverpool and Manchester Islands, to name but a few.

England is Leave-land

The pro-Leave bits of the UK: mainly England, plus bits of Wales and Northern Ireland. Image source: ESRI UK

Because of Scotland's absence, the map of the Leave Archipelago can zoom in closer on England, where most of the action is. Interestingly, Leave Land is mostly a contiguous zone, as Trumpistan was in Tim Wallace's maps. This indicates that Leave was favoured by the larger, more rural districts of England.

Whether artistic or statistic, these maps by Anish Kapoor and ESRI UK show a nation beaten out of shape by its deep political and cultural divisions. Neither project reflects the geographic or cartographic state of things, of course. But if, as some predict, Brexit will reawaken calls for Scottish independence, Britain's exit from the EU could end up altering the actual map of the U.K.

Image of Anish Kapoor's work found here at The Guardian. Maps by ESRI UK found here at the company's UK and Ireland site. Many thanks to Gabriel Simunek for pointing them out.

Strange Maps #969

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.