On one thing, Daniel Hannan is right: Great Britain is not a small island on any measure

The largest islands on earth. Gotta catch ’em all! Image: Wikimedia Commons.

“Eurocrats, keep telling me that Britain is a ‘small island’” Daniel Hannan tweeted the other day. “In what sense? We’re the fifth biggest economy in the world, the fourth military power and a UN Security Council member. If we’re ‘small’, what are the big islands? Sumatra? Borneo?”

This was a characteristically ill-considered and, frankly, stupid tweet from the Conservative MEP, and not a little annoying, since he’d done so much to bugger up the island in question. For one thing, “Britain” isn’t any of the things he listed: he’s mixing up the United Kingdon of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (which is a nation state, an economy, a military power and so on) with Great Britain (which is an island, of some size or another, and not called, simply, “Britain”). For another, given Hannan’s history of, let us say, existing at something of an angle to actual, real reality, I’m not entirely convinced that Eurocrats keep telling him any such thing.

And then there’s this rather good point from the escaped Labour advisor Tom Hamilton:

On one point, though, Hannan is completely correct: Great Britain, as we must assume that he means, is not a small island. It is, national myth-making aside, one of the biggest islands on the planet.

Here’s a list of the world’s largest islands:

1. Greenland (part of the Danish realm) – 2,130,800km2 Greenland (part of the Danish realm)

2. New Guinea (Indonesia/Papua New Guinea) – 785,753km2

3. Borneo (Indonesia/Malaysia/Brunei) – 748,168km2    

4. Madagascar – 587,041km2  

5. Baffin Island (Canada) – 507,451km2

6. Sumatra (Indonesia) – 443,066km2

7. Honshu (Japan) – 225,800km2

8. Victoria Island (Canada) – 217,291km2

9. Great Britain (UK) – 209,331km2

10. Ellesmere Island (Canada) – 196,236km2

The largest island on the planet is generally considered to be Greenland. (Most observers assume that that mainland Australia, four times Greenland’s size, counts as a continent.) It’s about ten times Great Britain’s size – which, when you put it like that, does indeed makes the latter seem relatively small.

Thing is, though, there are so many islands on the planet that it’s pretty much impossible to come up with a definitive figure. Do we count every isolated rock in the sea? Every man-made island in every lake in every municipal park? Greece claims to have 6,000 islands, but Sweden claims more than 225,000, which suggests to me they’re using rather different definitions. Where do you draw the line?

At any rate: even if we restrict ourselves to islands bigger than Greater London – 1,569km2; a fairly arbitrary measure for “a decent sized-place” – there are 247 of the things. Okay, Great Britain may be smaller than Greenland. But whichever way you cut it, being the ninth biggest island on the entire planet makes it a pretty significant lump of land.

On, and there are only four continental landmasses, so that makes (Great) Britain the 13th biggest landmass on the planet, too.

By population, it ranks even higher. Here are the 10 biggest islands in terms of approximate number of people living on them:

1. Java (Indonesia) – 141m

2. Honshū (Japan) – 104m

3. Great Britain (UK) – 64m

4. Luzon (Philippines) – 61m

5. Sumatra (Indonesia) – 50m

6. Madagascar – 26m

7. Mindanao (Philippines) – 25m

8. Taiwan – 23m

9. Borneo (Indonesia) – 21m

10. Sri Lanka – 21m

Great Britain is the third most populous island on the planet. And this is actually even more impressive than it sounds because, although there are four continental landmasses, one of them, mainland Australia, has a population of 24.5m, somewhere under half Great Britain’s, while Antarctica is home to almost nobody at all.

And so, the five most populated landmasses in the world are as follows:

1. Afro-Eurasia – 6bn

2. North & South America – 1bn

3. Java – 141m

4. Honshū – 104m

5. Great Britain – 64m

Okay, there’s quite a steep descent between the first and fifth place on that ranking. But nonetheless: Great Britain is the fifth most populated landmass on the planet.

Last one and then I’ll stop. I can’t find estimates for GDP of every landmass on the planet – too hard to work out the GDP of that island in the lake in Harrow Lodge Park, I assume – but I went through the most populous ones, and where figures weren’t available worked out very rough estimates based on population size.

Here’s my ranking of the world’s landmasses by the size of their economy. The figures are approximate; the rankings, I feel confident are not:

1. Afro-Eurasia – around $50trn

2. North & South America – around $25trn

3. Honshū – just under $5trn

4. Great Britain – just over $2trn

...at which point it gets difficult. Originally I had Taiwan here (somewhere around $500bn). But readers have pointed out that Taiwan has a smaller GDP than Australia ($1.3trn), and possibly Java, Manhattan and Long Island, too. So I’m going to stop at the top four.

So, on one level, Daniel Hannan was right. Great Britain is the world’s 9th largest island and 13th largest landmass; it ranks 5th when we count landmasses by population, and 4th when we count them by GDP. It is not a small place.

Nonetheless, I’m calling bullshit on his tweet for two reasons. Firstly, my suspicion is that the idea that Britain is a small, unimportant island comes from Britain itself. It’s oddly self-flattering: by emphasising our smallness, we magnify our achievements. “We’re the fifth most populated landmass on the planet, of course we’re a significant player in global affairs,” is not a message calculated to stir the heart.


The other reason I think his entire message is nonsense is that, however you measure Britain’s size – its landmass, its population, its GDP – it is a lot smaller than the combined might of the remaining 27 members of the European Union. Britain is a relatively big island. That doesn’t mean it can’t get crushed.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

 
 
 
 

“A story of incompetence, arrogance, privilege and power”: A brief history of the Garden Bridge

Ewwww. Image: Heatherwick.

Labour assembly member Tom Copley on a an ignominious history.

The publication last week of the final bill for Boris Johnson’s failed Garden Bridge has once again pushed this fiasco into the headlines.

As well as an eye-watering £43m bill for taxpayers for this Johnsonian indulgence, what has been revealed this week is astonishing profligacy by the arms-length vehicle established to deliver it: the Garden Bridge Trust. The line by line account of their spending reveals £161,000 spent on their website and £400,000 on a gala fundraising event, amongst many other eyebrow raising numbers. 

Bear in mind that back in 2012, Johnson promised that the bridge would be entirely privately funded. The bridge’s most ardent advocate, Joanna Lumley, called it a “tiara for the Thames” and “a gift for London”. Today, the project would seem the very opposite of a “gift”.

The London Assembly has been scrutinising this project since its inception, and I now chair a working group tasked with continuing our investigation. We are indebted to the work of local campaigners around Waterloo as well as Will Hurst of the Architects Journal, who has brought many of the scandals surrounding the project into the open, and who was the subject of an extraordinary public attack by Johnson for doing so.

Yet every revelation about this cursed project has thrown up more questions than it has answers, and it’s worth reminding ourselves just how shady and rotten the story of this project has been.

There was Johnson’s £10,000 taxpayer funded trip to San Francisco to drum up sponsorship for the Thomas Heatherwick garden bridge design, despite the fact that TfL had not at that point even tendered for a designer for the project.

The design contest itself was a sham, with one of the two other architects TfL begged to enter in an attempt to create the illusion of due process later saying they felt “used”. Heatherwick Studios was awarded the contract and made a total of £2.7m from taxpayers from the failed project.


Soon after the bridge’s engineering contract had been awarded to Arup, it was announced that TfL’s then managing director of planning, Richard de Cani, was departing TfL for a new job – at Arup. He continued to make key decisions relating to the project while working his notice period, a flagrant conflict of interest that wouldn’t have been allowed in the civil service. Arup received more than £13m of taxpayer cash from the failed project.

The tendering process attracted such concern that the then Transport Commissioner, Peter Hendy, ordered an internal audit of it. The resulting report was a whitewash, and a far more critical earlier draft was leaked to the London Assembly.

As concerns about the project grew, so did the interventions by the bridge’s powerful advocates to keep it on track. Boris Johnson signed a mayoral direction which watered down the conditions the Garden Bridge Trust had to meet in order to gain access to further public money, exposing taxpayers to further risk. When he was hauled in front of the London Assembly to explain this decision, after blustering for while he finally told me that he couldn’t remember.

David Cameron overruled the advice of senior civil servants in order to extend the project’s government credit line. And George Osborne was at one point even more keen on the Garden Bridge than Johnson himself. The then chancellor was criticised by the National Audit Office for bypassing usual channels in order to commit funding to it. Strangely, none of the project’s travails have made it onto the pages of the London Evening Standard, a paper he now edits. Nor did they under his predecessor Sarah Sands, now editor of the Today Programme, another firm advocate for the Garden Bridge.

By 2016 the project appeared to be in real trouble. Yet the Garden Bridge Trust ploughed ahead in the face of mounting risks. In February 2016, despite having not secured the land on the south bank to actually build the bridge on, nor satisfied all their planning consents, the Trust signed an engineering contract. That decision alone has cost the taxpayer £21m.

Minutes of the Trust’s board meetings that I secured from TfL (after much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Trust itself) reveal that weeks beforehand Thomas Heatherwick had urged the trustees to sign the contract in order to demonstrate “momentum”.

Meanwhile TfL, which was represented at board meetings by Richard de Cani and so should’ve been well aware of the mounting risks to the project, astonishingly failed to act in interests of taxpayers by shutting the project down.

Indeed, TfL allowed further public money to be released for the project despite the Trust not having satisfied at least two of the six conditions that had been set by TfL in order to protect the public purse. The decision to approve funding was personally approved by Transport Commissioner Mike Brown, who has never provided an adequate explanation for his decision.

The story of the Garden Bridge project is one of incompetence, arrogance and recklessness, but also of privilege and power. This was “the great and the good” trying to rig the system to force upon London a plaything for themselves wrapped up as a gift.

The London Assembly is determined to hold those responsible to account, and we will particularly focus on TfL’s role in this mess. However, this is not just a London issue, but a national scandal. There is a growing case for a Parliamentary inquiry into the project, and I would urge the Public Accounts Committee to launch an investigation. 

The Garden Bridge may seem like small beer compared to Brexit. But there is a common thread: Boris Johnson. It should appal and outrage us that this man is still being talked about as a potential future Prime Minister. His most expensive vanity project, now dead in the water, perhaps serves as an unwelcome prophecy for what may be to come should he ever enter Number 10.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.