“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:
Sumatra and Borneo are quite literally bigger islands. https://t.co/chviX3WTg5
— Tom Hamilton (@thhamilton) October 18, 2018
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.