How big is it really?

The BBC's new visualisation service is really just window dressing history with maps.

For a few weeks now the BBC has been test-driving a "prototype" approach to explaining historical events that it hopes might soon inform its History and News programming. The website, BBC Dimensions <http://howbigreally.com/> , is a Google Earth-based system which aims, so they say, "to bring home the human scale of events and places in history".

And bring things home it quite literally does. Simply tap in your postcode and famous events, landmarks, natural disasters - indeed more or less anything that can be mapped - can now be digitally repositioned outside your own front door. Or someone else's if you prefer.

Though still in its early stages, the technology has already been applied to topics ranging from 'Ancient Worlds' to 'Festivals.' So you can now whittle away a lunch break finding out how the Colossus of Rhodes would have matched up against the Statue of Liberty, or arranging for Rio's Samba Parade to run past the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

But apart from offering a few moments' informative distraction, is there anything of more lasting value to be gleaned from all of this?

Is it really worth knowing, for example, that Guantanamo Bay, if dropped upon SE1 in London would actually stretch all the way from Paddington to Cambridge Heath? Or that Guantanamo itself is about twice the size of the Tora Bora caves whence some of its detainees came? Or even - if we switch from the 'terrorism' theme, to the 'natural disasters' theme - that the East Pacific Garbage Patch is now bigger than Europe?

In some respects it is. It certainly helps give a sense of the scale of things. And drawing comparisons across time and space is a much-needed corrective to that curious paradox of modern life: that the more we know about the world the less time we have to appreciate the way it appears to others.

It can also be useful - humbling at least - to learn that the extent of flooding in Pakistan this year was such that it would have covered the entire United Kingdom, with water left to spare.

But where is the explanation behind these comparisons? Where is the context that will actually explain why some things - like floods, and famines - more often strike some people in some places rather than others? Without such context it is all too easy for us to assume that such events are merely 'natural' events, when often there are often all-too-human reasons behind them.

For all its stated intention of "making the news more geographically relevant," with BBC Dimensions the BBC appears to in fact be ignoring the lessons of geography almost entirely. Geography is not just about what you see. It is about what shapes the things you see. Absent these things and we are no more likely to appreciate the world as experienced by others than before. We are left, in fact, merely window dressing history with maps.

Photo: Getty
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Brexiteers want national sovereignty and tighter borders – but they can't have both

The role of the European Court of Justice is a major sticking point in talks.

Why doesn't Theresa May's counter-offer on the rights of European citizens living and working in Britain pass muster among the EU27? It all comes down to one of the biggest sticking points in the Brexit talks: the role of the European Court of Justice.

The European Commission, under direction from the leaders of member states, wants the rights of the three million living here and of the British diaspora in the EU guaranteed by the European Court. Why? Because that way, the status of EU citizens here or that of British nationals in the EU aren't subject to the whims of a simple majority vote in the legislature.

This is where Liam Fox, as crassly he might have put it, has a point about the difference between the UK and the EU27, being that the UK does not "need to bury" its 20th century history. We're one of the few countries in the EU where political elites get away with saying, "Well, what's the worst that could happen?" when it comes to checks on legislative power. For the leaders of member states, a guarantee not backed up by the European Court of Justice is no guarantee at all.

That comes down to the biggest sticking point of the Brexit talks: rules. In terms of the deal that most British voters, Leave or Remain, want – a non-disruptive exit that allows the British government to set immigration policy – UK politicians can get that, provided they concede on money and rules, ie we continue to follow the directions of the European Court while having no power to set them. Britain could even seek its own trade deals and have that arrangement.

But the problem is that deal runs up against the motivations of the Brexit elite, who are in the main unfussed about migration but are concerned about sovereignty – and remaining subject to the rule of the ECJ without being able to set its parameters is, it goes without saying, a significant loss of sovereignty. 

Can a fudge be found? That the Article 50 process goes so heavily in favour of the EU27 and against the leaving member means that the appetite on the EuCo side for a fudge is limited. 

But there is hope, as David Davis has conceded that there will have to be an international guarantor, as of course there will have to be. If you trade across borders, you need a cross-border referee. If a plane goes up in one country and lands in another, then it is, by necessity, regulated across borders. (That arrangement has also been mooted by Sigmar Gabriel, foreign minister in Angela Merkel's government. But that Gabriel's centre-left party looks likely to be expelled from coalition after the next election means that his support isn't as valuable as many Brexiteers seem to think.)

On the Conservative side, a new EU-UK international body would satisfy the words of May's ECJ red line. On the EU27 side, that the body would, inevitably, take its lead from the treaties of the EU sans Britain and the ECJ would mean that in spirit, Britain would be subject to the ECJ by another name.

But it comes back to the Brexit dilemma. You can satisfy the voters' demand for non-disruptive control of British borders. You can satisfy political demand for sovereignty. But you can't have both. May – and whoever replaces her – will face the same question: who do you disappoint?

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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