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Border issues: live from the passport queue

The war on terror may mean that even island nations now have borders.

Can political concepts change geography? And is Britain quite literally losing its insularity?

As I was shuffling through the passport queue at London's Heathrow airport recently, my eye fell on this brisk, unapologetic message: "With tougher checks now in place at the border, you may have to wait a little longer to get into the UK."

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The wait, we were told, might be "up to 20 minutes." (The ads for the Heathrow Express trains, meanwhile, promised to get us to central London in 15 minutes.)

The "tougher checks" message was from the Home Office Border and Immigration Agency, a new entity launched April 2.

Hmm, I thought. Are we at "the border"? I thought we were at "the airport." And I thought that in England, "the border" was the one with Scotland.

Of course, Britain needs to take immigration issues seriously and pay attention to who's coming and going. But a border agency for an island country whose international frontiers are marked by water? Have officials of Her Majesty's Government been spending too much time in Washington?

Border – in the general sense of seam, edge, or line – goes back to the middle of the 14th century. Border in the geopolitical sense goes back to 1535, to William Stewart's "Biuk of the Croniclis of Scotland."

The Border, capitalized thus, came to mean the line between England and Scotland, and the area on either side of that line. "The term appears to have been first established in Scotland, where the English border, being the only one it has, was emphatically the border," the Oxford English Dictionary notes.

But Scotland and England have been one political entity – the United Kingdom – since 1707. One crosses a border into Scotland all right – but needn't show a passport. Similarly, the line between Wales and England is a border – but it hasn't been an international frontier since the 16th century.

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Where Britain does share a land border with another sovereign state is on the Emerald Isle. The six counties of Northern Ireland are part of the United Kingdom. The 26 counties of the south are the Republic of Ireland.

Continental Europe, on the other hand, is all about borders being drawn and redrawn over the centuries. Consider Germany. It has drifted this way and that across Europe rather like the Great Red Spot of Jupiter. In the east, Gdansk (Danzig) in Poland and Kaliningrad (Königsberg) in Russia were once German cities. In the west, Alsace-Lorraine has changed hands four times between France and Germany since 1870 and is now French.

In the United States, too, border is an emotive term. There's not just the nettlesome question of what to do about the legions coming in from "south of the border." The phrase border states refers to the division of the country during the Civil War.

Inherent in this concept of border is populations on either side, and populations live on land, not water. Only if Britain were ringed with floating settlements of houseboats, would "border" make sense to my ear.

Do other island nations have "border controls"? Indeed, yes. Two seconds of Googling produced ample evidence of this in Australia and New Zealand.

Standing in that passport queue, I wasn't at the edge of England; I was a mere 15 minutes from the center of the capital. Had my documents been found wanting, I would have been put back on a plane, not on a bus headed for Scotland or Wales.

It may be that in this time of what airport announcements call "heightened security," border may refer less to an actual line in the dirt between two pieces of real estate and more to a stage in a bureaucratic process.

The political idea of the global war on terror may mean that, to borrow from John Donne, no country is an island, either. We may be at the border of a new concept here.