For Whom the Polls Toll

Can there be anything more heart-rending than watching your country dismember itself? Not long ago I was risking my life alongside soldiers from across these islands. I served a government I did not like, in an army that frequently blundered. I did it to protect the institutions that had protected me. I still do. We served and we saw the chaos of human affairs and thanked God for the stability we enjoyed.

Now I sit with my heart in my mouth and a deep well of despair in my stomach, unable to do a thing about the wrenching apart of those notions that have bound us and for which many – Scots, Welsh, Irish, English, Nepalese, South African, Fijian, Australian – have been prepared to die. For what?

Nothing good can come of this. Civil strife is the most destructive of all conflicts. Even when expressed through the ballot box rather than the barrel of a gun, it means division and anguish. Its legacy will linger. It means people who used to share a pint no longer speaking. It means families divided, friendships fractured, a question to be avoided, a topic that can’t be discussed. Like a stone in the shoe it will nag away until we throw off the shoe in a fit of anger.

Nationalism is poison. It makes no difference whether it is the ethno-trendiness of Welsh and Scottish nationalism, the violence of Irish nationalism or the swaggering brutishness of English nationalism. It divides us. When it takes root in a state it means the silent and subtle ejection of people who don’t fit in. Nothing aggressive needs to happen. People simply feel uncomfortable. They leave government posts, schools, civic posts, public conversation. An orthodoxy emerges. Now it is in the bloodstream of our nations it will be with us for a long time.

Worthy platitudes from journalists about how ‘engaged’ the debate is, how exciting ‘grass-roots’ politics are betray the mind boggling idiocy of a class so comfortably cocooned in their international metropolis. That naivety has led us to this. The debate is ‘engaged’ and ‘grass-roots’ because it matters a lot to a lot of people. And because it matters it will leave deep scars. This is not some interesting conundrum for a political science lecture. It is about real people and the essence of who we are.

We have made a terrible mistake in confusing British patriotism with nationalism, and making such a deliberate effort to reject it. Britain could never be nationalist because it consisted of many nations. Each kept the other sane. Patriotism was pride in the country we built together and the institutions we share. Nationalism is something very different, as those worthy progressives so seduced by its rebelliousness are about to find out.

With each passing day, each poll, we become a little more parochial, our horizons narrow, our world shrinks. Stuff them, we say, we’ll look after ourselves.

No man is an island, entire of itself. Nor is a country. We are all a part of something; we should fight for it. We are all diminished when it splits. Ask not for whom the polls toll: they toll for thee.

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