On the day that Britain decides whether its destiny lies within or without the European Union, I will be in California. On the surface, I could not be more far removed from the Brexit dilemma. The cool, clear Californian air seems a world away from the toxic atmosphere currently engulfing Britain. And yet, California offers a unique vantage point on the EU referendum. For the Golden State is the clearest example of a polity rendered, at times, almost ungovernable by a mania for direct democracy.
Surrounded by commando-clad riot police, the Belgrade skyline tinged smoky red and the air filled with battle cries punctured by exploding firecrackers, I was reminded of Rebecca West’s confession that “violence was all I knew of the Balkans, all I knew of the South Slavs.”
Some people still don’t get it. At Sunday’s unity rally in Paris, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings and subsequent attack on a Kosher supermarket, the BBC correspondent Tim Wilcox put to a terrified Jewish woman that this slaughter could be explained because “Palestinians suffer hugely at Jewish hands.” According to Wilcox, “everything is seen from different perspectives.”
It is not clear whose perspective Wilcox believed he was voicing, other than that of the Paris terrorists.
Three hundred and seven years ago, Englishmen and Scotsmen brought forth, upon the British Isles, a new Union, conceived in English insecurity and Scottish impecuniosity, and dedicated to the proposition that the two peoples, if not equal, at least had more in common than either did with the French.
The original Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707 was a “political necessity for England, a commercial necessity for Scotland,” as one historian put it. For contemporary champions of Union, the necessities that were the mother of its invention are as pressing as ever.