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“The Isle is Full of Noises”

I’m starting to think this country is going mad.

I don’t mean ‘mad’ as in having a bit of a funny spell – a touch of the vapours, a sudden and temporary bout of irrationality.  I mean mad as in stark raving bonkers, going off its rocker, taking total leave of its senses, falling out of its tree. 

One of the most successful nations in the world, with the fifth largest economy, and arguably the most stable democracy, a country regarded far and wide as the very epitome of common sense, tolerance and good manners, seems suddenly intent on tearing itself apart.  It is acting like a maniac in an asylum who has to be watched 24 hours a day and can’t be trusted with shoe-laces.

“The isle is full of noises,” wrote the Bard.  It has never been noisier.

The northern-most province of this once United Kingdom may be on the verge of leaving it.  The trail of chaos and confusion that would leave in its wake hardly bears thinking about.  As a matter of fact, so unlikely an event was it considered until recently that very few people in Westminster’s corridors of power actually had thought about it.  Not until an opinion poll concluded that the vote was too close to call.

They are thinking about it now, but not in the measured and structured way, as befits authoritative and sophisticated servants of the Crown, those renowned masters of cold reserve in plumed hats, but in an atmosphere suffused with panic and confusion.

And once next week’s Scottish referendum vote is out of the way, whichever way it goes, the attention of the Kingdom will then be freed to focus on the issue of whether Britain, or whatever it is to be called, should leave the European Union.   

Now, British doubts about the vast and growing EU bureaucracy in Brussels, and the future of the single currency, are perfectly understandable.  (Britons, it might be mentioned, entertain pretty much the same doubts about their own home-grown bureaucracy.) But to extend those doubts to stalking out of the Union in a funk is something else.  And what that ‘something else’ is has yet to be defined. 

It may be thinkable that Britain can survive as a self-sufficient economic entity without being part of the European body corporate.  What is unthinkable is that Britain – in my lifetime and centuries before that one of the most influential nations in the history of mankind – will have excluded itself from every social club and friendly society on the planet.  There is, of course, the Commonwealth, but that relic of Empire is no more useful in terms of realpolitik than a neighbourhood sewing club.   

Meanwhile, rabble-rousers roam the land freely, peddling the gospels of self-interest, resentment, isolation and anarchy.  A generation ago, would the likes of Alex Salmond and Nigel Farage have been given the kind of attention they command today?  It is doubtful.  They might have been hard-pressed to draw a crowd at Speakers Corner.  Today, those sociological soul-mates, Mr. Toad and Mr. Frog, are on the march, and hailed along the way as redoubtable public figures and would-be national leaders.  

Why are the people suffering such an extended winter of discontent?  What kind of epidemic is it that now sweeps through the land, luring the populace to the nether world of the undead? 

I suppose one might start by taking a brief look at most of Britain’s governing institutions, in particular at the people who run them. 

Start with the Mother of Parliaments.  Hundreds of members of that once august and universally-admired body have been caught fiddling their expenses.  Their response to being caught with their fingers in the biscuit jar has not been to apologise but to claim that it was their right.  They were feeling peckish, you see, and if we paid them more money they wouldn’t have to stoop to such drastic measures as filching from biscuit jars.  “Please, sir, I want some more.”

As if to endorse the criminal buffoonery evident all around him, the Speaker of the House of Commons has reduced that ancient office to a laughing-stock with displays of contrived petulance and schemes designed for no other purpose than self- aggrandisement.

Scotland Yard is a mess.  Our policemen, once considered ‘wonderful’ by envious tourists, are now regarded as corrupt and dangerously out of control, a law unto themselves.  Likewise, the BBC, the National Health Service, the Football Association, the banks, the teaching profession …. But there is no point in going on; the list is endless.

The list is endless because the nation is leaderless.  What prime minister in more glorious times past would have placed the nation’s future in the hands of a group representing less than ten percent of the population, and then connived in loading even that limited electorate in favour of dissent by lowering (temporarily) the voting age and giving votes to transient migrants?  David Cameron has done that, and more. 

And he still hopes to be re-elected.  He probably will be, regardless of events in the northern marshes, because the Leader of the Opposition, the Cain of politics, who slew his brother, is not just an assassin but as feckless as a fly in a jam-jar.

Invoking the quotation from Shakespeare, I was reminded of the opening passage of The Pendulum Years, the late Bernard Levin’s book about the sixties, another mad, bad decade of recent memory.

“It was a credulous age, perhaps the most credulous ever, and the more rational, the less gullible, the decade claimed to be, the less rational, the more gullible, it showed itself.  Never was it easier to gain a reputation as a seer, never was a following so rapidly and readily acquired.  Teachers, prophets, sibyls, oracles, mystagogues, avatars, haruspices and mullahs roamed the land, gathering flocks about them as easily as holy men in nineteenth-century Russia, and any philosophy, from Zen Buddhism to macrobiotics and from violence as an end in itself to total inactivity as an end in itself, could be sure of a respectful hearing and a group of adherents, however temporary their adherence might prove.”

Many nations, in the broad sweep of their history do sometimes succumb to madness.  In this nation, the grip seems to be taking on a worrying permanence.

Perhaps I’ll be feeling better this time next week.  Perhaps we all will.

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