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[/audioplayer]On 19 September, people over all Britain could wake up in a diminished country, one that doesn’t bestride the world stage but hobbles instead. If Scotland votes to leave the United Kingdom, it would be Britain’s greatest ever defeat: the nation would have voted to abolish itself.
It is a sign of how no one expects Scotland to vote yes in September that no serious planning has been done about the consequences. By contrast, Gladstone shut himself away for days in the spring of 1886 drawing up the Bill that would have bestowed Home Rule on the Irish, plotting what it would mean for almost every aspect of the shared lives of Ireland and Britain. Scotland already has what Parnell would have called Home Rule.
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[/audioplayer]If you were around in the days when the US series M*A*S*H was a regular feature on British television, its sing-song theme is probably still lodged in your memory: ‘Suicide is painless/ It brings on many changes/ And I can take or leave it if I please’.
In a one-horse town called Hestrud, on the Franco-Belgian border, there’s a monument which encapsulates Europe’s enduring fascination with Napoleon. The story carved upon this plinth is more like poetry than reportage. As Napoleon passed through here, on his way to Waterloo, he struck up a conversation with a bold little boy called Cyprien Joseph Charlet. ‘You think victory will always follow you, but it always disappears,’ this audacious lad told him, apparently.
Thirty years ago, as editor of the Salisbury Review, I began to receive short articles from a Bradford headmaster, relating the dilemmas faced by those attempting to provide an English education to the children of Asian immigrants. Ray Honeyford’s case was simple. Children born and raised in Britain must be integrated into British society. Schools and teachers therefore had a duty, not merely to impart the English language and the English curriculum, but to ensure that children understood and adhered to the basic principles of the surrounding society, including racial and religious tolerance, sexual equality and the habit of settling conflicts by compromise and not by force.
The latest US census found that 43 per cent of the population in Santa Clara County, California, were members of a religious institution. This is slightly less than the American national average of 50 per cent, but you’d probably expect that because the area includes Silicon Valley, where geeks are busy designing our online, gadget-laden future. You might assume they would be pretty secular types.
You’d be wrong.
In the passport queue at Baghdad airport, my heart sinks. This place vies with Cairo for the title of most venal airport in the Middle East. Our luggage is minutely examined by the Mukhabarat, or secret police, then customs. Early morning becomes mid-afternoon. Our papers (scrupulously in order) lie unattended on a desk. Eventually, a customs man, with a large moustache and belly hanging over his belt, waddles over.
Next time you’re in a shop that sells Chinese blue and white porcelain, pick up a piece and turn it over. Chances are good it will carry an inscription in blue on the bottom. Called a reign mark, it tells you which emperor ruled when the piece was made. As the last reign ended in 1912, the dish you’ve picked up should logically be at least a century old. Hundred-year-old porcelain selling for £2? Not likely, but hold that thought.