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Mon 27 January 2020
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Dutch travelling writer Chris Keulemans reflects on his shock and sadness at seeing a once great nation fatally fracture itself.


A living room in Amsterdam. We’re checking the exit poll of the UK General Election. My Belgian-Gambian friend is hissing in my ear. She lives on Mallorca, the Spanish island, where she is used to soothing British tourists who come for holidays looking for reprieve and who apologise for the chaos of their country as soon as they introduce themselves. “In the same bar,” she says, “where some locals pine for the days when Franco ruled, because everything was clean and orderly back then.”

We see the results and have no words. It as if we’re watching the British isles, which have been a part of our lives as long as we can remember, drifting away beyond a misty horizon. They are gone. Out of our sights.

The nation that framed our world view, taught us the language we have become accustomed to use, gave us the perfection of three-minute songs, imprinted us with the glory and guilt of imperial history, let us have a perpetual glimpse of what we should live up to – it’s all gone.

“Five years of Boris Johnson with unchecked power,” tweets Labour candidate David Lammy. “I am more fearful for our country than at any point in my lifetime.”

Unchecked power. This confirms what continental media have been warning us of, in ever more tired words. Libération was damning. The campaign, it said, had been “brutal, packed with untruths and even outright lies, bitter, devoid of substantive debate. It was also, and above all, uninspiring.” The Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote: “The country is moving into a new era. It will become more insular, cultivate a less civil form of patriotism, inflict more harm on minorities.” El Mundo said the the UK was “fatally fractured”.

In my country, the Netherlands, the serious daily NRC Handelsblad sent its correspondent to Morecambe, where he met Loz Kaye, former leader of the Pirate Party, now running music and education charity More Music. “What worries me is: what happens when the Union Jack will be lowered in Brussels and the people here notice that their lives aren’t getting any better?” he said. “Will they feel betrayed by brexiteers? Will they feel attracted to a more vicious kind of populism? That is a scary thought.”

Populism breeds populism. Nationalism breeds nationalism. The nation that warned Catalunya, Sicily, Brittany, Abkhazia and Donbass not to separate has now separated itself. And will break apart as a result. Why would Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland now refrain from separating from the UK?

For a brief moment in time, we all believed that living in unity would be better than living apart. Boris Johnson and his fellow brexiters shattered that belief. From now on, we will rely only on ourselves. Fatally fractured.

We can only say: farewell and be safe, sweet Britain. Take care of yourself. Just like we will. Here in my Amsterdam living room, my Belgian-Gambian friend knows life will be quiet once she returns to her home in Mallorca. Very quiet.


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