Civil contingencies

In my more histrionic moments, I wonder whether this is what the early days of a civil war feel like.

Since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, I\’ve been fascinated at how peaceful modern societies slip into bloody conflict. How do friends, neighbours and citizens drift from fellowship, to disassociation, to mistrust, to hostility, and eventually to murder, concentration camps and ethnic cleansing? Is there a moment when the rift becomes unbridgeable and conflict all but inevitable, or is the descent so slow, smooth and subtle that it can hardly be spotted? Ignorance and suspicion replace understanding and empathy, and provide fertile ground for rumour, conspiracy theory and paranoia.

We are – of course – nowhere near there. As I said, \’histrionic\’. But we are not as far away as I\’d like us to be. Brexit splits feel sharper and deeper than those of party politics. The subject is avoided with family and friends, rather than fuelling debate and discussion. Social and conventional media deploy the rhetoric of \’treachery\’, \’racism\’, \’bad faith\’ and \’ignorance\’. Both leavers and remainers, for example, lambast the BBC for its bias in the others\’ favour.

Perhaps it is made worse by the way that the conflict is seen as existential for people\’s identities, for the United Kingdom, for sovereignty, for a sense of engagement and inclusion in the world. When you re playing for keeps, rather than \’giving the other lot a go\’ for the next five years, you think in more manichean or even apocalyptic terms about the struggle, to be won or lost for all time.

The compromises that might have made everyone slightly happy three years ago seem more and more remote. Only the unambiguous victory of a \’clean Brexit\’ or a revocation of Article 50 is acceptable to the ultras, and they are largely in control of the discourse, ready to assail the motives of anyone ready to settle for seond best.

Still, this is not the Balkans and this is not 1991.  But you do wonder whether things may have turned out differently if, in some small Bosnian grad thirty years ago, Milan had paused to consider whether Ahmet really was the scheming fifth columnist that the papers were suggesting, rather than the neighbour who he had known since childhood, and to consider whether there was some way of resolving differences that did not involve displacement, hostility and the unmaking of nations.

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