“No man is an island,

Entire of itself,

Every man is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main…”

JOHN Donne’s poem is as apposite today as it was when it was written 400 years ago. Are we autonomous individuals who sometimes come together for convenience or are we defined by being members of a larger whole – a family, a community, a country? Are we individuals or part of a collective?

At the time Donne was writing, the debate raged fiercely; it crossed the Atlantic and, smarting from the British Government’s attempt to control its colony, and in defence of new found independence, the rights of the individual to defend his or her self from the collective power of the state provide the bedrock for the American Constitution. Their gun laws their ‘right to bear arms’; the rallying cry to curtail regulation; the basis of a their health care system where each person is responsible for meeting the cost of their own care are underpinned by the belief that the rights of the individual are inalienable.

In the UK individualism reached its zenith during the Thatcher years. You may recall Mrs T’s famous phrase “...there's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” Local authority housing was sold to existing tenants; councils were prevented from building and owning homes; public assets were discounted to consumers who then sold them on to the highest bidder (ironically, large swathes of the UK’s public utilities are now owned by European collective enterprises).

But England is not America, and despite Mrs T’s best efforts, society refused to go away – the public rallies to the defence of the health service; the shocking mess that has resulted from the privatisation of our railways has resulted in the state quietly acquiring failing franchises and renewed calls for renationalisation.

The collective/individual dilemma (are we a collection of individuals and or individual parts of a social who) may well lie at the heart of the Brexit debate. Many people see England as a brave galleon, banners waving, cannons firing, trumpets blaring. Others (as John Donne prefigured) that we are defined as an integral part of a European whole ‘if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less’; privateers sailing alone on the high seas are a thing of the past.

I reflect on where my inclinations lie. It’s no secret. I’m a collectivist – comfortable being part of a whole; happiest working in a team; defining myself in relation to others (being a dad is the best job I’ve ever had) my political inclinations – a simple outworking of that.

Small wonder the nation is divided! It has been around this pivotal point for more than 400 years – Brexit merely becomes a fresh exposure of this age old dilemma.