In the first of a two part series, David Melding explores American perspectives on Scottish secession.

July 12th, 2014

It was one of those spooky appositions. Melville quoting my hero Thomas Hobbes, ‘By art is created that great leviathan, called a Commonwealth or State – which is but an artificial man’. Moby Dick was my chosen reading for the American tour in which I intended to examine the durability of the British state. In the mad rush to get ready I bought perhaps America’s greatest epic in Penarth’s fine little bookshop at the entrance to Windsor Arcade. I did not expect to find a quote in that tale which went to the heart of the lectures that I would give in Virginia. States come and go – as do all the artefacts of man – and perhaps that’s the perspective needed to evaluate the chances and consequences of a Scottish secession.

This weekend on Click on Wales

This weekend on Click on Wales David Melding authors a two part series on American perspectives of Scottish secession. This follows his visit to the US during April 2014 where he gave a series of talks at the College on the constitutional future of the United Kingdom and travelled from Washington DC to Atlanta Georgia via New Orleans and Birmingham Alabama to examine nation-building within the USA.

I wanted to start my talks with a little whimsy, to gain the students interest but also to remind them that at all significant points of history “many destinies” beckoned. The latter was not my thought but that of the towering historian of American Secession and Unionism, William Freehling. 

Here is an article from the New York Times dated 19th September 2014:

The Grand Parliament of America heard the Prime Minister, Hilary Clinton, outline plans yesterday for a new history syllabus to boost pride in the American nation. Critically, the rebellion and civil war of 1776-78 will be interpreted with more sympathy to the rebels. The Prime Minister emphasised, however, that the honoured place of Joseph Galloway as father of the nation will not be undermined. Mrs Clinton does believe, nevertheless, that rebels like George Washington should be seen more as misguided idealists rather than traitors and murderers.

The Prime Minister also took the opportunity to rule out any re-run of the referendum to alter America’s constitutional links to Britain. “We will remain a British Dominion with the Queen as our head of state”, she said.

Galloway came to my attention via Maya Jasanoff’s ground-breaking book Liberty’s Exiles: The Loss of America and the Remaking of the British Empire. Born in Maryland, a neighbouring state, he would have known all about Virginia’s great seat of learning, the College of William and Mary. At the first Continental Congress in 1774, he presented a plan for a reformed union with Britain which would have involved loyalty to the Crown; an elected Grand Council to legislate on America’s domestic affairs; and the office of President-General to become the executive branch of government. The plan failed to be adopted by just one vote, although a lot of clever money was on this type of solution to the English-speaking world’s first crisis of union. Not only was it a plausible solution, its coherence was such that it became the basis for governance in the British Empire in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Galloway skilfully built on the firm emotional foundations many colonial Americans had for the motherland. There is a plaque on the Wren Building, the historic entrance to the William and Mary campus, which commemorates Richard Bland who wrote a pamphlet in 1764 calling for America and Britain to become co-ordinate kingdoms. In the centre of the green in front of this magnificent building stands a statue not to one of the many founding fathers who attended the College, but to Norborne Berkeley the respected British governor of Virginia. Here in Williamsburg is the abundance of continuity which both bound Americans to British political experience and provided them with the resources for independence.

The students listened attentively to my obvious conclusion. State formation, and any reform of an existing state, is not an inevitable process nor is it laid out in some platonic code awaiting our discovery. Great Britain and Ireland held together as one state for 120 years until 1921. It was a restless partnership, unlike the union between Scotland and England entered into in 1707. The Anglo-Scottish union succeeded in creating British political institutions and it is this resilient British glue that is being tested today in the independence referendum.

Many Americans believe that the nascent nation had to fight two wars of independence against the British. New Orleans was preparing for the bicentenary of the great battle that concluded the second conflict. Andrew Jackson’s epic nation-forging victory was the last hoorah of a youthful republic before it reached majority and altogether more adult themes like the Monroe doctrine which declared the Americas its sphere of influence. Jackson looms today far beyond his eponymous Square which is small and beautifully proportioned unlike the popularly imagined dimensions of the battle. Its equine statue has the general waving his hat with a mixture of pride and purpose. At the other end of town Lee Circle has the noble martial of the Southern nation looking stern and aloof on a vaulting column which does not quite compensate for his defeat of his cause. Lee is everywhere in the South and he also has an honoured place in the Republic’s national story. The stuff of nation-building is nowhere more curious. It is as if Bonnie Prince Charlie were monumentally commemorated in every British city north of Derby.

The Louisiana Purchase was America’s windfall. While the actual treaty is held in Paris, New Orleans has the ‘process verbal’ which sets out in parallel bilingual columns the terms of the transfer that turned the Republic into a nation-continent in the making. In its remorseless expansion west, the founding fathers’ republic was fundamentally disturbed. No longer would the agrarian slave holding South exist in rough balance with the industrialising and mostly emancipated North. Jefferson, that troubled slave holder, had inadvertently sketched out a casus belli in pencil that would in time be written in ink and then blood. Would the West be free or slave holding? How could a republic be free in parts, a democracy permitting domestic despotism?

Easter, although late, was cold in Virginia and I was disappointed not to enjoy that usually effulgent, magnificent season to the fullest. The political weather was not much better with Congress bitterly divided and deep anxiety abounding about America’s response to the Crimean crisis. Would the eastern Ukraine be next? the TV pundits speculated. Here was secession in the raw, not like the polite debate between Scotland and the rest of the UK. And would Putin move against the Baltic States even though they are under NATO’s umbrella? I felt that Hobbes was watching. Fundamentals were up for vindication or annulment.

At William and Mary I asked the students “What would have happened if Lincoln had said, ‘yes the South can go if that is their freely expressed will’? After all, this is more or less the position of the UK government in respect to Scotland”. It is difficult to imagine a more radically different take on the principle of secession. So radical, in fact, as likely to set a powerful precedent: secession would be seen as a more plausible demand for other nations embedded in multi-national states. Just as Lincoln’s firm rejection put a cap on the advance of nationalism in the 19th century and allowed a new American ideology – Unionism – to enter British political vocabulary, the very concept of multi-national states would be fundamentally weakened if Britain, the oldest democratic example, dissolves. What, I invited the students to contemplate, would be the international response to an independent Scotland and a truncated UK? Not a great outpouring of thanks, I speculated, as the consequences reverberate in South Africa, India and China. Of course we may be witnessing a new phase in the construction of states which cannot be stopped whether we like it or not. So I unsettled the students further, “The distinguished Italian economist, Vito Tanzi, has speculated that the epoch of the great states may be ending. It may be cities not nations that replace them. After all, cities are much older political entities than post-Reformation states. So a renaissance for the city-state. Well Tanzi is an Italian”

It did not take Unionism long to spread across the Atlantic and become the great ideological barrier against Irish separation or even mere home rule. In a 50 year conflict which culminated in civil war, Britain held fast to Lincoln’s imperial rejection of secession. Then secession was abruptly conceded under the cloak of dominion status, making the Irish Free State notionally a nation within the British Empire, just like Canada and Australia. Only Canada and Australia celebrated their status as British nations flourishing within the imperial embrace. This was not how Irish nationalists saw themselves which meant Anglo-Irish relations got off to a bad start in the 1920s. My week of lectures at William and Mary coincided with the first ever state visit to the UK by an Irish President. It is rather like, I told the students, the USA and Canada having a standoff for 90 years. Mind you, old animosities can quickly subside when mutual interests break the grip of history. Alex Salmond has deftly emphasised the value of the social Union and believes it should be the foundation of friendly relations between an independent Scotland and the remainder of the UK. Salmond has also made several post-Unionist hints at a confederal Britain, sharing military, economic and diplomatic resources. Here then we have secession without the sting of separatism. Could it work? I rhetorically asked the students, “After all, one way to make a positive statement to the world would be for the UK to build a confederation of the British Isles to include Scotland and perhaps even the Republic of Ireland. It would offer a means to reassure Unionists in Northern Ireland that some form of “British-Isles-ness” could endure after the end of the Anglo Scottish Union”.

Important as it is to stress that values and traditions can survive massive structural upheaval, secession does seem to represent a powerful threat to Britishness. Britishness has always been the arch-nationalism of the Union, limiting the superior if unstated thoughts of England and promoting the self-worth of Scotland, Ireland and Wales. By the 1960s this arch-nationalism, boosted massively in the Second World War, had run its course. Canada and Australia ceased to view themselves as British nations, rather nations with a British heritage. Scotland remembered more regularly that it had once been a state. Wales more confidently asserted its cultural achievements as Europe’s oldest nation (at least beyond the environs of the Black Sea). None of this spelt the end of Britishness, but it made its pre-eminence difficult to sustain. Unionists have not quite managed to establish a sense of equality between the five national identities of the British Isles. Is this the grit that pearled secession?

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David Melding is Assembly Member for South Wales Central and Deputy Presiding Officer for the National Assembly for Wales. He is a graduate of the College of William and Mary, Virginia.

4 Responses to:“American perspectives on Scottish secession: Part 1”

  1. Chris Jones says:

    Brilliant! Exceptional. Thank you for this.

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  2. brian jones says:

    david melding – much admired and respected. the next llywydd in the senedd post 2016.

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  3. Daniel Williams says:

    “What would have happened if Lincoln had said, ‘yes the South can go if that is their freely expressed will’? After all, this is more or less the position of the UK government in respect to Scotland”.
    I see the point, but am always uneasy when the Civil War is discussed without a mention of slavery and the African American experience. The ‘freely expressed will’ in the 1860s would have excluded all African Americans. What would have happened is that slavery would have continued for a considerable period. This makes the 19th century South fundamentally different to Scotland today.

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  4. Rhobat Bryn Jones says:

    I agree with Daniel Williams in that the analogy with the United States of America is spurious though useful in trying to engage the minds of American students. In addition to Daniel’s point about slavery, Britain was in part formed by the union of two previously existing independent nations. The proposal is now to revoke that union.

    The South was a cessation, not decided by referendum and not with the agreement of the other states in the Union, from what was already agreed to be one nation.

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