‘But will Scotland go?’ After my long talk the student’s question got us to the heart of the matter. Before speculating I reminded the audience that an independence referendum was a unique event unlike general elections which come along at regular intervals and offer some pattern on which to base prediction. American experience, I pointed out, suggests that people are reluctant to break a Union even after a long period of discontent. The Virginian Constitutional Convention that met in April 1861 voted 2-to-1 against secession and even when the Union’s troops started marching, a less than emphatic endorsement was secured for the Confederacy. Most Virginians clearly wanted compromise, a different Union perhaps, but not separation.
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 told the audience that the obvious way to offer Scots a compromise was to put some form of federation on the ballot. Given British distain for the ‘F’ word, federalism goes under the guise of devo-plus or devo-max. There were real problems, however, with a multiple choice constitutional referendum. Better to concentrate on the essential question, do you want to go or not? With guile and statescraft, the Unionists could have turned ‘No’ into a positive demand for a new Union along the lines of a great federal compromise. There may even still be time to do this but the longer Unionists wait the more it will appear that any counter-offer to independence is a panicky response extracted under duress. The trouble with the Unionist campaign is that it has not been a single campaign at all. There has recently been a slight sign that a counter offer may at last unite the Unionists. Gordon Brown, the former Prime Minister, has said that some recognition of Scottish sovereignty is now required. This may just be the first intimation of a federal solution – although Gordon Brown dare not use the federal word.
Lady Thatcher served as Chancellor of the College of William and Mary during the 1990s. One of the professors in the Department of Government reminisced about her regular visits to the College. She worked hard, he said, and was always keen to speak to the students. And they engaged and responded well to her free market Conservative vision. But, he added, federalism always baffled her. Why would conservatives not want a strong central state that could push through radical reforms without local interference? When the students talked about federalism being the best defence of limited and conservative government she simply could not grasp it. States’ rights left her cold.
“This site is as sacred as Gettysburg”. I walked slowly across the small park towards Birmingham’s Civil Rights cathedral, the 16th St Baptist Church. It was Good Friday, that moment of deepest time and awesome hope for Christians, and somehow born of death and terror. Another act of grotesque violence is commemorated at the Park’s edge; this to the four black children murdered in the bombing of the church in 1963. The girls play now in a sculpture symbolising the life of peace and freedom so viciously denied them by the Klu Klux Klan. A group of primary school children were lining up nearby, getting ready to visit the Civil Rights Institute which is today the heart of the once heartless ‘Bomingham’. Black and white, they jostled and joked and seemed to me a graceful hint of Dr King’s majestical vision. The new South is fragile and incomplete. But these glimpses of nation-building would have been unconscionable to many whites just a generation or two ago.
Wales is well known here because of the Welsh window gifted in an act of solidarity with the 16th Street’s congregation. In the church I listened to the seven pastors – four black, three white– who each delivered a sermon on one of Christ’s sayings on the cross. The preaching was intense and thoughtful, no hint of Alabama-tent revival but rather steady Christian resolve. “You know there is a Welsh custom to call Jesus Jesu so as to make their prayers and supplications more reverent and personal. When we recall Jesus on the cross we can call out to Jesu and ask Him to support us in our pain and suffering. But don’t trivialise human pain. Suffering can be crushing and we will all experience it in some measure”. And this is true. The girls are no less dead, seventy years before their time, although their classmates have lived to hear many sermons proclaiming hope and renewal. In the political sphere it is a tortured path from Good Friday to Easter Sunday.
“What does England think about Scottish independence?” I was ready for this and half expected the follow-up question because the student had somehow appeared both engaged and puzzled during my lecture, “would England accept federalism?” Most people in England want the Scots to stay, I assured my audience, but there is a limit to the price they seem prepared to pay for the Union. And this explains the rather joyless tone of the Unionist campaign. One can’t help thinking that if Britain is worth preserving, should Unionists not sound confident and expansive? This is the time to build a new Union not to cantankerously defend the old.
Perhaps the real trouble has been the complacency of those Unionists who have considered Scottish secession permissible in theory but implausible in practice. As the polls have narrowed this mood has changed, but is it all too late to talk about the magic of the Union? There certainly was magic once, a belief that citizens of the UK could hold two national identities and actually amalgamate them. Scotland plus the Union equals greater national flourishing not less. This is the law of Unionism and it should not be confused with ephemeral justifications for staying together to save money in a convenient but loveless union.
Peachtree St is one of America’s great thoroughfares. On this once bloody ridge of battle the ghosts of Sherman and Hood now observe the bloodless fury of commercial life. Atlanta is a surprisingly beautiful, verdant metropolis today, but it is not difficult to imagine the Confederate city ablaze on that hill. The Civil War was effectively decided here, and here Unionism triumphed and triumphs still. In Atlanta’s Historical Centre this is the message of the excellent and balanced exhibition on the Civil War – commemorating the conflict’s 150th anniversary. The Union flag that flew over Atlanta on 2nd September 1864 is at the centre of the display. While the battle flag of the Confederacy has often been used as a symbol of division, most of the South followed Lee’s advice to accept the reality of defeat and the promise of reconciliation. There are not many flags that have come to represent victory, reconciliation and union with such conviction. And there are not many states that have been able to sublimate an experience as bitter as the Civil War.
Nothing symbolises the enfeeblement of British national identity more than the embarrassed attitudes towards the Union Jack. It has been furled in the imagination by the Saltire (and Red Dragon) if not yet by European Union’s golden circle of stars. Flags matter because they are identity. America has had its flag wars here in the South, of course, but the Stars and Stripes remains the highest symbol of union. In the Smithsonian Museum of the American Nation, the first exhibit is the flag (truly huge) that flew over Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the British assault in 1814 and that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the Star Spangled Banner. Even as late as the 1960s the Union Jack had a similar power to symbolise the national identities of Britain. I explained to the students that when England won the World Cup in 1966 it was the Union Jack that was waved all around Wembley not the Cross of St George.
It was time to conclude. Could federalism work in Britain and would England pay that price? There is no F-word problem with federalism when addressing an American audience, of course; but they know phoney-federalism when they see it. Since my lecture “Will Britain Survive Beyond 2020?” delivered at the College in 2007, I have found American audiences a stern test for federal ideas that might be applied to the British Constitution. The trick is, I explained, to set parameters in a short written constitution. It is folly to attempt to cover all eventualities that in the course of time will test the resilience of a constitution. Some simply cannot be anticipated and they are likely to be the most dangerous. Constitutional parameters allow for bargaining within a treaty style relationship. Some responsibilities pass from state to sub-state government to better cope with change, sometimes the direction is reversed. The first and most essential step – the foundational principle really – is to recognise that sovereignty is now separated into spheres and the central government cannot abolish, in Britain’s case, the Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly. The English question is a bit of a conundrum, I admitted, but the importance of recognising equal rights to federal mechanisms for the peoples of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should be acknowledged. This does not mean that national institutions must be identical. The people of England would have a right to their own domestic Parliament but might not choose to establish one and instead imbed a process at Westminster. They might federate England itself. It would be up to them. But they would have an equal right to determine their domestic affairs. So a federal Britain could – in all probability would – be asymmetric but it would not be exceptionalist. The people of Scotland and Wales would not have exceptional political rights compared to the people of England. That’s more or less it. These basic federalist principles could be promulgated in a new Act of Union,
Whether this will happen is in the balance. It is difficult to see liberal multi-national states surviving anywhere without the greater use of federal principles. This may require quite a leap of faith, certainly in England. But a leap of faith is better than staying put on the treacherous ground of devolution.
“I started with a whimsy so let me finish likewise”. Here is an article from the London Times dated 29th September 2041
King William hosted a glittering state dinner last night to celebrate the silver jubilee of Britain’s written federal constitution. The King told guests who included the Presidents of China, Russia and the USA that “the federal constitution has rejuvenated Britain and set an example to the world on how to accommodate the liberal demands of nationalism and unionism. Secession remains possible in many states but the advantages of larger unions are better appreciated”. He was too diplomatic, however, to congratulate the US President on persuading Texas to say ‘No’ to independence. The result had been just a bit too close.