American perspectives on Scottish secession: Part 2

In the final part of the series, David Melding explores more American perspectives on the Scottish vote.

‘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.

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.

7 thoughts on “American perspectives on Scottish secession: Part 2

  1. Interesting experience. Easter in Virginia is an enviable time to be there from my perspective in the colder climes of Canada. Memories of seeing the name ap Catesby Jones on a Civil War memorial and wondering about the origins of the family, and on which side they supported during that traumatic period in the history of the USA.

    David Melding’s journey and discussions of constitutionality and federalism in William and Mary University reminded me of a journey by the First Minister of Wales to the US earlier this year round about St David’s Day. I wondered why at the time. Then it dawned on me after reading this article that it was not only a matter celebrating and fostering the trans Atlantic links between Wales and the US, but also to present his case for devolution in Wales to critical audiences in New York and Washington. By critical I do not mean negative, but people who know their stuff about constitutional government and the ins and outs of federalism US style, and who are prepared to argue the finer points into the wee small hours.

    I suspect that the breakup of an historic union is anathema to many in the US, as evidenced by President Obama’s recent comment about the upcoming vote in Scotland. But is the President’s concern based on the loss of a traditional and familiar political institution, or the prospect of destabilization and long term uncertainty, as happened in Ireland. Clearly the subject of discussion into the wee small hours.

    While Wales has looked historically to the US for ideas about politics and non-conformist religious practices, I am duty bound to offer an alternative interpretation of federalism in Canada which lacks the drama of US political history. To quote a past Premier of Ontario, “Bland works.”

  2. Canada is more influential than it may seem. It’s pattern of tax devolution by sharing the income tax base was the one favoured by the Calman Commission in Scotland and the Holtham Commission in Wales and adopted by Silk. Its practice of holding recurrent referenda on Quebec independence may also be followed in Scotland on the principle that the squeaking wheel gets the grease.

  3. “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.”

    Generally speaking it actually is a panicky response extracted under duress.
    I accept that there are genuine advocates for a form of federalism but for the past few decades the argument has been absent from UK politics.

    I think it would be surprising if those who are making this panicky response extracted under duress would continue with the response if the duress were removed by a NO vote.

  4. While both parts of this well-researched and well-written piece were very enjoyable to read, David has drawn completely the wrong political conclusion from the facts he presents.

    America provides a perfect illustration of the universal law of politics that any political organisation will try to increase its own power – especially when the organisations in question are a sovereign legislature and subsidiary legislatures that exist under its authority. In America the conflict between them twice took the form of extreme violence: the subsidiary legislatures prevailed in 1782, the sovereign legislature in 1865. The essential difference between the two occasions is that President Lincoln imposed centralised authority on his rebellious subjects with a brutality that was beyond George III. Although Lincoln still seems a genuinely likeable character and his cause has been given retrospective moral authority by his abolition of slavery – which was not his original casus belli – that cause was basically the same as that of President Assad of Syria. Lincoln effectively tore up the US Constitution in order to save it, and, although the USA remains nominally a federation, there is no denying that since then all the real power lies in the centre with the Federal government. Washington, Franklin, Adams, and, above all, Jefferson would have been appalled.

    So federalism might postpone essential questions but they must still eventually be answered, one way or the other.

  5. “Could federalism work in Britain and would England pay that price?”

    If judged by the recent saga of the GB football team at the 2012 Olympic Games, the answer must be ‘no’. Three out of four of the British Associations rejected the idea but the fourth insisted on riding roughshod over their objections to a unified team. What was surprising was the sense of entitlement demonstrated by the London media, with one Guardian journalist describing the stance of the FAW/SFA/IFA as ‘reverse colonialism’. The notion that there was any ethical dimension to the matter was entirely lost on the FA/London media and Westminster politicians – it was a case of what we want we’ll get ….

  6. Federalism would be extremely difficult for a Parliament which is sovereign over its people. Federalism would require investing sovereignty in institutions outwith its control and that fundamentally contradicts the Westminster model of government.

    It can be the case that institutions accrue power for its own sake but it is also the case that institutions seek power in order to deliver results. If the current arrangements were working, there would be little room for criticism. The Assembly was achieved on the basis of Labour voters voting for certain policies and getting the complete opposite. Labour votes now get Labour results.

    Whether the Labour Government is actually delivering on those policies is of course a matter of argument. But policy issues should be resolved politically, not constitutionally. Come the election in 2016, we will hopefully see that in action.

  7. Unionism IS Nationalism written large with oppression. It’s the worst kind.

    If the UK is seen as a successful union then a Nazi Europe (had they won) would be regarded by Unionists as even more of a success, on the same basis.

    The whole point of the UK is to impose England on the rest of Britain. This is the “One Nation” they talk of with hands on their hearts and tears in their eyes. It is repugnant!

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