Andrew Wilson: Obama’s call to ‘build from within’

US President Barack Obama waded into the Scottish independence debate. Picture: AP
US President Barack Obama waded into the Scottish independence debate. Picture: AP
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BARACK Obama’s call to ‘build from within’ rings true for Scotland, writes Andrew Wilson

I ADORE America and its people. I have my eyes wide open to their flaws just as I do to my own country’s. But there is something in the essence of America and its story that has tugged at my heart.

Their story is our story and the story of the peoples of most countries in the world. Because the magnet of the dance called America has pulled the hopeful and the hopeless into its reel for two centuries and more. It is a place of great wonder, both natural and man-made. It is remarkable.

Two hundred and thirty-eight years after their declaration of independence from London government, it is fair to say that they don’t regret their decision. Despite fears for security, financial viability and sustainability at the time, we can probably declare their declaration “satisfactory”.

History has proven that the founding fathers of the United States were probably correct that government by their own people and for their own people was, on the balance of risks and rewards, the right thing to do. It might just catch on.

That is not to say its own union is perfect or permanently settled. Its politics beat with the drum of discontent and argument all of the time. The states resent the power of Washington yet call on its comfort in times of distress. The idea that any country gives up on debating how it runs itself and focuses solely on “the issues” is just fanciful. It is the stuff of democratic politics everywhere. And thank goodness for that.

I must declare an interest before I go much further. I was privileged to tour the country at the expense of the State Department in the year 2000 when I was an optimistic and misty-eyed child politician. I was mesmerised by the diversity but mostly seduced by the generosity of time and spirit from the most junior community activists and the most senior politicians that I met.

Then, and ever since, I cannot visit the country without leaving energised, stimulated and believing that almost anything is possible.

So as you can imagine I was disappointed to hear the words of President Obama and his entrée into the Scottish independence referendum this week. Not surprised really, but saddened. His words seemed to be del­ivered without huge enthusiasm, but whether scripted in London or Washington matters less than that they were said: “We obviously have a deep interest in making sure that one of the closest allies that we will ever have remains a strong, robust, united and effective partner. But ultimately these are decisions that are to be made by the folks there.”

A textual and Freudian analysis would be a waste of time. The conclusion reasonable people can draw is that the diplomats would rather have things as they are now.

But we can also be sure that if Scotland votes Yes that the decision “made by the folks there” will result in a warm welcome to the community of nations as well.

It was hardly a hardline warning. But the Better Together campaign spun with glee as, I guess, they were entitled to do. Whether it has an impact remains to be seen. Having the UK government call in diplomatic fav­ours in this way may lead to a head of steam that impacts the electorate. Or it may not.

What is certain is that if it had happened ten, 20 or 30 years ago it would have a far greater impact than now. In the modern moment the population of most countries just don’t buy the directives imposed on them from the great men, women and institutions that run our world as it is now. Because the order of how we are run has not been working “pretty well”, at any level.

We live in an era of reform that could run for decades. Leaders and institutions are having to re-earn our trust and respect in real time. And the US president is not immune. So we shall see.

He also said that “from the outside at least, it looks like things have worked pretty well”. In this statement lies the core weakness in the possibly half-hearted analysis he spoke to.

If things were going so well we wouldn’t be having a referendum on Scotland or on Europe (he wants the UK to stay in as well, but that point was glossed over). And President Obama and his advisers know this only too well.

Far more substantial depth and leadership from the president was to be found in other words he spoke last week: “True democracy, real prosperity, lasting security – these are neither simply given, nor imposed from the outside. They must be earned and built from within.”

He spoke them in Warsaw on the 25th anniversary of “freedom day” in Poland, the day before he made his remarks on Scotland. The irony should be lost on no-one. Nor should the deeper meaning, rooted as it is in a far more heartfelt sense of the world as it should be.

The message that day from the president was that the challenge for our and any country’s people now is less in listening to entreaties from outwith than to “earn and build from within”. I couldn’t agree more. «

Twitter: @AndrewWilsonAJW