The idea that independence is the aspiration of all states is not borne out in by historical evidence, writes Peter Jones
An axiom of nationalism is that independence is a natural condition to which all countries aspire and that no country ever seeks to extinguish itself by joining in the kind of political union that the UK represents. Neither of these assertions is correct, indeed there are two outstanding examples which run counter to the idea that Scottish independence is part of an inevitable tide of history, including, somewhat surprisingly, the USA.
The other isn’t very far away from us. The former East Germany, nominally sovereign but actually a Soviet satellite state for 40 years, became in reality independent in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, the old Iron Curtain frontier dissolved, and the Soviet Union did nothing as its empire dissolved.
The following year, proof of East Germany’s independence appeared with the first free elections which rejected the ruling Communist party in favour of parties supporting unification with West Germany. Unification duly happened and two countries disappeared to be replaced by the Germany we see today.
If this is an unnatural process and condition, it seems rather odd that Germany is now the most successful economy in Europe, despite the old East Germany having been broke and impoverished at the time of unification.
The second example is somewhat further away and is often over-looked, probably because of an inadequate understanding of history. Most people, including Americans, tend to assume that the USA came into existence in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence. Actually, the USA we know today did not appear until 1788 when the constitution, thrashed out in Philadelphia and prescribing an elected president and Congress, independent judiciary, and a federation, was agreed.
What was there in the intervening decade? Why was a federation and not a confederation agreed? Why indeed, didn’t a patchwork of independent countries rather than a single one, emerge because that, if nationalist thinking is right, would have been a more natural and much better outcome?
A clue to the reason is in the name of the country – the United States of America. Why didn’t the founding fathers just call it America?
The evidence which follows comes from a book America’s Constitution – A Biography by Akhil Reed Ahmar, a scholar at Yale Law School, and published in 2005 to rave reviews, including being described as “a masterly showcase of scholarship”.
Ahmar reminds us that by the time of the war of independence, “British North America grew up not as one continental legal entity but rather as juridically separate colonies founded over a span of many decades” so that “during the century before 1776, say, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Virginia were three quite distinct political societies – tied to a common Crown, but as legally separate from one another as India and Ireland.”
And if you look closely at the original text of the Declaration of Independence by the 13 colonies which revolted against British rule, you discover that they describe themselves in the document’s heading as States with a capital “S” and as united not just with a lower case “u” but with the word in much smaller type. In the text, they also declare themselves to be “Free and Independent States”.
The evidence listed by Ahmar makes it pretty clear that the 13 colonies, having thrown off the British yoke, had independence for themselves in mind. In the Continental Congress where common matters were debated, he writes, a motion was approved in June 1776 declaring: “Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.”
The Congress went on to write constitutional articles of Confederation which, says Ahmar, “described the arrangement between the states as a ‘confederacy’, a ‘confederation’ and a ‘firm league of friendship with each other’ in which ‘each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence’.” Massachusetts, declared itself in 1780 to be a “free, sovereign, and independent state” as did several others.
Ahmar concludes that the intention was that “the ‘United States’ would be an alliance, a multi-lateral treaty of sovereign nation-states.” So why wasn’t this the outcome in 1788? Because, he says, it was a “shambles” by 1787 – “various states failed to honour requisitions, enacted laws violating duly ratified treaties, waged unauthorized local wars against Indian tribes, and maintained standing armies without congressional permission”, which contravened the articles of confederation.
The framers of the 1788 constitution looked to Europe for an answer. An influential series of articles in The Federalist magazine written under the pen name of Publius, many of which were authored by James Madison, argued for a federation, the surprising feature of which was that the UK which had just been usurped, and its Union of 1707, was the model.
Ahmar writes: “As Publius saw the world, most of continental Europe groaned in chains under absolutist tyrants and feudal overlords. Yet Britain was relatively free because of its ‘insular situation, and a powerful marine’.”
Publius saw a navy as a defensive instrument, protecting against foreign invasion but not easily usable as an instrument of domestic tyranny. In continental Europe, in contrast, large standing armies were a means of domestic oppression.
Publius feared that scrapping the confederation in favour of 13 independent states would, says Ahmar, “recreate continental Europe – borders, armies, dictators, chains, and all. Already, some of the states had come close to blows.”
He argues that the 1707 union “furnished a high-profile paradigm for what the Philadelphia framers were proposing in 1787” and that the “more perfect union” phrase in the US constitution borrows from Queen Anne’s July 1706 letter to the Scottish parliament seeking “an entire and perfect union”. This letter was published in The Federalist.
Ahmar provides a lot more evidence in support of his thesis which, of course, nationalists will rile at. I am not suggesting at all that Scottish independence will recreate the conditions of 18th-century America and I accept that many, many more countries have, post 1945, chosen independence and made a success of it.
But I am pointing out the simple historical fact that two of the most economically successful and politically powerful nations on earth are union states which rejected independence for their component parts.
And if unionists think this is a great comfort to them, they shouldn’t. Both Germany and America are federations far removed from the curious hotch-potch of devolution and centralism in modern Britain. The lesson may well be that if Britain is to emulate the economic success of these two countries, its constitutional structure probably needs substantial re-construction.