Thursday, September 18, 2014

Simon Newman Compares American and Scottish Independence

Simon Newman of the University of Glasgow, a historian of early American history, offers some nice historical reflections on the similarities and differences between the argument for American independence from Great Britain and Scottish independence from the U.K. Check out his entire piece at The Junto.  Here is a small taste:

American historians generally accept that in 1776 independence was supported by a minority of adult white male voters, with many more either undecided or actively opposed to separation. The Second Continental Congress declared American independence without majority support in their new nation. Greater unanimity in support of American independence developed slowly, in the face of massive and destructive British military operations, and the ever more efficient Patriot militia policing of communities from New Hampshire to Georgia. Similarly in 2014 opinion polls continue to show only a minority in support of Scottish independence. Yet the gap is closing and is now almost within the margin of error. Moreover, these polls are far from reliable since demographically coherent groups of voters are divided by an issue determined by heart as much as head: two people of a similar age, education, religion and so forth are as likely to disagree as agree, making it all but impossible for pollsters to find statistically representative samples.

Although the polls are narrowing independence may well be defeated, but even if it is Scotland and the UK will have been changed by this process. In the event of a “No” vote, both the UK government and the Labour opposition in Westminster have guaranteed greater devolved powers for the Scottish government, with even more control over taxation and expenditure within Scotland than is already the case. This would increase the already considerable differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK in terms of welfare policies, health care, higher education and a raft of other governmental responsibilities.

Something similar was possible, albeit highly unlikely, in America in September 1776, when British Admiral Lord Richard Howe met with John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Edward Rutledge. Hoping to prevent a costly and divisive war, Howe promised the representatives of the Continental Congress significant concessions, offering many of the rights colonists had asserted since 1764. Yet even if Congress had agreed, the relationship between Britain and America would have been irrevocably altered, and independence postponed rather than denied. Such may well be the case in Scotland. The debate over independence, and the content and manner of English arguments against it have changed Scotland and its relationship with the UK. If Adams was right, and the American Revolution “was in the minds and hearts of the people” before independence was countenanced and declared, then perhaps a similar revolution has already occurred in Scotland.

I also recommend this piece by British historian Linda Colley.