Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Scottish Nationalism and the American Revolution

As we approach the Fourth of July, the usual rhetoric from Scottish Nationalists is appearing. Pro-independence websites and Facebook groups will no doubt soon be blazoned with American flags, proclaiming “Happy Independence Day!”, “Independence Day, Not Separation Day!”, and the like, and otherwise declaring the brotherhood of Scottish Nationalists with their cousins on the other side of the Atlantic, their brothers who many years ago threw off the hated British yoke and built a new nation. In truth, the American Revolution of the 18th century and the Scottish independence movement of the 21st are not remotely comparable.

From the first rumblings of discontent in 1765, right up until the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, American revolutionary activity was considered a conflict between Britons about the rights of Britons. The people of the Thirteen Colonies repeatedly protested that their lack of elected representation in the British Parliament made the imposition of new taxes, such as the Stamp Act, illegitimate and a violation of their “Rights as Englishmen”. The concept of the Rights of Englishmen would appear time and again in the 18th and 19th centuries in parliamentary reform debates. Furthermore, until 1776, the colonists repeatedly asserted their loyalty to Britain. Appearing before the British Parliament, Benjamin Franklin reminded the MPs of the great sacrifices of Americans in Britain’s name in the Seven Years’ War, asking only increased representation in return. In the Olive Branch Petition of May 1775, the colonists pleaded with King George III to intervene on their behalf. In their response on December 6th 1775 to the Proclamation of Rebellion, the Continental Congress continued to assert its loyalty to the King, and maintained that they still hoped to avoid the “calamities” of a “civil war”.

All this stands in stark contrast to the current debate, where Nationalists going right up to the office of the First Minister seek to portray the British state as something alien to Scotland and something that does not deserve our loyalty. Where the Americans sought increased representation, the Nationalists seek to strip our representatives in Parliament away. Where the Americans professed loyalty, Nationalists preach only hostility. Any Scottish businessman, politician, or ordinary person who dares speak up for continued union with Britain is lambasted as “anti-Scottish”. Lest any Nationalist now take this moment to compare the Poll Tax to the Americans and their “no taxation without representation”, we shall remind them that Scotland does in fact possess representation in Parliament (in fact, more MPs than we deserve given our population, in as we will see later), and Scottish MPs were involved in the passage of the Poll Tax, the most notable among them being Secretary of State for Scotland Malcolm Rifkind. Furthermore, the Poll Tax was rolled out across the whole of Britain, while the Stamp Act and Tea Act applied only to the American colonists.

In responding to the American Revolution, everything that the British government could get wrong, it did get wrong. The Prime Minister of the time, George Grenville, responded to American claims of representation with the sickeningly arrogant assertion that the colonists were “virtually represented” – even without representatives, Parliament could still speak for them. The great Whig statesman and former Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder named this “the most contemptible idea that ever entered into the head of a man; it does not deserve serious refutation.”

Today, far from being “virtually represented” in Westminster, Scotland has 59 MPs to introduce, challenge, vote on, and oppose policy. Much as the Nationalists would like to ignore this inconvenient fact, seven Scots have even served as Prime Minister. Three more were of Scottish descent. From 1997 to 2011, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was always a Scotsman. It is because Scotland voted so heavily for Labour in 2010 that Britain now has a coalition government and not a Conservative majority. In fact, in a country with 5,295,400 people (2011 census), there is therefore an average of 1 MP for 89,752 Scots. This means that the Scots are actually better represented in Westminster than the English, who, with 533 MPs for 53,012,456 people, gives an average of only 1 MP for 99,460 people. Add to this a devolved parliament that responds to hot-button issues like health and education, and the Scots are arguably the best-represented people in the UK!

In conclusion, the current independence debate and the American Revolution are not remotely comparable. Scottish Nationalists cannot cite a grievance that compares in any way to those borne by the American colonists. In comparison to what sparked the American Revolution, the issues that Nationalists bring up daily are deeply petty and would have the Founding Fathers staring in disbelief. Independence for them was a grim, uncertain necessity that was adopted only after every last diplomatic effort had failed, not some purported cure-all promulgated by those whose modus operandi consists of “well, let’s just see what happens.”

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