Simon Newman is Sir Denis Brogan Professor of American History at the University of Glasgow. His most recent book, A New World of Labor: The Development of Plantation Slavery in the British Atlantic, was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2013. In this guest post, Newman draws parallels between the American campaign for independence in the 1770s, and the current campaign for Scottish independence.
On September 18th millions of voters in Scotland will head to the polls to answer a simple question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” As an historian of the American Revolution living and working in Scotland I am struck by the parallels not just between the two movements for independence, but more significantly between the ways in which the British government in the eighteenth century and the UK government in the twenty-first century have challenged those who sought and seek independence. There are differences, of course: eighteenth-century Britons in North America inhabited British colonies, while Scotland is a nation within the British union; the British government sought to tax and administer the American colonies without allowing them representation in Parliament, while Scots are represented at Westminster; perhaps most significantly, Britain deployed troops to America and used them to subdue colonists, while in 2014 only the rhetoric has been violent.
And yet there are similarities too. Scotland has its own national church, legal system and educational system, and for a generation it has elected few and sometimes no Conservatives to the House of Commons. With the Conservatives dominating the present coalition government, imposing unpopular measures such as the “bedroom tax” (reducing welfare benefits for those with unused bedrooms that might be rented out), many in Scotland feel separate and different from the rest of the UK, and that they have as little say in the election and policies of the government in Westminster as American colonists felt in the 1760s and 1770s.
Perhaps, however, the most striking similarity is not between those who favor independence but between those who oppose it. How the UK government and those who support the maintenance of the union have reacted to Scots considering independence has done as much to alienate voters in Scotland as the actions of British Prime Ministers, Parliament, the press and the British public did to alienate American colonists more than two centuries ago. Over the past three years voters in Scotland have struggled with two related yet distinct issues: could Scotland function as a successful independent nation, and if so, should Scotland be independent? American colonists wrestled with the same questions in the mid-1770s. It seems likely that many in Scotland accept that the country could indeed be independent: for them, the question over the past few years has been whether or not this is a good idea.
Yet those who oppose Scottish independence, particularly many in England from the government in Westminster, the media, and the business community, have focused on the first question alone. Instead of extolling the positive benefits of union, these critics have assailed every proposal by nationalists as to how an independent Scotland could function. No, they say, Scotland cannot have or use the imperial pound, Scotland would not remain members of the European Union, Scots could not share the BBC and so forth. There is sound reasoning behind much of this naysaying, yet the patronizing and sometimes derogatory tone of the rhetoric has done enormous harm to the unionist cause. Every time the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Leader of the Opposition speaks out against Scottish independence, support for separation increases. Again, the echoes of the late-eighteenth century are clear. Benjamin Franklin wrote with chagrin that “Every Man in England seems to consider himself as a Piece of a Sovereign over America; seems to jostle himself into the Throne with the King, and talks of OUR Subjects in the Colonies.” By focusing on why they believe Scotland cannot function well as an independent nation, today’s English opponents have encouraged many Scots in the opposite direction, moving them forward from a belief that Scotland could be independent to a conviction that it should.
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.