• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Why the spirit of the Fourth of July must prevail in September's vote

On July 4, 1976, under a fireworks-filled sky in Washington, DC, I celebrated the 200th anniversary of America declaring independence from a Westminster government.

Is the US history of leaving the UK relevant to Scotland? Drawing historical comparisons is tricky, as the contexts and particulars are so different. We ignore history at our peril.

As an American living and working in Scotland since 2005, comparing the Declaration of Independence and the Scottish independence referendum is irresistible. The American and Scottish independence stories are not perfect parallels.

Most profoundly, independence will be settled here by a peaceful vote, not a bloody war. Moreover, Scotland's new leaders are unlikely to echo the astonishing coincidence that two creators of the Declaration of Independence (Thomas Jefferson and John Adams) both died on the July 4, 1826. Yet, some similarities do resonate across time.

First, deciding on independence is messy and complex. The colonists were far from unanimous about taking the leap. The Tories and Loyalists led a significant 18th-century US version of Better Together. Also, the British government desperately wanted to maintain control over America and its resources.

Secondly, achieving full independence takes time. The Declaration of Independence approved by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, was neither the beginning nor the end of the American Revolution. The war lasted until 1783. The Constitution wasn't enacted until 1788 and the Bill of Rights wasn't added until 1791.

Thirdly, American independence was largely driven by a determination to create a more just, egalitarian and democratic society. America originally had a collective commitment to ideals above and beyond maximising the comfort, convenience and cash of the "haves". The public interest was given priority over anyone's private interests. "Ordinary" colonists put their lives on the line to pursue a better society for each other.

Fourthly, in a democratic nation, the political conversation never really ends. Long after the American Revolution, robust debate continued about how best to translate the ideals of independence into reality. Even in its darkest, post-independence transitional period, America was never tempted to re-join the UK. Ultimately independence triggered America's long-term success.

Early on, Americans chose a federal government. The recent floating of UK federalism by 'No' supporters is fascinating. Although I understand its appeal, I do not believe UK federalism holds up under careful scrutiny as a viable alternative to independence. There is no place in the US that dominates the nation's political and economic life to the extent London controls (and overshadows) the rest of the UK's.

Within a federal UK, Westminster would still control foreign and military policy and would very likely remain closely tied to Washington. Scotland would doubtless align with these larger powers most of the time. However, an independent Scotland would have the ability to disagree; choose a different course; and become a critical friend when Scotland's interests, preferences and needs, from nuclear arms to going to war, are not in harmony with Westminster and Washington.

Looking back from 1815, John Adams wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson recalling that "the Revolution was in the hearts and minds of the people ... before a drop of blood was shed". I already voted with my feet by moving to Scotland. Others will choose to vote 'No' for legitimate reasons but my heart and mind have become convinced that the noblest spirit of the Fourth of July lives on and prompts me to vote Yes in September. In the referendum, we will vote for a country; not for (or against) current parties and leaders.

As a new Scot on this Fourth of July, I hope September brings a fireworks-filled sky to my new nation's capital; fireworks that celebrate our independence and usher in a colourful, bright future for all Scots.

Dr Jonathan Sher is the Scotland Director of WAVE Trust. He writes here in a personal capacity.

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

244929