Immediately after the US presidential elections in November 2012, there was a considerable effort on behalf of - what I imagine to be put-out and angry Republicans - for their states to secede from the union of the United States of America. Not one state failed to have an application on its behalf. In my inbox today, I received a response the petitions filed with the Whitehouse website, from Jon Carson, Director of the Office of Public Engagement:
Petition Response: Our States Remain United
Thank you for using the White House's online petitions platform to participate in your government.
In a nation of 300 million people -- each with their own set of deeply-held beliefs -- democracy can be noisy and controversial. And that's a good thing. Free and open debate is what makes this country work, and many people around the world risk their lives every day for the liberties we often take for granted.
But as much as we value a healthy debate, we don't let that debate tear us apart.
Our founding fathers established the Constitution of the United States "in order to form a more perfect union" through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. They enshrined in that document the right to change our national government through the power of the ballot -- a right that generations of Americans have fought to secure for all. But they did not provide a right to walk away from it. As President Abraham Lincoln explained in his first inaugural address in 1861, "in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual." In the years that followed, more than 600,000 Americans died in a long and bloody civil war that vindicated the principle that the Constitution establishes a permanent union between the States. And shortly after the Civil War ended, the Supreme Court confirmed that "[t]he Constitution, in all its provisions, looks to an indestructible Union composed of indestructible States."
Although the founders established a perpetual union, they also provided for a government that is, as President Lincoln would later describe it, "of the people, by the people, and for the people" -- all of the people. Participation in, and engagement with, government is the cornerstone of our democracy. And because every American who wants to participate deserves a government that is accessible and responsive, the Obama Administration has created a host of new tools and channels to connect concerned citizens with White House. In fact, one of the most exciting aspects of the We the People platform is a chance to engage directly with our most outspoken critics.
So let's be clear: No one disputes that our country faces big challenges, and the recent election followed a vigorous debate about how they should be addressed. As President Obama said the night he won re-election, "We may have battled fiercely, but it's only because we love this country deeply and we care so strongly about its future."
Whether it's figuring out how to strengthen our economy, reduce our deficit in a responsible way, or protect our country, we will need to work together -- and hear from one another -- in order to find the best way to move forward. I hope you'll take a few minutes to learn more about the President's ideas and share more of your own.
Tell us what you think about this response and We the People.From the tone of this letter, I take three important points:
- There is no method by which state secession can be enacted.
- The founding fathers knew this.
- The Whitehouse is dismissive of secessionist claims.
In defence of the Union
I am in two minds about this situation. I support the sentiment of the founding fathers in their belief in the strength and perpetuity of unity amongst the willing, but only for as long as the constituent states are willing. The other 'mind' I shall approach further on in this post.
Now, in this knee-jerk reaction to a back-to-back Democratic victory, there is precious little evidence to suggest that these secession claims are anything but a demonstration of wounded pride, but what if - one day - a state has a genuine claim to secede from the union?
It is not beyond the realms of possibility that such an act may play out, even in our own lifetimes. Countries form unions and dissolve them all the time, somewhere on the planet; nations - it seems - are not and have never been the defined and concrete fortresses many perceive them to be.
Here in the UK - a bastion of stability and imperviousness - there are advanced devolutionary programs ongoing in Scotland. In Wales and Northern Ireland they have their own parliaments or assemblies. Even in my home county of Cornwall, there is a sizeable minority of the population that simply does not recognise England beyond anything other than a occupying state.
What is more, the U.K. is itself a member of a union; the European Union (E.U.). I think it is safe to say that whilst two of the major parties are pro-E.U., the most prominent party in our coalition Government - The Conservative Party - is split on the issue.
Speaking on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show, Prime Minister, David Cameron, said the U.K. was "perfectly entitled" to ask for a change on our relationship with the E.U., although he added a caveat that being entirely outside the EU would not be "right for Britain".
Since this story broke on the 6th January, both the U.S. and Germany have made passing shots in the press regarding the possible exit of the U.K. from the E.U.. In the case of the former, The Conservative Party has reacted angrily towards - what they see as a U.S. lobbying tactic to keep a transatlantic voice at the E.U. table - what John Redwood MP has described as the "...wish to be told that we should lose our democracy in the cause of advancing America’s.” There were numerous voices that reflected Mr Redwood's concerns.
Drawing a parrallel
Like the U.S., the E.U. has no method by which individual states can exit or secede, but this raises the question I off-set earlier in this post; Does a state or a nation have the right to self-determination independent of a totalitarian union that does not share its ideals or motivations?
The relationship with the states and the federal union in the U.S. is not dissimilar to the relationship that the nation states of the U.K. have with their central Government in London. In turn, the relationship between the U.K. and the E.U. is similarly tumultuous, very few people being in support of European diktats from a distant and unfamiliar Parliament in Brussels.
Federations are complicated beasts; they are isolated nation states that wish to expand their influence in the world by means of a 'might is right' strategy - something this seems anathema to the the sensibilities of those that comprise the population of each constituent nation/state. Many will point to the success of countries like Norway and Switzerland who have steadfastly remained outside of the in-group (although Norway has made noises regarding a possible entry) and thrived under their own steam as proof positive that there is a life outside of the E.U.. The U.S. lacks this external comparison, but the situation between states and their union, and the U.K. and it's unions are still very much linked by the conundrum facing those that want out.
A firm believer in self-determination, I find I lean considerably towards states or constituent nations right to secede or exit from a unsuitable union should its populace wish it to be so. Just because there is no method set in place for such an eventuality, in no way means that simply stating an official position of independence is not enough. Both the U.S. and the U.K. have historical reasons for believing this to be true. Do people really need to be reminded of a certain document called 'the Declaration of Independence'?
Solutions - A proposal
It seems that sooner or later, one state or nation state or another will get its wish and become independent of their respective union, but this needn't mean the end of the decades or centuries of mutual benefit that each have enjoyed over the years. In the U.K., our relationship with the E.U. as a trading partner is very important to us; just as each of the states are to the U.S.. It is also a two-way street; the truth is we need one another on some scales, but all of them.
The rejection of a union's law in no wise means that much else need change. If a peaceful resolution is to be met, there are a multitude of good reasons to maintain that which benefits both parties, without having to dictate unpopular (and sometimes irrelevant) practices that harm a given population.
By bringing law back under the jurisdiction of London, the U.K. stands to determine for itself what is good for it, just as Texas or Colorado in the U.S. would. Trade and other agreements will need negotiation over a protracted amount of time, but they always are anyway and there is no particular reason to do away with that which works now in a fit of national pique (unless it is one of these issues that caused the split in the first place, of course).
We in the west place so much weight on the right of people to self-determination elsewhere in the world, but show little character when applying it to ourselves. Mark my words, it will come. Let us hope that when it does, it is because it is what the people want, rather than what our oppressors want.