Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Time for Independence

Tribune July 3

This weekend, Americans celebrate July 4th, the Declaration of Independence. In British schools we were generally taught that this was a “good thing,” a slight misunderstanding from which everything that came out was really for the best. It was shades of Kipling’s shared “White Man’s Burden,” FDR’s Four Freedoms, the alleged “Special Relationship” and all that.

It is now time for Britain to adopt the real spirit of 1776, and declare independence from Washington. As we all know, at times, “it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station... etc.etc.”

There could not be a better time to do so. The USA is relatively weaker, politically, militarily and economically than for seventy years. It has a President who is a much less vindictive and more tolerant leader than his predecessors, and who shows no signs of Anglophilia, or indeed Anglophobia -which is all to the good since his father was a Kenyan nationalist who fought British domination. He is unlikely to care if the UK goes its own way and relinquishes its informal position as the 51st state.

I would be the last to want to reverse the Treaty of Paris recognizing American independence, not least since I think Britain is a better place without the colonies, but when I was researching my book “Rum: a Social & Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776,” it led me to seriously question the motives and methods, if not the consequences, of the Founding Fathers’ deed. It was not tea, but rum, molasses and slaves that were the cause of the conflict. The tea that was thrown overboard was tax-free- and that is why the smuggler-merchants of Boston ditched it because it undercut their warehouses full of the more expensive tea they had smuggled in when it was taxed.

Freed of the French threat that had loomed over them for almost two centuries, the revolutionaries wanted to avoid paying any taxes towards that cost of defeating France. It was the taxes, not the representation that bothered them. They never actually asked for representation, and the motley crowd of rum-makers, smugglers and slave traders who were a major motivating force were every bit as assiduous in avoiding paying local colonial dues as they were in dodging British excise taxes.

Many of their other stated motivations were equally dubious. They objected to Catholic emancipation in Quebec, and wanted to invade and ethnically cleanse the Indian nations with whom Britain had signed treaties guaranteeing their lands. George Washington himself was a major speculator in these lands. In the South, the planters were worried by Lord’s Mansfield judgment, which declared that under English law slavery was illegal. The colonists made a connection with Parliament’s declaration that British law superseded colonial law, even though Parliament was only thinking about revenue collection. Virginia’s Patrick Henry may have resoundingly declared, “Give me liberty or give me death,” but he did not offer the choice to his slaves, any more than Washington, Jefferson and the rest of the crew. Hence Samuel Johnson’s perennially unanswered question “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”

This frequently overlooked heritage is at least as important as the “Rights of Man” in the history of American Independence. So unsurprisingly, Tom Paine was soon ostracized and the binary, with us or against us, mindset that still afflicts many Americans became apparent at that time with purges against Loyalists, the denial of due process to them, confiscation of their assets and demands for loyalty oaths for those who stayed, and exile to those who refused. The subsequent history of lynching, segregation, ballot rigging, gerrymandering and general intolerance of non-conformity is as American as apple-pie.

This is not intended to be anti-American, merely to soften the blow of the declaration of independence that Britain should be preparing freed from any sloppily inaccurate sentiment about shared values and culture. The New Labour obsession with the American model is in its own way as blinkered and one-sided as those who drool over Castro and Chavez and salute Ahmadinejad and Saddam Hussein without noticed the substantial spots on these “socialist” and anti-imperialist suns.

The Blair years led us to compromise our own values almost terminally by deferring to that pious coprophagic rubbish about our shared values and the virtues of American enterprise. It made a Labour government complicit in illegal wars, torture, kidnapping, spying on the United Nations Secretary General and helped flush Britain’s finances, economy and rapidly dwindling prestige in the world down the sewer of neo-conservatism. The British armed forces became sepoys for the new imperial power, while getting little or nothing in return.

Simply contrast the UK’s position with the real special relationship, where Israel gets immense subsidies and backing for making the US hated across the world, while Britain gets hated across the world for its slavish loyalty to Washington which in return screws it on almost every occasion where a serious conflict of interest occurs.

If Britain has a creative global role, it is in a European union within which Britain can negotiate as an equal and indeed, since as Labour used to know, unity is strength, stand together on an equal footing to maintain common interests against, or even with, China, Russia, Japan and others on the world stage. Time to cast off those chains.

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