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Scotland's #IndyRef: Some Historic Reflections on Devo-Max and Independence from Britain

09/09/2014 12:26 BST | Updated 08/11/2014 10:59 GMT

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(Photo: Britannia by James Gillray, 1791, courtesy of the British Museum, reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0)

Devo-Max or Independence... in 1774?

In September 1774, on the eve of the American Revolution, the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia to discuss the grievances of the 'Thirteen Colonies' against their British rulers. This congress would meet for a second time a few months later, and from it developed the government of the independent United States of America.

One of the representatives at this initial September 1774 meeting was Joseph Galloway, a loyalist to British rule, who later fought on the British side in the war of independence. Galloway put forward to the Congress his Plan of Union, which envisaged a framework for the continuance of British rule over the Thirteen American Colonies. This would include a Grand Council or parliament for the Colonies (subject to the power of the British parliament and crown, in its own words 'an inferior and distinct branch of the British legislature'), and a President-General.

In sum, Galloway's plan was largely one of unionist devolution for the American Colonies remaining under British rule. In many respects, this was the 'Devo-Max' option of the American Revolution. For Galloway, the American Colonies and Great Britain were better together.

Galloway's Plan of Union was narrowly rejected by the Congress, with a difference of five in favour and six against (out of a total congress of 56). By far the majority of the representatives at that First Continental Congress wished to address their grievances against British rule with a move to independence.

Scotland and the United Kingdom

Scotland in 2014 is, of course, in a very different situation to the USA in 1774. It is notable, however, that the move to American independence was in large part fuelled by the issue of taxation, which has echoes with the rise of Scottish Nationalism in the 1980s under Thatcher's Poll Tax. Indeed, in many respects the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 is remarkably similar to the structure outlined in Galloway's proposed Plan of Union to the First Congress.

However, we should also remember that when the USA declared independence in 1776, the independence that the new country sought was from the United Kingdom of Great Britain. That is, a country that was made up of both England and Scotland.

Indeed, as Linda Colley points out, one of the grievances of John Adams (later to succeed George Washington to become the 2nd President of the USA) was that:

'...The two realms of England and Scotland were, by the Act of Union [1707] incorporated into one kingdom by the name of Great Britain; but there is not one word about America in that Act' (see Linda Colley, Britons, p.136)

As some may argue (such as Richard Halloran recently), Scotland is the last of the English colonies to leave the fold, and the vote on 18 September may possibly be the final end of the long decline of the British Empire.

If this is the case (or at least partially), we also must remember that the United Kingdom will still remain intact (albeit without Scotland), and the Principality of Wales will still remain in the political partnership with England - and also Northern Ireland, of course.

The comparison with American Independence does also draw our attention to the fact that the United Kingdom has a long history of ceding power. In fact, this has been happening for much of its history as a united kingdom.

A long history of independences from Britain

When the Act of Union between Scotland and England came about in 1707, the new United Kingdom of Great Britain ruled over a substantial empire that included 13 American Colonies (although Georgia was not founded as a colony at that time, the colony of Carolina was divided into North and South until 1729).

The loss of the American colonies was a blow to Scotland as well as to England. But history tells us that the loss of that empire was balanced very quickly by new gains for Great Britain.

Indeed, the combination of Scotland and England as the United Kingdom proved a very potent force. The American colonies were no longer under their rule, but Britain's substantial global power continued - with Canadian and Caribbean colonies in full strength, together with the newly emerging eastern empire in Asia (particularly India).

The nation's recovery in the last part of the eighteenth century, and the subsequent development of the Second British Empire (after American Independence), was largely due to Scotland and England working together. This came about, for example, in the income generated by Scottish and English owned slave plantations in the Caribbean, and also the highly successful political alliance between William Pitt (the younger) and the Scottish politician, Henry Dundas (see Furber). And it was a united British (English and Scottish) army that defeated Napoleon at Waterloo (with help from the Germans), and cemented Britain's role in the nineteenth century as the primary European superpower.

The end of the nineteenth century, along with the first half of the twentieth, saw this change substantially. During that time Britain began to see the long process of colonies again move towards and achieve independence across the empire. Canada between 1867 and 1931, Australia between 1901 and 1939, New Zealand between 1907 and 1947, Ireland in 1921, India and Pakistan in 1947, Malaysia in 1957, and the African nations in the 1960s. One of the exceptions to this process was, of course, Hong Kong, which in 1997 did not take independence from Britain, but instead underwent the transfer of rule from Britain to China, under the terms of the leases signed by the two countries in the late nineteenth century.

Great Britain has become very familiar with the process of granting independence to territories under its sovereignty. Unfortunately, however, it has been quite rare for this to occur peacefully and without conflict.

Is it now better for Scotland to be separate from Britain?

The question that Scotland is now facing is to what extent have Scotland and England been irretrievably integrated by this shared process, as Great Britain? Are the two countries like a married couple, as parents of several generations of children who have all now grown up and flown the nest (USA, Canada, Australia, Ireland, India, etc.)? Or is it more true to say that England has been a harsh patriarch who has sought the subjugation of all under his control - including Scotland?

The Better Together campaign has been stressing with great clarity the benefits of the English-Scottish partnership, as before did the British loyalists to their American subjects in the 1770s. It is true that there have been many benefits to Scotland of rule from Westminster in the past 300 plus years - not least Scotland being able to exercise international power (and accumulate considerable wealth) through the UK in a way that it could not have done on its own.

The impact of Scottish independence might not be as significant in the long term as what happened in America in 1776. Its local impact, however, will be immense - particularly in terms of what will happen to the remainder of the United Kingdom after Scotland's departure.

It is interesting even to ask whether there can be a United Kingdom of Great Britain once Scotland has left, since such an entity has only existed since 1707, including Scotland. Prior to 1707 the union of England and Wales was known simply as the Kingdom of England, following Henry the Eighth's incorporation of the Welsh legal system into England in 1535.

As I have argued elsewhere, Scotland will not stop being British after independence. Being 'British' will remain as a regional identity for Scots (akin to being Scandinavian in the Nordic countries), even if or when Scots cease to have a default British national citizenship.

For over three hundred years Scotland has had a very significant impact on world history, as a prominent partner within the United Kingdom. This has been both positive and negative. The partnership has given us the Scottish Enlightenment, has powered the industrial revolution, and Scottish science, creativity, and knowledge continue to pack a considerable punch in today's world.

However, Scots also took their share of the spoils and exploitations of empire. The country achieved great wealth through the ownership and abuse of slaves, and many prominent Scots oversaw and led the development of the British Empire. This was all achieved through Scotland being part of the economic and political partnership of the United Kingdom.

There is now a very distinct possibility that Scotland may vote on 18 September to change this partnership. I am intrigued about what further this country has in store, quite possibly as an independent nation in its own right.

Unlike the options given to the American colonies, it is good to have the chance to do this through a vote.

It really is a historic opportunity.