Boris Johnson and his Tories won the election last Thursday, and a lot of people have lent their minds to what it all means. Let’s join the show. For me, Britain has, significantly, shown us how to make withdrawal work:
- Organize a referendum among all voters in the affected region.
- Pose a simple question for the referendum: leave or remain?
- Regard referendum results democratically, as a political mandate.
- If a majority votes to leave, work for that result until you achieve it.
- Do not give up, no matter how much opposition you encounter from people who do not take point three seriously!
Several states or regions in the United States might apply this method:
- New England
- Arizona and New Mexico
We might think about why some states or regions make better candidates for secession than others. For the moment, we ought to address a prior question: is exit a legal option in the United States? Of course, the founding fathers cannot bind people 250 years later to a certain form of political organization. Each generation must decide for itself how it wants to organize its politics. Yet tradition weighs heavily on these decisions. Leave or remain is a decision, even if we do not treat it that way.
For the United States, the Civil War and its outcome shape our political traditions in this area. Many regard withdrawal as both illegal, and an impossibility. Yet the Confederacy’s defeat in the Civil War did not demonstrate that withdrawal is illegal in the United States. It showed that the Confederacy could not win the war. The Union’s victory vindicated Lincoln’s language, that southern states had not seceded. Rather, people in those states had rebelled against the Union, a union of all states. Therefore, the Union army had to put the rebellion down.
For the United States, the Civil War and its outcome shape our political traditions in this area. Many regard withdrawal as both illegal, and an impossibility.
Notably, the Constitution does not prohibit or restrict secession, nor does it specify a procedure for it. The Civil War merely showed that Union forces could compel the South to remain. That is a significant outcome, but it does not establish secession as treasonous, nor does it establish a precedent for any other crime less serious. Secession is simply not defined in our fundamental law.
If Lincoln and other leaders in the North had permitted the South to leave, most of us would not, one hundred and sixty years later, condemn their decision as illegal. Some historians might praise the split as wise, others might criticize it as unwise. The reasons they would give for their praise or criticism might refer to the Constitution, but I do not think their judgments would rest primarily on legal grounds, since the Constitution has nothing specific to say on the matter.
We pronounce secession illegal now only in order to prevent it. The European Union’s charter does provide for withdrawal, and the Brits have shown us they can do it. Moreover, they demonstrated how to accomplish it. Let us follow their example. To begin, let’s drop the freighted word secession, which dates especially to radical politicians in South Carolina, who threatened to secede over tariff issues in 1832. Less than thirty years later, South Carolina seceded first, after Lincoln’s election in 1860.
We pronounce secession illegal now only in order to prevent it
Neutral language is better. Leave and withdraw do not carry memories of the Civil War. Leave or remain is simply a practical decision for our generation, about how we want to organize our politics. No military outcome in 1865, or charter written in 1787, can deprive people in 2020 of their freedom to make fundamental choices like that.
If a certain region of the United States would like to cut loose from federal control, how can people outside that region argue that their desire is unjustified, or that acting on it is against the law? What law would that be? If you cannot point to any law that specifically forbids withdrawal, can people outside the region justify violence to prevent it? I would say you could not justify violence to prevent withdrawal even if such a law did exist.
Imagine if Brussels had deployed armed forces across the channel, up the Thames to London, to prevent British withdrawal. We would know immediately that the European Union is not a voluntary union after all. Brussels would have guaranteed British withdrawal if it had threatened use of force, and such a threat would have violated the EU’s charter. In the United States, our charter does not render such a threat illegal on its face, but imagine if federal forces appeared in Austin after Texas declares independence. Sympathy across the country would rapidly swing toward the Texans.
The method Britain used to withdraw is simple and effective, though prolonged.
The method Britain used to withdraw is simple and effective, though prolonged. A lot of people throughout the kingdom hoped that if they could delay the divorce long enough, it would not happen. Leaders on the leave side said, “Do not count on it. What was the point of the referendum, if we ignore its results?” The Brits set an important precedent, for themselves and for the world. If citizens want to determine their own form of political organization, and they make their desire clear in a formal vote, political leaders who disagree with their resolve cannot deny them.
Who in the United States has courage and vision to press ahead with similar steps, to take back control, if you like the Brexiteers’ campaign slogan? Do we have regional leaders willing to challenge Washington’s authority? We see Catalan leaders sentenced to jail for up to thirteen years for their efforts to win independence for their region. Do you believe such a thing could happen in the United States?
Governments with authority do not need to deploy force within their own borders to round people up.
I believe Washington’s moral authority is weak right now, and rapidly getting weaker. President Trump’s leadership aside, deployment of military forces at the southern border to set up prison camps for asylum seekers tells you a lot about Washington’s moral authority. Governments with authority do not need to deploy force within their own borders to round people up. Governments that act this way are weak, not strong.
Let New England be the first to act. Located far from the Rio Grande, perhaps it can make its case for withdrawal on grounds less fraught. It already has active independence movements in Vermont and New Hampshire. Boston is not as radical as it was in 1775, but you can never tell if it might return to its radical roots with a little encouragement. If it did, we might reverse the effects of the American Revolution, and reunite with our brethren across the pond!