Self-determination and Brexit

Published 12:17 am Sunday, July 3, 2016

By Bill Ward

I am departing temporarily from writing about grammar. I have received several emails, phone calls and even personal encounters in public with folks who have some kind of peeve with the way the English language is used, or misused. I will be addressing that again, shortly.

But for now, let’s look at a parallel in history to what may be the eventual dissolution of the European Union (EU). British citizens recently went to the polls to vote on whether they should remain in the EU. Not too surprisingly, the vote clearly showed a desire of the Brits to break away from the EU.

If asked why they voted the way they did, many reasons were given, most of which had to do with economics. But the one included most often, and sometimes the only reason was: Self- determination; the right of a people to govern themselves and maintain national sovereignty.

Self-determination has been a desire of groups in many countries throughout history. Politicians have been run out of office because of that phrase, and wars have been fought over it. Not all of those wars have been with guns blazing and blood flowing in the streets. For those of you old enough, remember the so-called cold war that the United States was involved in 50 or 60 years ago? That was a “stare-down war” between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. — Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, usually just referred to as Russia.

Finally, all of the communist bloc nations ideologically separated themselves from “Mother Russia.” The city of Berlin in Germany was divided into two halves, the eastern bloc or Russian half, and the Allied half. A huge wall separated the halves and helped maintain security between the eastern — communist — and western parts of Europe.

A famous man once said, “Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better …”

The early settlers in the U.S. were divided into 13 colonies. They valued their independence, or the sovereignty of their territory, to the point that they guarded their borders. Permission had to be obtained to travel between the original colonies. Collectively, the leaders of each colony decided that travel and commerce would operate more efficiently if they formed an agreement among themselves. That agreement was called the Articles of Confederation. Some think of the Articles as a precursor to the Constitution.

Later on came the Declaration of Independence, which was written to give the colonists freedom from King George III. Then a real shooting war, the Revolutionary War, broke out. After the colonials, or the patriots, won that war, the U.S. Constitution was written. The first 10 amendments to the Constitution, called the Bill of Rights, became the basis for all our laws and governance. But it was far from perfect. Much convincing, or salesmanship, had to be employed to get all of the states to ratify this new and radical document. That gave us the Federalist and Anti-federalist papers. Some of the states agreed to ratify the Constitution with the provision that they could pull out of this “compact,” if it was in their best interests to do so.

On up in the middle or second-half of the 19th century, many of the Southern states decided that they, “… being inclined and having the power, wanted to exercise the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better.” One of the primary reasons was that the South — to become the Confederate States of America — was providing as much as 75 percent support of the Washington government through tariffs collected on imported and exported goods. Washington was draining the South financially.

Without a lot of fanfare or show, the different Southern states began drawing up articles of secession. After all, a famous man once said on the floor of Congress on January 12, 1848…but then you’ve read that already. The man who said it was Abraham Lincoln, who was dead-set against something that years earlier he had spoken in favor of.

“If it [the Declaration of Independence] justifies the secession from the British empire of 3,000,000 of colonists in 1776, we do not see why it would not justify the secession of 5,000,000 of Southrons from the Federal Union in 1861. If we are mistaken on this point, why does not someone attempt to show wherein why?”  — New York Tribune, December 17, 1860.

The famous Baltimore newspaper writer, H.L. Mencken (1880–1956), offered this opinion (edited) about Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:

“The Gettysburg speech is at once the shortest and the most famous oration in American history. It is eloquence brought to … almost child-like perfection — the highest emotion reduced to one graceful and irresistible gesture. Nothing else precisely like it is to be found in the whole range of oratory. Lincoln himself never even remotely approached it. It is genuinely stupendous.

“But let us not forget that it is oratory, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it! Put it into the cold words of everyday! The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination — ‘that government of the people, by the people, for the people,’ should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue…[T]he Confederates … fought for the right of their people to govern themselves. What was the practical effect of the battle of Gettysburg? … The destruction of the old sovereignty of the States … The Confederates went into battle an absolutely free people; they came out with their freedom subject to the … vote of the rest of the country — and for nearly 20 years that vote was so effective that they enjoyed scarcely any freedom at all. Am I the first American to note the fundamental nonsensicality of the Gettysburg address?”

So, perhaps this can help some of you better understand why British citizens wanted to free themselves from the EU.

Bill Ward is a writer and historian living in Salisbury. Contact him at