Despite whatever peccadillos my have transpired during his White House tenure, Bill Clinton survived the worst that his Republican opponents could throw at him (and pretty odious some of it was too) to preside for two terms over a steady boom in US affluence, lasting accommodation for the fragments of the Soviet empire and a period of relative international peace.
So when he appeared on-stage at the Democratic Convention on September 5th to nominate the Obama/Biden ticket for a second term in the White House, the thousands of delegates thundered their welcome for him, as well as their approval of his message. And his speech did not disappoint. Much more than a paean of praise for Obama, it was a lucid and well laid out policy document that presented the complexity of the tasks ahead without the usual rabble-rousing shorthand that comes so easy when the popular talk to the faithful.
It was another reminder of Clinton’s skills and capabilities and why he rightly commands eye-watering speaker fees at events around the globe. One other such event at which he featured was Entrepreneurs 2012 in London this weekend at which he asserted:
“The issue of independence is a “classic case” of identity politics which, would dominate 21st century...Can you be Scottish and British? How are the Egyptians going to deal with their various identities and still be Egyptian? Can we find a way to appreciate what is separate and unique about us and still think that what we have in common with others still matters more?”
These are fair questions. What is disappointing is that, unlike in his rousing speech in Charlotte, he appears to have made little effort to answer them, other than by implication that what we have in common should dominate. From an American perspective, they believe that they have the balance right. Their great country is built of 50 distinct federated states, each with its own constitution, laws and other forms of identity in which the citizens set great store.
But, from a European perspective, these identities appear almost artificial and more on the scale of English counties or French départments. Certainly travel from New Jersey to Massachusetts gives little indication you’ve passed through five states any more than a journey from Atlanta to Bill’s own Little Rock another five—although the contrast between the two trips are Yankee urban night vs Confederate rural day.
When Clinton made his Charlotte speech, he was not just among friends, he was on sure ground. His explanation of how Obama filled the $716 bn ‘donut hole’ in Medicare or how the Recovery Act provided 450,000 more jobs was lucidity itself, the mark of a speaker on top of his game. And after eight years in the White House and a dozen more making high-powered speeches to high-powered people, it is little wonder. So why would his London foray not carry the same weight and authority?
He need look no further that Article 1 of the Constitution of the State of Arkansas 1874, which declares:
“All political power is inherent in the people and government is instituted for their protection, security and benefit; and they have the right to alter, reform or abolish the same, in such manner as they may think proper.”
Sound familiar? It should, because it derives, as most states’ constitutions do, from the 1776 Declaration of Independence which, in its turn, derives from the 1314 Declaration of Arbroath that said more or less the same thing. And, if you should examine Bill’s no doubt random reference to the Egyptians, you would realise that they have a history longer than almost any other country of being unified as Egyptians; during those many millennia they have never sought to be anything else.
Scotland (or Ireland, Denmark, Finland, etc, etc) is different. Not only has there been a Scottish border about ten times longer than there has been a Constitution of the State of Arkansas, it has kept unique laws, religion, culture and identity that only the State of Texas seeks to approach in its distinctiveness. Steeped as he is in US state civics, their minor differences don’t begin to approach the distinctiveness that most Scots feel from the other peoples of Britain.
So when Bill makes his sincere pleas to bury differences and work towards a common goal, he is presuming that we, like a US state, are already comfortable with the status quo. As Bill phrased it:
“Political debate framed about identity issues hampers efforts to forge stronger bonds. “You can’t have 51/49, 52/48 debate about that every single year. This is the triumph of identity politics that is zero sum and its negative reference instead of a common vision.”
But what when that identity needs its proper expression in order to make the full participation in a common vision? The Scots are British and Europeans, just as their English and Welsh cousins are. But they need the latitude to be Scots without forever having a London-based set of presumptions hung around our neck—whether it be that nukes based on the Clyde, beating up total strangers in Afghanistan or giving away our fishing rights are all justified by a Westminster majority and a non-existent constitution.
Would Bill argue the Canadians ought to house America’s nuclear sub fleet? What if that situation were reversed and there were Canadian nukes on the Mississippi? Before any such unlikely scenario, you would swiftly see another draft “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility…”
Because it’s the people, stupid (I mean, Bill). Just as your forebears worked out that British imperial peasantship was not what they were about, so have we. Once the English get it through their miasmic heads that the Empire has gone and the last colony is about to jump ship, that’s when we Scots will “find a way to appreciate what is separate and unique about us and still think that what we have in common with others“.