In American History classes, I learned that the Civil War of 1861-65 had traumatised and shaped our young nation. When the Southern states seceded to form their own Confederate government, there were multiple issues at stake. Ostensibly the war was fought over the matter of slavery: (morally just) abolitionist North versus (morally abhorrent) slave-owning South. But it was also about power and money: industrial, mercantile North versus cash crop agricultural South. Finally, it was a test upon the democratic experiment. The unique and flexible constitution should contain and channel conflict through peaceful, diplomatic means; differences should be managed through electoral mandates, not by breaking off completely.
I grew up in Illinois, a Northern state, and so these lessons reflected the winner’s prerogative to define history. I was taught therefore that the Civil War had knit together a stronger and more successful Union. That’s hard to argue against, given the tremendous global power the country grew into following the Civil War. If I had been in a classroom of a Southern state, however, I may have learned different ideas – that the war had left a deep scar of injured pride and thwarted will within the national psyche, for instance, or that the post-war Reconstruction era had sown deep resentment toward Northern investment, development and profit-making. The Confederate flag is still flown or displayed by many people in the American South, a hundred and fifty years after its brief official use. And the US is still plagued internally by culture wars between rural conservatives and urban liberals – although the division isn’t strictly North and South any longer. Alaska is pretty far north, yeah? And Sarah Palin’s vice-presidential nomination really did happen.
Well over a year ago, I attended a talk hosted by Edinburgh Active Citizenship Group, where guest speaker James Robertson described the Union as an obsolete instrument of the imperial state. The United Kingdom no longer possesses and administers colonies as it did in the past, he suggested, so its reason d’être no longer exists. One might argue that the European Union now serves the purpose of that unifying government apparatus, providing allies, trade partners and binding legislation. Do we really need a UK as well as an EU?