Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Happy 'Lucky Escape' day! 

Yes it is the 4th of July again, the anniversary of the second day after the US Declaration of Independence was actually voted on.

US Independence was a huge and lucky escape for Britain and the world.

Britain learned after US independence that trade did not depend on colonial controlls. Cross-atlantic commerce boomed after peace was made. This astonished the French who thought they had engineered the beginning of the collapse of the British Economy by cutting off Britain's colonial lifeline.

It was the first practical sign of the reality of Free Trade and the power of the ideas of Adam Smith.

Britain thus also avoided involvement with the rolling slaughter of the US expansion westwards - one of the real causes of the Revolution was the sincere attempt of the King to protect people who had become his subjects, namely various Native American nations some of which were settling on the western lands and becoming farmers. Land speculators in the colonies (such as George Washington) were the backbone of the revolt, frightened that native americans might suddenly put a block on reaising their investments. It is impossible to see how conflict between British Authority and this powerful class of speculators could have been avoided. At least the war and the revolutionary settlement occured at a time when the revolutionary elite was at a high point of Enlightenment enthusiasm and managed to hijack the revolt from the cruder elements powering the grassroots radicals. So we have the various documents and declarations that made a civilised outcome possible, and can even inspire a Briton today.

Another point. Without US Independence , Britain would have remained snared in the politics of the slave-owning colonies which would have built up massive vested interests in Parliament.

The UK abolition of the Slave Trade, and subsequently of Slavery itself, owed a lot to the political isolation of the West Indies planters, giving campaigning room for the various abolitionist campaigns. If the planters had found allies amongst the still-colonial Americas things could have have been very difficult.

And the lingering anti-American sentiments amongst establishment figures helped to make the abolitionist cause politically respectable as Britons gave themselves a license to sneer at the pretensions of a Republic which preached political liberty but practiced chattel slavery. Yes this is not a very happy reaction, but true I think.

So thank you Benjamin Franklin, even if you did subsequently engineer an unnecessary prolongation of the war by bringing in the French (and thus continue to earn personal commissions on the contracts to supply arms to the rebels - the BAe affair does not hold a candle on that scandal).

History is much more interesting than our standard stories tell us...

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