Brexit, the American Revolution, and the Problem with ‘Independence Day’

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Simon Hill
University of Chester

On Thursday 23 June 2016 the British electorate voted 51.9% to 48.1% to leave the European Union (EU). On election night the former leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) Nigel Farage declared this to be Britain’s ‘independence day.’ With ‘independence day’ on pro-Brexit lips, US pundits have been quick to connect 2016 with 1776, the year the Declaration of Independence was signed. The Federalist’s Robert Tracinski, for example, was among the first ‘to welcome the mother country to our revolution.’ And, in a similar act of transatlantic camaraderie, the Republican magazine National Review has accordingly rebranded the 1776 signing of the Declaration of Independence as ‘Amerexit.’

Critics have since been quick to point out some of the big historical problems with proclaiming the 23rd June as Britain’s ‘independence day’, including the common association between it and the outbreak of the American Revolution. And of course it’s worth noting that the EU referendum vote and the American Revolution (1775-1783) have obvious differences, not least that in the former the question of independence was settled by the ballot box, whilst in the latter it was decided by the barrel of a gun. Nevertheless, let’s assume for the moment that there are some useful comparisons to be drawn between the American Revolution and Brexit. If so, is 1776 the ideal date for comparison, as many pundits have recently suggested? I would suggest instead that events during the latter years of the American Revolution share far more in common with today.

(1). Political turbulence in Westminster.

This month’s political instability shares much in common with the early 1780s. Over the past few weeks commentators have been stunned by the unfolding political drama in Westminster, which has been (at least temporarily) calmed by a change in prime minister on Wednesday 13 July 2016. In the wake of losing the referendum, now former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron resigned. Thereafter, through a series of events, the prime ministerial ambitions of several prominent Conservatives were derailed, which included the former Mayor of London Boris Johnson, the former Justice Secretary Michael Gove, and the former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. From this fallout, Theresa May has emerged as Britain’s second female Prime Minister. Ironically, May was a supporter of Remain in Europe. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has, thus far, survived a series of resignations from the Shadow Cabinet. These walkouts were prompted by fears amongst some Labour MPs that Corbyn was not a suitable ‘leader’, and there were allegations (rightly or wrongly) that Corbyn did not campaign vigorously enough to keep Britain in the EU. The outcome is now a Labour leadership contest, and after much consternation within the party Corbyn will now automatically appear on the ballot. On 24 September we will know if Jeremy Corbyn will continue as Labour leader or if he will be replaced by Owen Smith.

For most of the American War of Independence, the British government enjoyed sizable parliamentary majorities. Indeed, Lord North’s ministry was supported by the monarchy, and the entry of the European powers on the American side strengthened British patriotic sentiment. However, this political stability began to unravel following the British defeat at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, when the political nation concluded that the war in America was no longer sustainable. Hence, the early-1780s were a period of significant political instability. This was a time when the ‘rage of party’ between Whigs and Tories under the late-Stuarts had abated in favour of more personalised factions – although notions of ‘party’ would return during the French Revolutionary era.[1] Prime Minister Lord North resigned in March 1782, and the ministry was replaced by the parliamentary Opposition under Rockingham. However Rockingham died that July, and was replaced by Shelburne – who himself proved unpopular. Shelburne was in the post for less than a year before he was replaced by Portland. The uncertainty did not end there – Portland was the nominal head of the Fox-North coalition, a confusing assembly of politicians that had both supported and criticised the War of American Independence. The Fox-North coalition also came to a messy end in 1783, when it attempted to reform the British East India Company in a way that King George III considered a threat to his influence. The Monarch therefore strongly encouraged the House of Lords to vote down the Fox-North legislation. The coalition fell apart, and Pitt the Younger became prime minister. It was not until Pitt’s victory in the 1784 election that his ministry was secure, and brought this period of political instability to an end.[2]

(2). Economic uncertainty.

Those who argued that Britain should remain in the EU repeatedly stated that Europe is the UK’s largest trading partner. Furthermore, since polling day there have been significant fluctuations on the FTSE and the value of Sterling, as well as attempts by the Bank of England and Treasury to shore up the UK economy. In contrast, the advocates of Brexit stressed that by leaving the EU Britain would be opening itself up to a new world of economic opportunities.

The economy was also at the forefront of British concerns as the American Revolution drew to a close. Amongst other things, the UK National Debt increased from £127 million to £232 million during the conflict.[3] The war in the colonies also disrupted the broader nexus of transatlantic trade in the West Indies and Africa. Henceforth, numerous British merchants became wartime bankrupts. An ongoing concern after 1783 was British merchants seeking compensation for wartime damages from the USA.[4] For all the economic damage wrought, all was not lost. The conflict had stimulated British manufacturing to support the war effort, and P.J. Marshall has recently noted that after 1783 Britain and America continued to be significant trading partners. The Early Republic also continued to receive loans from the City of London, as the US sought to finance its own internal infrastructure projects.[5]

(3). Fears of contagion that could lead to additional breakaway movements.

Fear of contagion was another shared concern of both the EU referendum and the American War. Despite the overall national referendum result, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. This has raised the prospect that these two sub-nations of the United Kingdom might hold their own independence referendums, in a bid to remain inside the EU. There are also rumblings that other European nations, such as the Netherlands (‘Nexit’), might hold referendums on EU membership.

Similarly, in 1779 George III confided to Lord North that ‘should America succeed…the West Indies must follow them, not independence, but must for its own interest be dependent on North America. Ireland would soon follow the same plan and be a separate state; then this island would be reduced to itself’.[6] In hindsight, of course, we know these circumstances did not unfold quite as the King predicted in the immediate post-war period. O’Shaughnessy observes that the West Indies remained part of the British Empire because the sugar revolution made the islands dependent upon metropolitan markets, and because a large number of West Indian planters resided in Britain.[7] More broadly, H.V. Bowen has stressed the importance of trans-Oceanic socio-economic networks, which bound the rest of the British Empire together well after the American crisis.[8]

(4). Claims that Britain’s place in the world was diminished.

One of the arguments made by the Remain camp during the recent referendum was that Britain would be able to project its power overseas more effectively as a member of the European Union. However, Brexiteers countered that the UK would still retain its influence (socio-economic, diplomatic, political and military) outside the EU as a member of NATO, the UN, and Commonwealth.

In 1783 there were similar concerns that Britain’s international stature had been weakened by the American uprising. Emperor Joseph II (of the Holy Roman Empire) concluded that Britain had indeed been humbled, and his brother Leopold of Tuscany declared that Britain was now akin to Denmark and Sweden.[9] Yet in the longer-term Britain’s place in the world was not diminished by American independence. After 1783 Britain sought to rebuild its European diplomatic alliances; by 1790 the British were even able to force Spain to climb down over a dispute over Nootka Sound in Canada; by the turn of the century Britain’s empire straddled a quarter of the globe.[10]

Conclusion

This article has drawn some historical parallels between the end of the American revolt from the British Empire and Brexit from the European Union. This has not been done to diminish the uniqueness of either event. Nor has it sought to either endorse or criticise the outcome of the recent EU referendum. Whilst both situations were settled in disparate ways, ranging from warfare to the ballot box, in both instances there were serious – and often similar – political and economic upheavals, as well as similar discussions over contagion and foreign policy. When looking for historical parallels, therefore, the final years of the American Revolution share far more in common with the events of the past month than with American Independence Day.

———

[1] See F. O’Gorman, The Emergence of the British Two-Party System 1760-1832 (London, 1982).

[2] K. Perry, British Politics and the American Revolution (Basingstoke, 1990), 84-95, 109-17. Also see J.A. Cannon, The Fox-North Coalition: Crisis of the Constitution 1782-4 (Cambridge, 1969).

[3] S. Conway, ‘British Governments and the Conduct of the War’, in Britain and the American Revolution, ed. Dickinson, pp.174-9.

[4] S. Conway, The War of American Independence 1775-1783 (London, 1995), 187-214.

[5] P.J. Marshall, Remaking the British Atlantic: The United States and the British Empire after American Independence (Oxford, 2012), 311-21.

[6] B. Dobree, ed., The Letters of King George III (London, 1935), 131.

[7] A.J. O’Shaughnessy, An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean (Philadelphia, 2000), xv-i.

[8] H.V. Bowen, Elites, Enterprise and the Making of Overseas Empire 1688-1775 (Basingstoke, 1996), 146, 194-6.

[9] H.M. Scott, ‘Britain as a European Great Power in the Age of the American Revolution’ in H.T. Dickinson, ed., Britain and the American Revolution (London, 1998), 180.

[10] J. Cannon, ‘The Loss of America’ in Dickinson, Britain and the American Revolution, 233-57.

Data correct as of 20 July 2016.

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