Jefferson would not have been Salmond's ally

5 April 2008

Normal Mouth (Rhondda, blogger): Alex Salmond has been in the USA this week quoting Thomas Jefferson. Fortunately for English sensibilities he did not invoke the great man’s suggestion that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” but chose instead the rather more anodyne “we are a people capable of self-government, and worthy of it.”

There is nothing wrong with the conclusion - if one accepts the premises. But who are the people, and what is self-government? Though born of European ethnic nationalism, both Plaid and the SNP conceive of a civic people. Jefferson too conceived of a civic people, but his was not adapted from an ethnic analysis. Consequently, the form of self-government he commended was that of a union of nations (the third President regarded his nation not as America but as Virginia). Jefferson saw national self-interest in collective statehood. Welsh and Scottish nationalism eschews this.

It is true that both Plaid and the SNP seek a direct union for their respective nations with Europe. This conviction is, however, pragmatic rather than ideological; fashioned by the material benefits of membership on the one hand and a need to rebut charges of separatism on the other. Neither party conceives of a civic people that transcends the nation as Jefferson did and which, ironically, is the basis for the modern UK. Moreover, Jefferson would surely have harboured the most grave misgivings about the concentration of powers in one government urged by Plaid and the SNP.

The Jeffersonian ideal bears little relationship to Welsh or Scottish nationalism’s aspiration for self-government. These are negative conceptions, mere shorthand for “not part of the UK” or “not ruled by the English”. Scotland’s First Minister should take greater care when borrowing; he has no right to recruit greatness to his project.

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