Britain’s Gorbachev Moment

CIS

Representatives of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine meeting in secret to sign the Belavezha Accords, aimed at replacing the Soviet Union with the Commonwealth of Independent States.  (Photo: Courtesy of Russian International News Agency.)

It seems that Great Britain is arguably at the same place the decaying Soviet Union was almost 30 years ago: Either it finds a way – a constitutional mechanism – for devolving power back to the four historic British nations or it eventually succumbs to secessionist pressures, namely from Scotland.

To put it another way, Britain is essentially facing the same dilemma as the besieged Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev as he struggled to cobble together a new constitution to entice fassiparous Soviet republics into a looser, more equitable union.

And it seems that the United States, too, is being drawn into its own Gorbachev moment.

Not only California but also a growing number of other American states, large and small and in every corner of the American Union, are evincing, well, if not fassiparous tendencies, at least a desire to eke out more autonomy vis-a-vis Washington.

As I’ve mentioned before in this forum, Gar Alperovitz, a left-leaning devolutionary scholar, predicated at least a decade ago that some form of California devolution was inevitable. In a manner of speaking, Trump’s electoral victory only hastened this inevitability.

And one should pay special attention to what, in effect, is the fall-back position for the “Yes, California!” Campaign: if not full-blown Golden State secession, at least a “fully functioning sovereign and autonomous nation” within the U.S.”

This may come as a surprise to some of you, but that is precisely the way our constitutional framers originally envisioned the American Union. James Madison, widely reputed as the father of the American Constitution, envisioned the American federation:  as “a system founded in popular rights and so combining a federal form with the forms of INDIVIDUAL REPUBLICS (emphasis added), as may enable each to supply the defects of the others and obtain the advantage of both.”

Once again, California appears to be functioning as an American bellwether. Over time, I suspect, other large states, such as Texas, and even smaller states, such as Vermont, may advance similar demands. Indeed, both of these states have already evolved vibrant and growing secession movements. And within the larger context of U.S. constitutional history, the demands for genuine autonomy shouldn’t be regarded demands at all but rather as reassertions of ancient constitutional rights.

And this leads me to wonder: Are we fast approaching the same constitutional crisis as post-Brexit Britain? In a few more years, Washington may be faced with the same dilemma as Westminster: Either it willingly foregoes the power it has accumulated over the last century or it faces the genuine likelihood of the breakup of the American Union.

Just as Britain may risk the loss of Scotland without an embrace of federal principles, the United States, by its refusal to return to genuine federalism, ultimately may lose California and perhaps even the rest of the Pacific coast.

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About Jim Langcuster

A Southern late-Baby Boomer whose post-retirement focus is on building a post-racial, post-Confederate Southern regional identity. If the election of 2016 underscored one thing, it is that this country is intractably divided and that radical devolution of power to localities and states is the only way to save the American Union.
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