Saturday, 1 November 2008

We must let the USA decide

I was sent a link recently by an American friend, it was to a site on which non-US nationals are invited to record their preference in the upcoming Presidential election. It made me think about something which is, I believe, of huge importance. I refer to self-determination.

Self-determination is at the heart of the concept of "liberty" so beloved of political speech writers on both sides of the pond. If you were to ask what was the purpose of World War II I suspect most would say "defeating fascism" or "preventing Hitler's annihilation of Jews". My answer would be "protecting self-determination". That Hitler was labelled a fascist is really neither here nor there, many a fascist has presented no threat to anyone. That he had a plan to exterminate all Jews in his path (and, incidentally, all gypsies and homosexuals and and and) was hardly apparent in 1939. He had railed against them in speeches but there was little evidence at that time of the rhetoric turning into gas chambers and starvation camps. British armed involvement in Europe in 1939 was the result of Germany seeking to take over sovereign nations and rule them as its own.

This country fought to preserve its independence. But why? What was that independence and why was it so important that a major war was a price worth paying to retain it? It was one thing only, the right to take decisions for Britain in Britain. However good or bad the decisions we made (and still make) might be, they are our decisions and we can change them later if they turn out to need change. However fair or unfair the process by which we select those who make the decisions, the process is ours and we can change it later if it needs to be changed. However well or badly our political system reflects the needs of the people of this country, it is our system and we can change it later if we wish to make it more responsive. Once we have made changes, we can can watch whether they improve things and then make further changes to either reverse an erroneous decision or build on an improvement. But we can only do these things for so long as we have the right of self-determination.

The most basic right of self-determination is the right of a country to make its own political policies. Nation states come from a combination of geographical and ethnic or religious factors. Islands are often single nations although ethnic divisions might cause a formal division (as with Ireland and Cyprus). It is not by chance that nations in Europe and Africa are often separated by geographical features such as rivers or mountain ranges. Over time those who live east of the river form their own cultures and values while those on the west follow a different path; at some stage the differences become so firmly established that they are recognised as separate nations. What causes the differentiation between them is that each has developed an internal coherence, the people feel bound to each other in numerous ephemeral ways. They have a common identity and it gives them stability, they find a benefit and a comfort from being part of that unit. The unit becomes a serious force for good and a new nation is born.

Artificial nation states can be created, such as Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, but each of these sought to force people into units which did not reflect established historical, ethnic and religious groupings. The common values which lay behind all true nation states were replaced by tension and conflict resulting from seeking to suppress such values rather than use them as a force for good. And in the same way that those three artificial nation states split into their historic parts, so East and West Germany have united in order to reflect the reality of forces far greater than any temporary political construct.

The desire for self-determination is an inevitable consequence of the formation of a nation state. Indeed, the formation of a nation state is of itself an assertion of the right to self-determination because you cannot say "we are now a distinct unit" without also saying "therefore we will now decide for ourselves as a unit".

The USA declared itself a distinct unit in 1776 (some would suggest earlier, the precise date matters little after more than three hundred years). It has an established way of taking decisions, one of which is to elect a President every four years. That election is part of America's right of self-determination. The way in which Presidential candidates come to the fore is not by any means a perfect system but it is their way and only they have the right to change it. The procedures by which US citizens can be rendered eligible or ineligible to vote are not by any means perfect, but they are their procedures and only they have the right to change them.

Only a fool would suggest that the choice of President affects America alone, of course it affects the whole world because of America's wealth and strength. But that does not give me or any non-US citizen the right to interfere in their election. Although we might be affected adversely by one choice rather than the other there is something much more important at stake. It is the USA's right of self-determination. American servicemen did not fight in Europe in World War II to preserve their country from Hitler, they fought to preserve our right to be us and to make our own decisions, be they good bad or somewhere in between. In consequence we must leave them to make their decision.

Whatever they decide next Tuesday I hope those who vote experience the same tingle of excitement I feel every time I cast a vote at a general election. Like each of the 120 million who will vote next week in America, I only have one vote at a general election. I cast it according to my judgment: my inadequate, flawed, selfish, biased, ignorant and bigoted judgment. And I do so knowing that I am exercising not just my right of self-determination but that of my nation, a right earlier generations fought and died to preserve. A right Americans fought and died to preserve for me. I treasure that right and I treasure the right of each American voter to make their decision according to their inadequate, flawed, selfish, biased, ignorant and bigoted judgment.

I decided not to visit the poll my friend sent me because it really is none of my business.

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