SECEXIT – A LESSON FROM HISTORY
‘They need us more than we need them – they need to continue selling their manufactures to us. Of course we can negotiate a deal.’
Where might we have heard these bright confident words before? Let’s go back 150 years to ‘Secexit’ which is what the leaders of the Confederate States of America might have called their attempt to escape from a political union which, they felt encroached on their sovereignty. That attempt, as we all know from the historical record as well as books such as ‘Gone with the Wind,’ began amidst great optimism and ended in dismal failure.
Yet what is remarkable is that the sentiments voiced by those leaders were very similar to those being voiced today by those who want Britain to secede from the European Union. The confident assertions of the secessionists then are being repeated today by those who are sure that once Britain exits the European Union, the world will be falling over itself to beat a path to our door.
In 1861 the Southern States of North America were at the time the world’s greatest producer of raw cotton and Britain was the world’s greatest processor of that cotton. Britain was also the world’s greatest industrial power. Britain needed to export its manufactured goods (as did the nascent manufacturing industries of the northern American states)
The Southern States were therefore confident that Britain would put overwhelming pressure on the Government of President Lincoln to let the Southern States secede in order to guarantee the flow of cotton would continue. The secessionists were confident that this strategy, known as ‘King Cotton,’ would trump everything.
Indeed so confident were they that they didn’t bother to do any elementary homework (another characteristic perhaps of the Brexiteers today)! They didn’t ask Britain about its attitude to secession, nor to the prolongation of slavery which secession would have meant; nor even about the glut of cotton sitting at that time in Lancashire warehouses.
When war broke out Britain did not intervene as the South had hoped and as their enthusiasts had predicted. Instead Britain took a slump in its cotton and textile industry on the chin rather than be seen to acting against the interests of those in the North who wanted to keep the Union together and to abolish slavery. The North blockaded southern ports, the southern economy was ruined and the rebellion collapsed.
Madly and brashly the leaders of the Southern States had tried to reach for an illusory and brave new world without doing their homework and without heeding the warnings. It is a pity there weren’t a few more scaremongers about.
Of course today the remaining countries of the European Union will not face Britain with a ‘hot war’ – but making life uncomfortable for us in terms of trade is far from impossible. To say so isn’t scaremongering. It is merely considering the possible downsides of Brexit, something any prudent business needs to do. History is there to be learnt from.
With many thanks to Peter Sain ley Berry a member of the Say Yes 2 Europe – Remain in the EU alliance.