There are many reasons to be thankful for living in Scotland. This came home to roost in the last week with the Catalan referendum, the experience of the Iraqi Kurds voting on independence, and even more dramatically, the tragic events in the US when Las Vegas witnessed yet another mass killing and carnage.
Scotland is a prosperous and peaceful country. Unlike Catalonia we were able to have an independence referendum – which everyone agreed to, participated in, and accepted who won and who lost. Central to this was the role of the British government. For all the 'othering' of Britain and the British state – which happens in pro-independence opinion – from its pursuit of inequality, war on the poor and unraveling of the welfare state, to its many military adventures abroad and belief in its role as an international policeman, it acted (in the Scottish example) with an element of insight, intelligence and even wisdom. And we were all the better for it.
The British state has numerous problems and inadequacies, but also has an adaptability and flexibility. This can cause problems: the reach of the elective dictatorship, the lacks of checks and balances, and the unwritten nature of the British constitution. But it also provides advantages. It allowed the state to agree, with the minimum fuss, to holding the Scottish independence vote. It allowed the setting up of a Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly with speed and ease post-1997, as well as brokering the Northern Irish peace process.
Compare this to the experience of Catalonia. The Spanish government did all it could to stop people voting. They seized ballot papers, arrested officials, disconnected technology and shut down apps, and when that failed used police brutality and repression – the latter in full display of a shocked world who could not believe what they were seeing in 21st-century Spain. In one day – 1 October 2017 – the Spanish government lost any right to the high ground and made the Catalan case for independence even more powerful.
The contrast between Spain and the UK could not be more stark. The Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy called the above acting with 'firmness and serenity,' and almost Trump-like denied that a referendum had actually taken place. He hid behind a defence of the 1978 Spanish constitution and 'the indissoluble unity' of the Spanish nation and people. He made the claim that only a few uber-unionists did in the UK, that any vote on independence for any part of Spain had to involve agreement and a pan-Spanish vote.
Whereas in Scotland, for all our words about the rights and wrongs of any second indyref, the terrain we stand in and any future constitutional paths are much clearer than in Spain. Any indyref2 will only happen here with the express permission of the Scottish and UK governments. There will be no UDI and no unofficial referendum.
Spain is in a very different place. The idea and ideals of Spain have been dealt a powerful, perhaps even mortal blow. There are few obvious ways that a consensual path can be identified which allows the Spanish and Catalan authorities to agree the way forward. This increases the stakes and makes it a crisis about democracy, self-determination and the right of a people to be only governed by consent. The Catalan authorities will clearly not back down, but what mechanisms for independence can be identified which Spain will respect? How can the Spanish government climb down from using repressive force? If Spain in the short-term further ratchets up the temperature by suspending the Catalan authorities, what kind of end game have they in mind?
The Spanish-Catalan experience has raised difficult questions about the attitude of the EU and other European governments. Many issued bland statements saying that it was a matter for the Spanish authorities and Spanish people. Not one condemned the state violence that was recorded by the world's media. It was all a bit redolent of the embarrassing silences of the West before the collapse of the Soviet Union as the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania tried to negotiate their independence.
The Catalan vote and the recent Kurdish referendum throw up the thorny issue of who and what constitute a nation state. The realpolitik answer is that the shape and nature of the world and even the boundaries of most nation states is entirely haphazard and one which in many cases defies logic and any sense of natural justice. Instead, the existence of many nationless peoples, from the Kurds to Palestinians and the case of Tibet, are a product of when and how empires retreat and dissolve, and who emerges at the right time to seize the claim of statehood.
The writer Fred Halliday called this state of affairs 'post-colonial sequestration,' through which some nations emerged as empires fell, and others (the Kurds, Palestinians, Tibet) missed the opportunity and then had to struggle to claim their statehood.
Scotland and Catalonia are different, as are the reactions of the UK and Spanish governments. It defies complexities, past histories and current realities to see one simply in the colours of the other. Pro-independence supporters in Scotland declare: 'We are all Catalans now.' But equally problematic is the blind allegiance to big state nationalism. One letter writer in the Guardian wrote about 'Catalan, Scottish and other micro-nationalisms' led by 'demagogic politicians' trying to break-up 'successful countries for personal glory and self-advancement.'
Self-determination in one territory doesn't simply translate into self-determination in another country. Indeed, it can even be seen as undermining its very principles by raising it into an over-arching truism, ignoring settings and histories. Thus, it doesn't make sense to trundle out a new European domino theory as the Times did, producing a map of the 'main European separatist movements' in a sort of 'at risk' register with Scotland and Flanders at the top.
Come back to our Scottish experience. We are privileged to live in a place which for all its many faults can agree to common rules on one of the biggest questions it is possible to ask: do you wish to be independent? Margaret Thatcher conceded that the Scots had the right to decide their own fate. Malcolm Rifkind, Tory secretary of state in the 1980s, once said half-jokingly, that whatever happened he would guarantee that he would never send in tanks to put the Scottish people down. That's a world apart from the repression of the Spanish authorities with the shadow of the Franco dictatorship hanging over events.
All of this also reflects on the nature of the UK. The caricatured, reactionary image of the UK is one many of us tell and retell on many occasions. This is a country which has presided over war and military action in every year since 1945, which sponsors privatisation and corporate greed the world over, and has long lineages of racism and xenophobia. But there is also another British story: which includes the defeat of foreign and domestic fascism, and the victories and triumphs of generations of working people and the labour movement which have stood for democracy and human rights and against the powers of privilege and reaction.
The good British story has rightly taken a bit of a battering these last few decades. But the events in Catalonia, just like the events in Iraqi Kurdistan, and Las Vegas, remind us that not every aspect of British life should make us gloomy. There are reasons to be cheerful in Scotland and even a few reasons to be cheerful living in the UK. And they remind us that the world is a messy, complex place which cannot be understood by recourse to one interpretation or set of principles.