Scotland as Sanctuary

To find the repressive machinery of the state you happen to live in marshalled against you is a terrifying prospect. Most of us will never know what it means to find the passport that allows you to travel freely, the norms you live by suddenly inverted, and all those minute details of freedom that we take for granted, gone.

It’s a very particular form of terror to know that such drastic measures are, fundamentally, being taken against you because you hold and express certain political convictions, and it must be all the more frightening still to understand that, at every corner of the continent, the law of your hostile home state will find you.

The story of the exiled Catalan Education Minister Clara Ponsatí is not only by far the most significant case of foreign policy rubbing up against the workings of Scotland’s judicial system since Megrahi, it’s also a salient moment for the politics of Scottish independence too.

The failure of Europe to respond to the Catalan crisis, its moral equivocation, its hypocrisy, presents profound existential questions for the continental bloc that the Scottish Government has wedded its political fortunes to in the wake of Brexit.

But it is also a reminder that the world order an independent Scotland might seek to join has changed beyond recognition in a remarkably short space of time.

Could anyone have imagined, in 2014, that a Catalan economics Professor from St Andrew’s University would walk into St Leonards Police Station, alive to the knowledge that this could be her first step into 30 years of custody?

Everything in Europe, the UK, the world and Scotland has changed since the fateful year of 2014. If Scottish politics does not find a means to incorporate a radical response to these dark times, it will simply become a relic. If you gamble with history, whilst ignoring great historic shifts, the risks are total. There is no steady course, no continuity to be had, there is simply the measure of what you do in moments of crisis.

With so much in flux, misunderstandings inevitably abound. For example, many commentators cite 2014 as among the first of a long chain of global populist insurgencies, grouping it with developments like Brexit and Trump. They see a common thread tying together all sorts of discontent with the old ways and the obvious failings of decadent elites.

They’re wrong. 2014, still a seismic event that sent shockwaves beyond the borders of the almost shattered UK state, is better understood as the last of an earlier phase of protest and unrest that now belong to a different time.

Rather than the first in a series of populist anti-political surges, that shocked the victors as much as the vanquished, 2014 could not have been more different to the angry demagogue led movements that toppled the British and American political classes just two years later. Far from being anti-politics, the independence movement coalesced around social justice, deep anti-war and anti-nuclear sentiment, and the salvaging of a social democratic consensus that seemed to have disappeared from mainstream British politics.

But though it took place a mere four years ago, many of the assumptions that made that most unique of insurgencies possible are now dust.

So how do we find a way out of a hostile impasse? The answer is not to be found in external institutions. Pinning Scotland’s hopes in a volatile world on a democratically bankrupt Europe, or to a nuclear alliance like NATO, is to pretend that the neat pre-2016 liberal consensus is some kind of natural order that must inevitably return. Offering more of the same in a word of alarming change is not simply daft, it’s increasingly impossible.

When the SNP talks of Scottish independence offering the UK “a true ally to the North” in security terms, it risks simply transferring all the bad old habits and the corrosive hypocrisies of Britain’s foreign policy and security establishment.

This enthusiasm for alliance presumably incorporates the UK’s current cosines towards Erdogan’s Turkey, also in NATO, committing oppressive crimes that outdo those of the Spanish state, and where political prisoners and victims of oppression are numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

In giving credence to the new pragmatic hawkishness about authoritarian Russia, in uncritically backing the UK security services (who would have thrown Scotland out into the cold) are we not defeating the entire point of setting up a new state?

Ever since modern Scottish nationalism emerged as a credible political force it was premised on the notion that Scotland needed to join the world. But this has too rarely been followed by the question that is the flip-side to that statement – what might the world need from Scotland?

This takes us back to the figure of Clara Ponsatí, awaiting her fate, but surely comforted by the solidarity of thousands of Scots outraged at the Spanish government’s actions.

The crafting of political visions is often seen as a matter of grand designs conducted by experts out of sight. But circumstances are also critical. The messiness of events in an interconnected world can often be far more significant than the blueprints created by those who believe a country can be made in a lab.

So perhaps Scotland can respond to world events by providing something that Ponsatí and the legions of others in the world today repressed by their own states so desperately need: a place of sanctuary for the ever greater number of persecuted that only a small neutral state can offer.

Setting up a state on those terms, with a legal and security apparatus to match – would be a new means in the 21st century to continue the long tradition of solidarity and soft power of which Scotland can proud. The economic and cultural benefits would be profound.

After all, your own freedom can only be guaranteed by extending it to others – in this new volatile world defined by narrow national interests and creeping despotism, why not let sanctuary and solidarity define how we carry ourselves? That’s a vision of new country worth fighting for.

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