For someone who clearly spends a lot of his time writing about supposedly important stuff, I seem to spend an awful lot thinking about stuff that isn’t. I rarely if ever discount anything for being too trivial. Even the origin of the word “trivia” is a piece of great trivia. Literally meaning “three roads”, it describes a place outside Rome during the time of Caesar where these three thoroughfares would converge and where people would naturally meet to share gossip and small talk. Long after the Romans left, the word endures in the English language to describe interesting but non-essential nuggets of information. Of which I have plenty.
I have a few favourites. I love quirky historical coincidences, like the fact that Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were both born on the twelfth of February 1809 (a good day for human progress, you’d have to say), or the fact that the second and third US Presidents – John Adams and Thomas Jefferson – both died in 1826. On the Fourth of July. As did James Monroe, who passed on the same date in 1831.
Actually, these things aren’t as coincidental as you might think. Which brings me to my favourite bit of Trivia. If you haven’t heard this before, it takes some believing but please bear with me. Here it is. The so-called Birthday Paradox.
If you took twenty-three random people from anywhere in the world and put them in a room, what is the probability of two of them sharing a birthday? Pretty unlikely, yes?
Actually the chances are marginally better than 50/50. No, really. I know it’s counter-intuitive but it’s pure probability and the numbers don’t lie and are proven every time a football match starts, because, with twenty three people within the pitch (twenty-two players and a referee) it provides the perfect model. And guess what? In most of the World Cup Finals since 1930, there have been shared birthdays in more than half of them.
So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that history has a habit of throwing up neat parallels. I must admit that I was behind with today’s article, partly because I was engrossed in Robert Harris’ new historical book “Munich”, a gripping historical novel set in the time leading up to and culminating in the signing of the Munich Agreement, which allowed Neville Chamberlain to claim “Peace in our Time”, although it was, of course, a temporary respite.
I rather liked Robert Harris’ portrayal of Chamberlain as not so much the naive arch-appeaser of common wisdom but as the obdurate negotiator and arch exponent of realpolitik who did the best he could under the most extraordinarily difficult circumstances. I kind of warmed to the man in a way that I never have to Churchill.
Chamberlain famously justified Britain’s non-intervention to German aggression in the Sudetenland by questioning why “we should be involved in a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing”. But he knew when he said it that Britain couldn’t possibly defeat Germany. They were in no position to wage a war. They had to buy their time. They had to re-arm.
History doesn’t repeat, but it echoes. It’s not only people who share birthdays. It’s also historical events.
I experienced the sensation that Robert Harris’s novel wasn’t so much a historical novel but a very modern one. I found it impossible to read without thinking about Catalonia, and not just because the Munich Agreement and the Catalunya referendum happened on the same day – October 1st. In the months approaching Munich, Chamberlain famously baulked at the concept of getting Britain involved in a dispute far from his own shores. This found echoes in the timid responses from everyone from Jeremy Corbyn to Boris “clear the bodies away” Johnson to the European Commission itself to the state sponsored violence in Catalonia. The book reads not so much as historical fiction but as current affairs – and not just because the fascists are back on the streets.
The response to the violence in Catalunya, with all too few honourable exceptions, has ranged from half-hearted to unconditional support for Madrid. It’s shocking that so many, including the No Surrender brigade in Scotland, have attempted to justify the violence on legal grounds, and this should act as a warning to us when we next go for independence from a UK Government that I now believe will never give consent to a second vote.
The response to Sunday should concern us all. The mainstream media was fully on board with Madrid from the start. Ordinary people were called “protestors”, when actually they were just casting a vote. “Catalonia vote marred by violence” screamed the headlines, deliberately failing to ask who caused this violence. Boris Johnson, still the foreign secretary, despite his offensive comments on Libya, said this was an internal matter for Spain. Just a pity he didn’t think the same of Scotland three years ago, when his party lobbied Spain to intervene on the Scottish independence campaign on their behalf. Some matters, it seems, are more internal than others.
On the British left, events were met largely with silence or in some cases condemnation of the Catalan people. Corbyn condemned the violence but not the violation of democratic principle that it represented, displaying a moral equivalence not unlike Trump’s after Charlottesville. “Violence on many sides”, seemed to be the party line.
But it is the response from the EU that gives me most pause, as it seemed to save its greatest disdain for people who believed in the project most passionately. Margaritas Schinas of the EC gave a speech which was an unequivocal statement of opposition to Catalonian independence, cowardly hiding behind the rule-of-law argument.
This matters. This is not a faraway country with people of whom we know nothing. This has immediate relevance to Scotland and beyond.
While it may be technically correct to say that the Catalunya vote was illegal (although there’s a counter-argument that says it wasn’t), this was never about law but about a government scared to engage in constructive discussion with its own citizens. And there’s a higher authority than the EC, and certainly higher than Madrid – the UN – which states that relations between nations should be based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination. In other words, no domestic legislature can remove a people’s right to self-determination. Domestic laws cannot supersede wider rights.
And even if it did lack legal legitimacy, so what? Apartheid in South Africa was legal. Rounding up Jews was legal, as was the slave trade and the destruction of foreign cultures in the name of Empire. Legality is a function of power and very often has little or nothing to do with justice or what is right and good. Today’s unreasonable demands are tomorrow’s accepted wisdoms.
The relevance of all this to Scotland could not be more immediate. I’d always, and continue to believe in, the principles of free movement of goods and services, not least because my industry and the remote place in which I live depends on these essential freedoms. But I’m starting to question my belief in the EU project. I wrote a couple of weeks ago that we should become independent before we leave the EU because after Brexit we’d have no higher authority to appeal to when a UK government, emboldened by the fact that the Supreme Court ruling had rendered our parliament toothless and with all the Brussels powers now sitting in London, tells we’re not having another vote on independence because it’s not up to us. Because they don’t recognise it. You can do what you like in your wee pretendy parliament, they’ll say, because it’s illegal.
You need friends to support you in difficult times, I argued. Well, the people of Catalonia held out their hands looking for friendship and got those hands broken by police batons.
So we maybe need to rethink. Perhaps my undiluted adulation for the EU was out of kilter with the political reality – particularly when plenty of Yes supporters harbour concerns about the EU project – and Alex Salmond may have been prescient last month in saying we should explore alternatives, like EFTA.
It would be disastrously naive to think Catalonia couldn’t happen here. History shows that even in times of peace, the rubber bullets are never far away. The state wasn’t slow to put gunboats up the River Liffey, or send tanks into George Square. I’m old enough to remember the Miners’ Strike when the police stopped being there to protect the public and became the instrument of the state that allowed Margaret Thatcher to pursue her neoliberal agenda unfettered. The state is always ready and willing to crush the enemy within.
Yes, I know that the 2014 was peaceful and mostly good humoured. Despite the hastily rewritten narrative, Jim Murphy being hit by an egg was about as divisive as it got. But these were unusual times. Salmond didn’t expect the majority in the 2011 election that triggered it, and Cameron, signing the Edinburgh Agreement with a thirty point lead, justifiably thought he’d walk it. You don’t need the heavy mob when you’re going to win anyway. Who crushes a butterfly on a wheel?
But that seems an age ago. We already have every unionist in Scotland saying that there is no mandate for a second plebiscite despite its parliament voting to ask for one. This essentially argues, with echoes of last Sunday, that the Parliament isn’t sovereign and any future vote is illegal.
And something else has changed, too. They won’t start the next campaign with a thirty point lead. They’ll only allow a vote they know they can win, which means they’ll never grant one. Because they know they will lose. Having come close to blowing it three years ago, they won’t make the same mistake again.
All of which makes us not so very different from the good people of Catalunya. We must watch, and we must learn the valuable lessons. And we need to be ready. Because very soon we won’t be talking about faraway countries.
We’ll be talking about ourselves.
Alec Ross is a regular contributor to The Orkney News