In Scotland and Kurdistan, the heart rules in the battle for a nation’s soul

It is said that the Scots and the Kurds are the most numerous nationalities without their own state.

So it is an historic coincidence, albeit a trivial one, that they will both soon vote in referenda about whether they should have one.

There are other parallels. Scotland’s population is about 5.4m, roughly the same as that of the four provinces wholly controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). At just under 79,000 square kilometres, the area of Scotland is almost identical to Iraqi Kurdistan’s if disputed territories that the KRG wants are included. In both, the land’s divided between thinly-populated mountains and fertile lowlands where the majority live.

Each have two principal cities that are rivals. Edinburgh’s the seat of Scottish government and culture while Glasgow’s famous for industry and has better football teams. In Iraqi Kurdistan, Sulaimaniyah, sometimes known as the Kurdish Paris, is the main cultural centre. Erbil, its capital and seat of government, is the power base of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the original champion of Kurdish independence now led by Masaoud Barzani, Iraqi Kurdistan’s president.

And then there’s the oil. Iraqi Kurdistan including the disputed territories could have up to 100bn barrels. About 14bn barrels are in what might be Scotland’s territorial waters, but some say there could be 30bn. Many Scots and most Iraqi Kurds believe their oil’s been exploited for too long by distant rulers.

Both places have been shaped by Britain at its imperial peak. Scotland was an independent kingdom that shared a head of state with England and Ireland between 1603 and 1707 when it voluntarily formed a union with the UK. The relationship with London has been largely harmonious. Opinion polls suggest most Scots will vote no on 18 September.

The Kurds had no such experience. The allies defeated the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and stripped it of its non-Turkish provinces. The original plan was to establish a separate Kurdish state. The UK and France with League of Nations support instead created three Arab states south of the Turkish border: Syria and the kingdoms of Iraq and Jordan. Leadership of all three was accepted by their Hashemite Arab allies, though Syria’s King Faisal was swiftly deposed by the French and given the Iraqi throne by Britain instead.

The Kurd’s sense of betrayal fuelled attempts to break Baghdad’s grip. The first major rebellion, led by Masaoud Barzani’s father Mustafa, was in 1931. This was followed by 60 years of failed revolts, brutal repression, internecine conflict and short periods of uneasy peace. The defeats experienced by Iraq’s Kurds were echoed in unsuccessful struggles for Kurdish autonomy in Iran and Turkey.

This history is the main reason why Iraqi Kurds are likely to vote for independence in a referendum Barzani said on 2 July will soon be held. But the process involves two contentious steps.

First, a referendum will have to be held in Iraq’s disputed territories about whether they wish to join Iraqi Kurdistan. Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution defines the disputed territories as parts of Iraqi provinces controlled by the KRG since the US-led coalition’s protective no-fly zone was established in 1991 plus unspecified areas of four Iraqi provinces under central government control until June 2014. The area of the disputed territories is roughly the same as the land controlled by the KRG since the end of the war for Kuwait.

The KRG says these areas are historically Kurdish and that the Baathist regime deposed in 2003 spent decades illicitly expelling Kurds and bringing in Arab Iraqis in their place. They include Kirkuk, one of Iraq’s principal oil centres with a population of more than 1m which was taken by the KRG following the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State of Iraq & the Levant (ISIL) last month.

The KRG says the referendum in the disputed areas should have been be held by the end of 2007 and is long overdue. Barzani wants the UN to manage it. Some legal experts argue the Iraqi constitution stipulates only the federal government is authorised to do so and that a census should be held first. The KRG has referred the issue to the Kurdish parliament. But it’s bound cause further conflict with central government and resentment among the territories’ Arab, Turkoman, Christian Assyrian and other minorities.

The second step will be a referendum about independence itself. Again, some legal experts say this should be conducted by the central government and not the KRG. Separation will involve dividing up Iraqi government assets as well as deciding who should have a Kurdish passport. The potential for dangerous conflict with Baghdad is almost unlimited. It encompasses the use of river water flowing from northern mountains that Iraqi Kurdistan wants and the rest of Iraq needs.

A successful central government offensive against ISIL will involve Iraqi armed forces pushing into the territories. Nouri al-Maliki may not be Iraq’s prime minister at that point, but it is unlikely any successor will easily relinquish Baghdad’s claims on the people and natural wealth of large swathes of northern Iraq. The occupation of some disputed territories after the fall of Mosul has created an enormous burden for the KRG. It’s also given Iraqi Kurdistan a 1,000km frontier that might be impossible to defend.

Due to a freeze on budgetary transfers from Baghdad since the start of the year, the KRG’s short of cash, though rising direct oil exports could make it financially self-sufficient by early 2015. And it has up to 1m refugees from other parts of Iraq and Syria to look after.

Pragmatists, which include the US administration, argue the last thing the people of Iraq need is a divisive vote about matters of little consequence compared with the threat of Jihadist repression and the daily struggle to make a living. It will be time-consuming, costly and potentially bad for everyone. A referendum, they argue, would be a diversion.

But the same’s been said with little effect about the vote for Scottish independence; for the heart often overmasters the mind when a nation’s soul is at stake.