Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Scottish independence: time for a homage to Catalonia?

“Seismic shift”, “game-changer”, and a number of other dreadful clichés have been used to describe the SNP’s win last Thursday. It was certainly an important result and, apart from during the final weeks, a rather unexpected one. It has also led to a number of reaction pieces, ranging from the Telegraph’s alarmist “Don’t let the Union drift apart”; to LFF’s “sleepwalking to separation”; to Simon Jenkins’ plain silly, knee-jerk calls for independence which, coming from an Englishman, seems to pass over entirely the wide and varied emotions among Scots about the idea.

However, emotive though the issue is, perhaps we should also calm down a little and try and take a cooler look at the situation. It is, of course, conceivable that it could lead to independence: but, without being complacent, we should also be aware that we are quite likely a long way from that.

In evidence, I should like to call arguably Scotland’s closest constitutional cousin: Catalonia. While I realise that Scots have, long before now, taken it as one of their reference points for devolution, I believe now is a good time to take a closer look: particularly at how it has evolved since its inception. It is not identical, but it is similar and it is twenty years further down the line than Scotland.

I declare an interest here: my wife and all my in-laws were either born, or grew up in, Catalonia. The political, historical, economic and cultural landscapes testify to its nationalism being very strong indeed, as we will see: there are a number of ways in which Catalans might rationally be expected to have a stronger separatist fervour than Scots (speaking as someone only half-English, and my other half containing both Scottish and Welsh, this is not intended to be partisan, either). It’s worth listing the reasons.

First, they have their own language, and it’s not a minority sport as, arguably, Welsh, Breton or Basque is, not to mention Scots Gaelic. Perhaps unknown to most Brits, practically all Catalans not only can speak it, but do so on a daily basis and their children are schooled in it. It is also the language of the public sector in Catalonia: the Generalitat (autonomous government, equivalent to the Scottish government) and all other ancillary bodies. So much is it spoken by Catalonia’s 9 million souls, in fact, that it has been close to achieving recognition as an official EU language.

Second, the Catalan people were oppressed by a fascist state for over forty years, which in turn led to a surge of nationalism once democracy arrived. Now, although conceivably some Scots might conceivably speak of oppression by the British state, it’s not being churlish to say that there is scant comparison between the two, during the last century at least. The Francoist state forbade Catalans to speak their own language, besieged their capital city and executed their politicians and folk heroes. None of which has, with the best will in the world, happened recently in Scotland.

Third, they arguably have more to gain economically from independence. Since the Industrial Revolution, Catalonia has formed the heart of industrial Spain and has a contribution to GDP significantly above the average. Scotland does not (although there is usually a dispute about the inclusion of offshore oilfields in any calculation of Scottish GDP).

Finally Catalonia, unlike Scotland, has been run by a nationalist party (CiU) for almost all its thirty years of autonomy, apart from a brief interlude of seven years of coalition. It’s not as if they haven’t had a chance to put their case.

And yet: and yet, despite all these reasons, the Catalans have never voted for independence. When they won again last year, CiU did not even have a referendum in its manifesto. And why? For the simple reason that Catalans don’t want it. They will complain about Spain, they will fight for a better share with Madrid, but after all of that, Catalan businessmen and most Catalan people think their future looks much better within a loosely-integrated Spain than the alternative: on their own in the world, albeit probably under an EU umbrella.

While all this in no way makes Scottish independence impossible – indeed, the Unionists (in the broadest sense) among us should be making the case otherwise for all we are worth – it is, perhaps, wise to keep a sense of proportion. The most obvious explanation for the current panic about Alex Salmond let loose on our devolved Parliament may simply be that, at twelve years, Scotland is still a very immature autonomy, and we’re just not used to it. Politicians are panicking: partly because they’re not used to it, either, and partly for show (neither Labour nor the Tories wants independence to happen on their watch). But ultimately – to state the bleedin’ obvious – the people of Scotland will be the ones who decide. As they should.

But when you take the Catalan example, what is, in fact, rather extraordinary is not that Scotland has a nationalist government, but the reverse: that achieving the first majority nationalist government in Scotland has taken quite this long. Also striking is the fact that, even after that length of time and in arguably more fertile conditions, Catalonia still hasn’t even come close to independence.

So, as we in Labour panic about Salmond and his referendum (honestly, even Salmond himself is so unsure of the result he has kicked it into the long grass for later in the parliament), we should focus on perhaps more important things: rebuilding our party in Scotland to provide a sensible, rational alternative, which respects the desires of the Scottish people for autonomy. And not, one sincerely hopes, trying to ape radically nationalist policies, hoping that this will make us look responsive. It won’t. It will make us look desperate; it will alienate.

We need to be aware that the Nats’ appeal to Scots is a lot broader than just independence, as is that of the CiU to Catalans. A smart Salmond may well see an underlying trend unfavourable to independence, and see fit to transform his into a modern party which is still nationalistic, but which operates within the Union.

And, those of us who are Unionists, we could certainly do worse than examine further the evolution of Catalonia as a model which has, so far, well stood the test of time.

This post first published at Left Foot Forward


  1. When 1.5M people goes out the streets shouting "INDEPENDÈNCIA" (2010 July 10th) I don't think they don't really want it.

    In Catalonia there's many people that came from Spain in last 50 years, and they don't see it clear enough, yet. Since we respect their opinion we keep working on convincing them about Catalonia's project. A matter of patience!

    While CIU may not have independence in its manifesto, be sure almost all of them believe in independence.

    Last poll shows only 30% against independence, while 35% fully support it.

    So, before using catalans to discourage scottish about their independence, be sure you know the truth here, and be sure that Catalonia doesn't get its independence even before Scotland does!

  2. Miquel, I'm guessing you are pro-independence! ;) Good for you.

    I don't say anywhere that Catalans won't get independence. I say you won't get it any time soon. And I haven't expressed a view on whether I am for or against. But Scotland is less likely to get it than Catalonia, for all the reasons I mention. So, in that sense, we agree: Catalonia would certainly be independent long before Scotland ever would. But neither looks that likely to me, at least any time soon.

    Would like to see that poll you mention - is that the "informal referendum" of last year or another one? Have you a link to the data?

  3. Well... I never said you said we are not getting it, you said we just don't want it, and I think that's not accurate.

    That poll is available at v(3rd link under section "Últimes notícies")

    It was published 3 days after Barcelona non-official independence voting, and it went kind of unnoticed, but it's the largest poll ever done.

    Unfortunately, I see no english translation, so briefly:

    - 34% of catalans would vote YES on an official independence vote
    - 30% would vote NO
    - 23% DK/NA/REF
    - 3% blank

  4. Very interesting (it's ok I can understand it from the Catalan, just about). Within the limits of errors and statistical significance, I'd say this means effectively 50-50. But interesting nonetheless. (In Scotland the figure is 29% for independence and 58% against. Figures here: So, as I projected, Scotland much less likely.)

    I suspect that Mas knows that this is not a significant enough margin to go for a referendum, which is why he doesn't do it: what often happens in referendums is that the Yes vote shrinks as you get closer (viz. recent UK poll on AV). But yes, maybe one day it will happen.

    I'd say it's unlikely within the next 10 years, but hey. Depends whether they keep blocking the Estatut in the Constitutional Court! I think that is a bit outrageous, personally.

  5. Oh yes, also v. interesting the elevated number of "Don't knows" compared with Scotland where the picture is more clear-cut; suggests a lot more apathy. Mas can't risk that the remaining 40% become Nos, which is probably another reason he's not ready for referendum - yet.

  6. I agree with your analisys, although I see a positive oportunity about that 23% of don't knows. Independence feeling is increasing day by day.

    I have the feeling that a serious campaign for an official vote would make the YES grow significantly, in spite of Spain political pressure.

    Anyway, a 35% of YES is not enough, and, as you say, Artur Mas and CIU (I'm member) know perfectly. How can we manage this draw in the meanwhile? It's not easy, indeed.

  7. No one can stand in Scotland's way in it's search for nationhood. Sold out in 1707 by lairds in Edinburgh the Scots are bound to gain freedom from England. As for Catalunya, the language sounds like mixed up French with bits of Castillano.

  8. @Ciaran: no-one could or should stand in their way, indeed. But at 29% for vs 58% against, it ain't gonna happen for quite a while.

    I shall pass on to my Catalan friends your comments about their noble language...;)

  9. I recall my trip to Slovakia post independence. I said "It has cost you financially" then a Slovak took a coin from his pocket "This is a Slovak coin" he said - not Czech, no Austro-Hungarian. As for Catalan, I tried learning it. No Va.

  10. No va indeed. Mine's rubbish, but I understand it mostly.

  11. Like Polish, it sounds like Russian spoken badly (been told the same re Danish/Swedish).


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