The Spanish government insists that the cases of Scotland and Catalonia cannot be compared to one another. Mariano Rajoy is neither Scottish nor Catalan, so what would he know? However it’s not a very convincing claim for other reasons. David Cameron and Mariano Rajoy are apparently scheming together to block Scottish or Catalan independence, so they must be doing some comparing of their own.
If Scots and Catalans want to compare our countries with each other, that’s far more our business than it is Mariano’s or Dave’s. It’s pretty rich of the Spanish Prime Minister to state that we cannot compare Scotland to Catalonia. Aye Mariano, that wull be right.
One thing Catalans and Scots certainly have in common is that you tell us we cannot do something, many of us will go ahead and do it anyway just to prove you wrong. This is quite likely to have some significance in our respective independence campaigns.
Scotland and Catalonia are both modern democratic European nations which are currently engaged in a debate about whether or not to become independent states. Both independence movements are in opposition to central governments which are controlled by parties which have the support of only a small minority. Admittedly there are a few more Partido Popular supporters in Catalonia than there are pandas in Scotland, but not by very many.
That seems to give us quite a lot worthy of comparison all by itself. There are many similarities between Scotland and Catalonia, there are differences too. Let’s have a wee look at some more, starting with constitutional status, and nationhood.
Although subsumed within the United Kingdom in 1707, Scotland continued to exist as a nation. The articles of the Treaty of Union guaranteed the independence of institutions of the old Scottish state such as Scots law, the church, and the education system. Scotland has a constitutional right to self-determination, founded upon the continuing existence under the Union of Scots law and its principle of the sovereignty of the Scottish people. The constitutional and legal basis of Scotland’s referendum was laid out in the Edinburgh Agreement between Westminster and Holyrood.
In Spain, many people point to David Cameron as an example of a “mature” politician, contrasting him with Mariano Rajoy who refuses to concede a referendum in Catalonia. But the truth is Cameron had no choice. After Scotland elected a majority government which had an independence referendum as a main plank in its manifesto it was politically impossible for him to block it.
Instead Cameron attempted to wrest control of the referendum away from the Scottish Parliament, but even there he failed. That didn’t stop the Unionist media presenting it as a defeat for Alex Salmond, but saying black is white, up is down, and George Foulkes and Alejo Vidal-Quadras are respected elder statesmen is pretty much their stock in trade.
Catalonia is in a different position. Its traditional institutions were abolished in the 18th century, when the Spanish monarchy embarked on a bout of centralisation in the wake of the Spanish War of Succession. There was no treaty of union. Catalonia was legally abolished, like it was Strathclyde Regional Council. Unlike Strathclyde Region Council however, it was missed and not forgotten. The issue of Catalan self-government would not go away.
Although it acknowledges Catalan autonomy, the modern Spanish constitution contains a clause which states that the Spanish nation is one and indivisible. The clause, an old Francoist slogan, was inserted into the constitution at the insistence of the generals when the country transitioned to democracy in the late 1970s after decades of military rule.
The clause was specifically designed to frustrate pro-independence aspirations amongst the Catalans and Basques. If the generals were going to trust in the ballot box, not brute force, they wanted some guarantees. The Madrid based parties, which were not exactly enamoured with the idea of Catalan or Basque self-determination either, were happy to oblige.
The result is that Catalans feel that they are operating within a system which is even more blatantly designed to screw them than Labour’s 1997 stitch up with the Lib Dems, which gave the new Scottish Parliament an electoral system designed to prevent an SNP majority government.
Madrid continues to refuse to acknowledge Catalonia’s right to hold a vote on its future. It holds that Catalonia cannot become independent without a change to the Spanish constitution, and that in turn requires a vote throughout Spain. Not that there’s any willingness on the part of the Spanish government or main opposition party the PSOE to support the necessary constitutional changes. So it’s not going to happen.
Catalonia continues to press for a referendum. The Catalans assert that their right to self-determination trumps the provisions of the Spanish constitution, which Catalans see as an undemocratic restriction on their right to decide their own future. Madrid remains as instransigent as ever. Neither side shows any sign of backing down.
Although earlier this year the pro-sovereignty ERC (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, Republican Left of Catalonia) was pressing for a unilateral referendum in Catalonia before the Scottish referendum, it now looks unlikely that will happen. However the ERC, the junior partner in the coalition running the Catalan government, continues to gain support in opinion polls. This is a sign that Catalan public opinion is losing patience with the softly softly approach of the CiU government of Artur Mas.
What happens over the coming year in Catalonia is likely to depend in no small measure on the outcome of the Scottish referendum. They are watching us with great interest.
Scotland is a nation by any definition. We have no need to prove it, what with it falling into the category of the bloody obvious. We’ve got so much national identity we export it, traditionally in the form of tartan rugs, whisky, and a tourism industry which makes out we are a nation of romantic dreamers with a touch of the supernatural, when in fact we are a hard headed bunch of cynics with a sick sense of humour.
Catalonia is a nation too. That’s what the Catalans say, and if they’re saying so it ought to be good enough for everyone else. You’d imagine they ought to know, after all. That’s kinda what “self-determination” means. Like the Scots the Catalans have an abundance of national identity, and also tend towards hard headed cynicism combined with a sick sense of humour which doesn’t extend to torturing bulls.
However the Spanish constitution does not recognise the existence of the Catalan nation. Catalans are deemed to be a “historical nationality”. No one is really sure what this means, although it’s possible that according to the Spanish constitution Catalonia is only a nation when everyone is dressed in period costume.
Since Scotland’s national dress was the invention of a couple of pretend-Polish guys on the make and an overdose of Victorian romanticism, we’d probably only rank as a hysterical notionality. And indeed there are those on the wilder fringes of the Better Together brigade who apparently believe this. But since Scotland’s right to its independence referendum is now established in fact, no one pays them much attention.
Catalonia’s legal status as something other than a nation leads to long and bitter debates. The default position of Spanish Unionists is to refuse to recognise that Catalonia is a nation at all. Scottish people occasionally experience this too. I once met a German girl on holiday when I was a teenager who earnestly assured me: “I’m sure you’ll find you are in fact English.” I just laughed and said: “Och you Austrians and your whacky sense of humour.”
One person telling a second person that they understand the second person’s identity better than the second person does is of course an exercise in craziness. It is doomed to failure unless the first person is a psychiatrist and the second is under the effects of mind altering drugs or has recently suffered a severe concussion. While many in Catalonia would assert that their country has indeed received repeated kicks in the head from the Spanish government, few would believe that la Moncloa was the sane one in the equation.
The Madrid government is having about as much success in persuading the Catalans that they are not a nation as that German lassie did nearly 40 years ago. A sense of nationhood is immune to legislation, all the constitutional clauses in the world make no difference. Nationhood rests in the minds and imaginations of those who profess it.
The problem Madrid has no answer for is that many Catalans can imagine a much better future for their nation as an independent state. You can’t legislate against hope. And in that respect, the Catalans and the Scots are identical.