There’s no necessary connection between Scotland and Catalonia, except that we hired a Catalan architect, Enric Miralles, to design our new Parliament building, and that the independence movements in both ‘regions’ seek re-entry to the EU as sovereign states. There are also important differences.
First, while Catalonia is Spain’s wealthiest industrial region (providing some kind of independence in its own right), the opposite is true of Scotland in Britain. The separatist movement in Scotland, moreover, has always been idealistic and intellectually innovative rather than narrowly nationalist. SNP governments have led the British trend away from fossil fuels; our independence movement looks to Nordic socio-economic models.
Second, there is a different political heritage. Catalonia is a culturally-rich and cosmopolitan region of Mediterranean Europe. Prior to EU entry, Spain was a marginal European society ruled by a military dictatorship, struggling with economic underdevelopment for decades after the wrong side won the Civil War. In that war, the most ardent defenders of the Republic – and most persecuted in defeat – were the Catalans. It is no accident that the post-Franco Spanish constitution, while providing for regional devolution, contains no legal provision for its extension into secession. That is why all the Catalan referendum initiatives have been technically illegal and politically controversial in the Spanish national context. In Britain, by contrast, the idea of a free union of nations, dating from 1603, implicitly contains the possibility of its dissolution. That is why when Alex Salmond, as Scottish First Minister, politely asked the British Prime Minister to co-operate in a binding Scottish independence referendum, the latter had to agree.
Scotland is not Catalonia, pace Rajoy’s repeated threats to veto independent Scottish membership of the EU. Here, I think that the current First Minister’s positions since the Brexit referendum have been perfectly sound. It was only natural to re-open the Scottish independence question after the Scottish vote in 2016 went against the UK-wide pattern. As long as the Brexit negotiations go on, we need to know what kind of British state will be left after EU withdrawal. What else could the First Minister have done? Inaction, or a snap independence referendum in Scotland, would both have been wrong. Meanwhile, Sturgeon’s support for any compromise avoiding a hard Brexit is both logical and responsible – loyal to the well-being of Britain as a whole.
It is British government’s actions, based on a paltry (51.8%) majority for Brexit, that are controversial and unconstitutional. Imagine the howls of protest if a Holyrood government had sought to withdraw from Britain on a similar statistical basis. The Tory Party is caught on the horns of its own dilemma. This is a problem imposed on Scotland: an abuse of power as arbitrary and rigid as the Spanish government’s assumption of direct rule in Catalonia.
The stand-out exception in all this is fisheries policy, because it was the Tory Thatcher government that exploited the European Commission’s liberalisation of fishing licences three decades ago, allowing Cornish fishing families to sell their permits for money. The result was Spanish trawlers hoovering up the North Sea and almost destroying cod stocks along with the east-coast Scottish fishing industry. But the SNP government fought the EU on this (successfully reversing the policy on discards, for example). The North-East voters have no grounds for turning Tory, as they have done, and stabbing the Scottish Government in the back over Brexit.
Meanwhile, it’s important to support the Catalans in principle, provided they proceed in a non-violent and legitimist manner. A legitimist move now by the Spanish government, instead of repeatedly sending in the Guardia Civil riot-squads, would be to legislate for a binding constitutional referendum in Catalonia. One of the Catalan rebels, Clara Ponsati (former education minister), still has residence in Scotland as Professor of Economics at St Andrews University. She is resisting extradition to Spain under a European Arrest Warrant, arguing that there is no independent judiciary in Spain and that the grounds of the warrant, that she is guilty of violent sedition, are baseless. The immediate reaction here to her plight – including a massive crowdfunding campaign for her legal costs – demonstrates both the level of Scottish public support and the democratic superiority of our institutions. The case may well go to the Scottish High Court; let us hope for some independence of mind from our judges on this matter.
The possibility of a democratic Scottish secession from Britain has not been weakened or discredited in the slightest by recent developments; it has simply been delayed – stymied by the illegitimate behaviour of the Conservative government, fearful of its own party divisions and obsessed with imposing its own version of economic austerity.
We expect architects of political change, like the architects of new buildings, to be bold and imaginative. But they must also be sensitive to the style and culture of those who will live with the changes. In this respect, the Tory government’s actions since 2016 are as irrelevant and autocratic towards Scotland as Miralles’ creation in Edinburgh. After his death, Miralles’ widow Benedetta Tagliabue kept on the architects’ cabinet, executing public contracts in the Catalan capital. Still, it’s no credit to them, and no consolation to us, that key features of the Scottish Parliament building bear more than a passing resemblance to the Barcelona Vegetable Market.
Peter Lomas is the author of Unnatural States: The International System and the Power to Change (London/New York: Routledge, 2017).