There was a widely held view in Scottish independence circles that the Tories granted a binding referendum here in 2014 because they knew they would win, whereas their Popular Party [PP] counterparts in Spain refused one in Catalonia because they knew they would lose. This outlook, reinforced by the sight of huge pro-independence rallies in Barcelona, turned out not to be the case as the political situation in Catalonia proved much more complicated. And it would appear after December’s regional elections that, like Scotland, there is no majority for independence there either at present.
The elections were called by the Rajoy Government after it had suspended the Catalan Parliament for declaring independence in defiance of the Spanish Constitution. Catalan Premier Carles Pudgemont had earlier conducted an independence referendum, secured 90% support for the proposition and called on the European Union to recognise the new Republic. His biggest problem however was not that the EU dismissed his offer out of hand, or that his plan amounted to a declaration of war on the Spanish state, but that the turnout in his referendum was only 42%. Those Catalans opposed to independence merely ignored the vote and stayed at home.
December’s elections further highlight the impasse that exists between ‘independistas’ and those opposed to ‘breaking away from the rest of Spain’. Remarkably, support for pro-Independence parties held up despite their leaders having been jailed and the elections having been imposed on them by the Madrid Government. But the huge demonstrations both for and against independence, the latter quite unprecedented, showed the complete polarisation in Catalan society. The biggest vote [25.4%] was won by the centre right and staunchly ‘Unionist’ party Cuidadanos [‘Citizens’] although neither of the two blocs could secure majority support. The independence parties [PdeC, ERC and CUP] won 47.6%, the pro-Spanish parties [PP, PSOE and Cuidadanos] 44.1% and ‘Catalunya en Comu’ in between won 7%.
Given this deadlock the approach the left takes could be crucial in determining how relations between Catalonia and the rest of Spain develop from here. Like the population of Catalonia as a whole, the left is deeply divided over independence. ‘Podemos’, the anti-austerity party, supports greater autonomy for Catalonia and a renegotiation of the 1977 post-Franco Spanish Constitution to accommodate binding independence referenda. But it does not favour the break-up of Spain. Its ‘pluri-national’ position, expressed by affiliate ‘Catalunya en Comu’, is not particularly popular in either Catalonia or the rest of Spain, however, and Pablo Iglesias has lost considerable ground since 2016 when the polls suggested he was on course to form the next Spanish Government.
I was in Madrid for that general election – at the invitation of Podemos – and I was struck by their description of Spain as ‘a country of nations’ which most of the Left [in Madrid at least] use as their starting point on debating the National Question. How does Podemos’ view differ from other left-wing forces?
The pro-Independence Popular Unity Coalition [CUP] is a left-wing alliance of socialists, greens, feminists, anarchists, republicans, local community activists and anti-capitalists. They had ten seats in the Catalan Parliament Rajoy dissolved but lost 6 of them in December partly because they had voted for the austerity programme pursued by the centre-right Catalan Government. The Spanish Communist Party meanwhile argues that Pudgemont only launched his 1 October referendum to deflect attention away from an unpopular austerity programme. Moreover, it argues, a neo-liberal Catalonia is no advance for working people. They favour a federal Spain and a nationwide fightback against Rajoy.
There are many differences between the National Question in Scotland and Catalonia, not least in who supports it. Here ‘yes’ enjoyed its strongest support in working class areas of urban Scotland such as Glasgow, Dundee, West Dunbartonshire, North Lanarkshire and Inverclyde where independence was seen as the way to leave behind the poverty, inequality and social injustice ingrained in British society. Support for independence is much more of a cultural than socio-economic issue in Catalonia. Support is much lower in working class districts of Barcelona and other cities than in middle class suburbs, rural areas and small towns.
And this rather poses the question ‘Is supporting the rights of nations to self-determination the same as supporting independence?’ The answer, of course, is no. The ‘self-determined’ will of the Scottish people today, it might be argued, after the Independence result of 2014 is to remain part of the United Kingdom. That does not mean the matter cannot be revisited. Given the current impasse it might also be argued the Catalan majority has not expressed its view conclusively on whether to remain part of Spain or secede. That constitutional stalemate looks set to continue for some time to come.
Colin Fox is Scottish Socialist Party national spokesperson.