Scotland’s independence referendum campaign, described by an academic, objective source as one of the best examples of participative democracy in Europe, was completely peaceful apart from triumphant Unionists who were followers of the Orange Lodge attacking forlorn “Yes” voters on the day after the referendum which the ‘pro-indy’ side narrowly lost. In Catalonia, before and during the referendum, blood was spilt by police drafted in from the other parts of Spain by the Madrid Government in scenes reminiscent of the repressive tactics used by Franco. The all-seeing social media and even serious TV channels showed elderly women bleeding because of the brutality. Not a good look for an EU member country which has only been a democracy for 42 years. But what are the differences between the Catalan and Scottish desires to be an independent state?
Had he been wise, the bullish Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, would have allowed the referendum to go ahead while warning that it was illegitimate according to the Spanish constitution. It would then have been ignored and Spain would have been regarded as a model democratic state in the EU mould and Catalonia would have had to work better at persuading the Spaniards that the referendum, too, was an exercise in democracy. Instead, the world-wide publicity has tarnished Spain’s reputation and put the future of a politically united Spain, still struggling economically, in jeopardy. Some commentators insist that the majority of people living in Catalonia, which also includes many Andalucians from the south of Spain, are not in favour of independence but don’t like the authoritarian tendencies of the Madrid Government. Since those tendencies have now been confirmed, even the Southerners might be in favour of voting sí after witnessing what the central Government is capable of.
I happen, at the moment, to be overseas along with some Spanish colleagues, most of them from what they describe as “the heart of Spain”, Asturias. They are all appalled by the Catalan Government acting against the Spanish constitution and, though they don’t like the Rajoy Government, they honestly don’t see what choice his Government had but to send in the non-Catalan police. They point out that Catalan leaders, including the first PM of the Generalitat, the Catalan Parliament, Jordi Pujol, were corrupt and this would be a sign of things to come – though they were silent about similar rumours swirling around the Rajoy Government.
My friends then expressed real anger at the Catalan people, one quoting the late Spanish philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, who basically said the Catalans were trouble. Their anger reminded me of the English reaction to the temerity of the Scots not only to arrange a referendum to leave the Union but nearly to succeed. It was my turn to be appalled by my friends’ acceptance of the autocratic way the situation was handled by the Spanish Government. How quite you keep a distinct cultural and political entity happy in a political Union with the rest of the state by beating them up is beyond me. Westminster please note.
The EU of which both Catalonia and Scotland want to be active members should figuratively hang their collective head in shame for not condemning the violence and not offering mediation to both the Catalans and the Spaniards. The EU must realise that the states which joined together at a particular point in history, and often through ignoble means, are not stuck in aspic and could change into new formulations of political identity. After all, self-determination is “a right of all peoples” and is embedded and protected in the UN Charter and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
As for parallels with Scotland, even though many Scots support the Catalans, the two situations are entirely different. Spain has a written constitution in which it states that the Spanish state cannot be broken up. Catalunya is regarded as a region, the autonomous community of Catalonia (comunitat autònoma in Catalan), not a nation. Spain is the nation and the state. The UK does not have a written constitution but constantly refers to the four “domestic nations” of the UK – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Scottish Parliament was re-established as a result of a successful referendum in 1997 and first met in May 1999. After the SNP won the majority of seats, the UK Government had to accept a referendum on Scottish independence. The rules were arranged beforehand and the “Edinburgh Agreement” was signed in public by then Prime Minister, David Cameron, and First Minister Alex Salmond. Both sides accepted the result although the anti-EU vote in England and pro-EU vote in Scotland changed matters and so a new referendum on independence will be held after the deal brokered by the British Government is known.
Spain, on the other hand, was only forty-two years ago a dictatorship which banned the use of the Catalan language and used other repressive measures to ensure unity. Rajoy ruled out the negotiation of a referendum, just reiterating that it was illegal as if that is an excuse for injustice. As for monarchs. the British Queen only ‘purred’ her satisfaction at the result of the Scottish vote to stay in the Union while the Spanish King went on TV to declare the referendum illegal and didn’t condemn the violence from the Spanish police. Elisabeth I of Scotland still enjoys her comforts in Balmoral along with her increasing entourage and is tolerated, if not actively liked, in Scotland. As for the King of Spain, it is notable and even before his intervention, the Catalans declared they wanted a republic while the SNP has been stumm about what could be a shot in the foot to the main goal of self-determination.
Regarding the brutality of the Spanish police, could that kind of violence meted out by police and militia from other parts of Spain happen in Scotland? Westminster Governments are capable of anything to keep the Establishment going and there is a precedence in that tanks were placed in George Square in the middle of Glasgow in 1919 to prevent a self-styled socialist revolution. However, putting English police or troops on Scottish streets would end the Union much more quickly than any referendum. In addition, the Scottish pro-independence movement has always been peaceful whereas Spain has suffered violence at the hands of ETA, the Basque pro-independence army which killed over 800 people, including civilians. The Catalans have been more restrained but their appetite for large, loud rallies could easily turn into conflictual situations. The SNP’s marches tend to be good humoured.
The referendum which the Catalan Government held, despite Spanish police brutality, resulted in 90% in favour of independence on a 43% turnout which is not going to be accepted by the international community nor the large minority of people in Catalonia who are against and who largely stayed away from the polls. It could, however, be the start of a negotiating position for more powers for the Generalitat. For that to happen, Rajoy’s intemperate stance of no talks will have to change otherwise the violence seen on the streets of Barcelona could turn into a bloodbath and even civil war.
Duncan MacLaren is an Adjunct Professor of Australian Catholic University but writes in a personal capacity from Glasgow.