Scottish independence: time for a homage to Catalonia?

Rob Marchant compares the case and chances of Scottish independence with its constitutional cousin, Catalonia.


Rob Marchant is a management and communications consultant, blogger and eco-entrepreneur; he previously worked as a Labour party senior manager through the 2001 and 2005 general elections. He blogs at The Centre Left

“Seismic shift”, “game-changer”, and other clichés have been used to describe the SNP’s win last Thursday. It was certainly an important result and, up until 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 seemed to pass over entirely the wide and varied emotions among Scots about the idea.

However, emotive though the issue is, perhaps we should 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. The Scots have, long before now, taken it as one of their reference points for devolution, and 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: there are a number of ways in which Catalans might rationally be expected to have a stronger separatist fervour than Scots. 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, an autonomous government, equivalent to the Scottish parliament, 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 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.

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 cannot claim this, 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.

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. Ultimately – and obviously – 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, stood well the test of time.

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21 Responses to “Scottish independence: time for a homage to Catalonia?”

  1. Peter A Smith

    RT @leftfootfwd: Scottish independence: time for a homage to Catalonia?: writes Rob Marchant

  2. Alan Edgey

    Whit? Nae language? The’re mony a Scot that aye haes a guid Scots tongue in thair heid!

  3. Shamik Das

    @rob_marchant Hi Rob, sorry, thought my colleague emailed you – the article went up over the weekend, as planned:

  4. Rob Marchant

    MT my post @leftfootfwd Why Scottish independence is less likely than many think: lessons from a country 30 years on

  5. John Rentoul

    Catalonia example suggests Scottish separation unimminent @rob_marchant

  6. Palash Dave

    RT @JohnRentoul: Catalonia example suggests Scottish separation unimminent @rob_marchant

  7. Rob Marchant

    @DenisMacShane As a European with Scots roots you may like my LFF piece on why Catalonia suggests independence unlikely

  8. Rob Marchant

    No offence meant! 😉

  9. Angus McLellan

    While comparisons can be useful – and if nothing else, discussing Catalonia and Spain adds to our understanding of the world, a good thing in itself – it is always questionable just how relevant they are. Tolstoy’s line on unhappy families comes to mind. We are told that Catalonia, like Scotland, has never voted for independence. This is true, but since Catalonia, like Scotland, has never had the opportunity to vote in a referendum on independence, it is hardly significant.

    One obvious difference between the two unhappy families is the position of the governments concerned. Spanish governments reject the concept of a Catalan referendum, the UK government takes a different position where Scotland is concerned. The Scottish government is committed to a referendum, the Catalan government is not.

    To all appearancers, by no later than 2016 the positions in Scotland and Catalonia will almost certainly differ in this respect at least: people in one of these countries will have had the opportunity to vote on independence, people in the other will probably not.

  10. Rob Marchant

    @Angus: I’d beg to differ on the relevance. I think you need to find a convincing answer to these questions.

    1. How come, with a nationalist government for 23 years of the last 30, they have never even come to a vote? (Hardly because there is overwhelming support for the idea, it’s reasonable to conclude.)

    2. Do we honestly think the Scots are so strongly separatist they’ll secede when the Catalans, who were hardly well-treated by Spain over 40 years, haven’t?

    The Spanish government may reject the concept of a referendum but I don’t see the relevance. If Catalans really wanted it, they would push for it and get it, after all it’s pretty hard to stop the will of the people in a Western democracy, no matter what the Constitution says (it’s indefensible as per the UN right to self-determination). And, for example, last year an informal referendum was held, mostly in Catalan strongholds, and the results even then were disappointing.

    What you seem to be saying is that Catalans are somehow being prevented by the Spanish government from getting what they want – they aren’t. They know they could get it if they really wanted it. Most don’t, as evidenced by the fact that CiU quietly dropped the referendum from their programme.

    My prediction, for what it’s worth: ultimately Salmond will probably soft-pedal the referendum because he knows it’s a real long shot. He is smart enough to reposition the party so he can stay in politics and play a long game, but if he pushes it too far he will likely self-destruct.

  11. Rob Marchant

    RT @JohnRentoul: Catalonia example suggests Scottish separation unimminent @rob_marchant

  12. Cal dir certes coses

    Escòcia que s'emmiralla en Catalunya, Catalunya que ho fa en Escòcia: Si mireu dintre veureu milers de països lliures…

  13. Joan

    Escòcia que s'emmiralla en Catalunya, Catalunya que ho fa en Escòcia: Si mireu dintre veureu milers de països lliures…

  14. Esteve

    Here’s my view of the Catalan case. I am a Catalan, my mother tongue is Catalan and I am for independence.

    In the article, the author says we have never voted for independence. That is true, but we also haven’t voted against it. Certainly, the majorities are uncertain on independence and would ultimately reject it, but Catalan society is tremendously complex and polihedral. You can’t understand Catalunya without bearing in mind immigration. In the Franco years, 3,3 million spainiards came to work and live in Catalonia. The vast majority of them were unschooled, uneducated and came from culturally poor societies like Andalusia, Extremadura or Murcia. They settled in this country under fascist protection, they were literally encouraged to leave their land to work in some factory in Catalonia. This was done for 3 main reasons:

    1.To satisfy the Catalan burgeoise who needed lots cheap labor for the hardest working places.

    2.To create a majority of non-Catalan speakers that would overtake the native Catalan speakers, extend Spanish everywhere whilst banning the local language, reducing it to something folkloric which only countrymen would speak.

    3.To impover Catalan culture/identity which was significantly richer than in Spain’s. During the II Republic, Catalonia’s society was overwhelmingly left-wing and for a Catalan State. Communists and Anarchists ruled the country for a couple of years, which was seen as a major threat for Franco. Spanish immigrants came with no defined ideals, no cultural heritage, most of them couldn’t write or read. Most of them couldn’t be bothered to learn Catalan language since it was banned and it could only be heard in close circles in Universities and similar places linked to “knowledge”.

    It should be noted that those 3,3 million spaniards who came here rapidly outnumbered Catalans. It is estimated that by the end of the Spanish Civil War, slightly less than 3 million Catalans were alive. Immigrants statistically reproduced more and had lots of children in contrast to actual Catalans, hence the current situation in Catalonia where Spanish is the most spoken language because of immigration.

    Since language creates identity, most descendants of those vast immigration fluxes feel Spanish as they arguably “are” Spanish and have no ties with Catalonia. Many of them despise Catalan because they cannot understand it and can’t feel attached to it; moreover they see it as a language that makes them different and makes them realize they are not from here.

    So, having briefly explained that background, one that most of us have to live with, it is not strange that Catalans are still not for independence since most of them can’t be, in my opinion, considered as Catalans and wouldn’t vote against their homeland. They only see Spain as their country.

    Also note the higher classes in Catalunya have been traditionally unionist, especially since the II Republic uprise of communism, sindicalism and anarchism which represented a threat to their interests and sometimes even to their lives. However, this tendency is slowly changing in the last years since Spain is a bad business in general; millions of € daily leave for Spain to never come back and our market is no longer Spain-dependant; we have internationalized our market. Independence extends at the rate people realize about the crazy looting going on by Madrid.

    Even so, independence is mostly tied to cultural identity. Most Catalan speakers will see independence as a hope for the future, since they have struggled across Franco and the restless repressions by Spain since the fall of Barcelona in 1714. If you look at a map of the places where independence gains support, you will note that unionism is a majority in the Barcelona Industrial Belt, the Tarragona industrial belt and other spanish immigrant nuclei.

    CiU hasn’t proposed a referendum because they know these facts. Why hold a referendum you are going to lose? They are probably waiting for a moment when polls reflect a change in Catalan society. These changes are already happening and have speeded up since the Spanish Constitutional Court banned Catalunya’s Autonomy Statute and manipulated it’s key aspects (finance, language policies, etc). President Artur Mas has declared himself independentist, just like Jordi Pujol. Pujol was a symbol of Spanish unionism back in the day and a reference point for Catalans. His change has made many minds rethink their position.

    Scotland’s case is equal on the big picture, but our details and specific traits differ. However, for historic and cultural justice, it should gain indepence too and I hope it does.


  15. Angus McLellan

    Many thanks to Rob for replying. I still think I am on much safer ground with my prediction of a referendum before 2016 than Rob is with his “soft-pedal the referendum” one.

    Alex Salmond made clear statements on this during and since the election. And even if there were much space to wriggle on this point, I am not convinced that Salmond would make use of it. We need only look at the tactics he adopted in the 2007 election – planning his return to the Scottish Parliament by standing in a safe LibDem seat – to see that he’s a man who’ll take a gamble. The opposition in Scotland will never be weaker than in the coming years. If not now, when?

  16. Rob Marchant

    @Esteve: Thanks very much for your thoughts, great to have input from an “independentista”! You will see from my piece that I don’t offer a view either for or against independence for Catalonia, my piece is rather about the reality of what I think will happen. I think we largely agree that Mas, like Pujol before him, is playing a long game. That is not to say it will never happen, but it’s not likely to happen any time soon. My point is that if Salmond is smart, he will see this and try and play the same game.

    @Angus: When I say soft-pedal, let me be clear, I don’t mean he won’t have one: he has to. His own people will demand it. But he will also know that he won’t win, so he will be preparing for defeat, probably by ensuring he has lots of other achievements to shout about. I think you’re right that his opposition is terribly weak right now, and for that reason it’s a good time.

    Trouble is, even then, the will to independence is weak. The latest poll shows a third of the SNP’s own supporters don’t even want it. People voted SNP for a lot of reasons other than independence. A big one was to kick Labour and the Lib Dems.

    If he pulls it off, it will be an amazing electoral and constitutional coup which could have reverberations across the world (Quebec, Belgium, Spain, Italy). But I don’t think he will.

  17. Seon Caimbeul

    Mebbes ye ken mair about Català than ye dae about Scotlan. Mebbes no.

    You can’t seriously expect to offer comparisons between Catalunya and Scotland without mentioning Scots. Scots is almost completely banned from education and media in Scotland. It is almost completely banned from public life. Most of us over fifty will remember how children were punished for speaking it in school. That so few people now speak it is the result of English nationalist (=fascist) policies in education and public life.

    I would guess that you’ve never heard of it or that you decided, as many English people do, that it just shouldn’t exist and doesn’t matter. Even in an article that purports to offer authoritative comment on language and politics!

    Just shows how anglocentric the Labour view of the world has become.

    There are many, many English immigrants in Scotland. They don’t tend to learn Scots, they tend to claim not to be able to understand it. Some are offended by it being spoken to them. Some are offended by it being spoken at all. That doesn’t prevent them from wanting to see independence for Scotland.

    The SNP is an English language party. There are no non-English language political parties in Scotland. Many English immigrants vote SNP. Many are members. There’s nothing odd or unusual about that from a Scottish perspective.

    When we demand more control over our media and demand more for our languages then there will be an English nationalist backlash.

    English nationalism is the dominant force in politics in Scotland as well as in England.

    Your article doesn’t really tell us much about Spanish nationalism, the dominant force in Spanish politics, and how Catalan language and identity are constantly under attack from Spanish nationalists in a range of Spanish parties.

    Your article says nothing about English nationalism. As if the SNP was the only nationalist party. As if Labour isn’t an English nationalist party.

    You don’t say much about Catalan. You don’t say that it’s mutually intelligible with Castillian. You don’t say if your wife speaks Catalan or speaks Castillan. Could you have been affected by Spanish nationalist sentiments? Does your wife speak Spanish or Catalan? Have you tried to learn your wife’s language? How far did you get?

    Is Scots any less different from English than Catalan from Spanish?

    Have you ever been to Scotland? Do you really know anything about it? It doesn’t seem from your article that you know very much about any of the things you are talking about.

    Thank goodness for people like esteve who can actually tell us something of the situation in Catalunya.

    Gràcies esteve, salut!

    PS if being invaded and having your politicians and folk heroes executed were the main criteria for independence then Scotland would easily qualify until the 20th century when two world wars gave an excuse for complete military occupation and rebels were imprisoned or sent to the front.

  18. Rob Marchant

    @Seon: well you started off quite sensibly, then ended up on a rant. If you really think the English are fascists then we’ve reached a point of no sensible debate.

    Yes [sigh], I have been to Scotland, have Scots roots and my mother is (mostly) Welsh. I am not an English colonialist, no. But – it’s a personal thing – I am for the Union with Scotland (as are, apparently, 58% of Scots).

    I am perfectly aware of Scots, however it, you will probably be highly offended to hear, is an minority language in the extreme, as you well know. Catalan, on the other hand, is ubiquitous and spoken by nearly everyone in Catalonia. That’s why I didn’t consider it merited much time. Sorry, but it’s the truth.

    I appreciate you might not like what I’m saying, but you haven’t given a valid counterargument to any one of the four main points.

  19. Seon Caimbeul

    Rant? Whit rant? A’ll gie ye rant . .

    I responded to your points about language. The civic nationalism of the SNP, which is becoming increasingly popular here, isn’t based on language. I offered the view that you don’t know enough about language, or about Scotland to attempt to write an article with any authority. I also suggested that you don’t know enough about Català either. Thank you for your reply. It confirms what I suspected. You decided to ignore Scots. You don’t know how many people speak it. You mention your mother being (mostly) Welsh, whatever that means. As if that allows you to understand Scotland. You say you have been to Scotland and have Scottish roots, whatever that means. I suspect it means that you have some Scottish ancestry. But you avoid saying whether your wife speaks Catalan or not. At no point did I say that the English are fascists. I said that English nationalist (=fascist) policies in education and public life in Scotland destroyed our languages. Physically punishing children for speaking their own language is something we can easily describe as fascist. I didn’t say much about your other points, for example, your frankly stupid dismissal of the worth of Scottish oil, (try reading the McCrone report that was suppressed by Labour) your ignorance of our industrial history and how our industrial infrastructure were destroyed by English nationalist governments, your obvious lack of awareness of renewable energy infrastructure that is being built right now. You wonder how it took “so long” to achieve a nationalist majority government in Scotland yet you ignore the fact that we’ve only had devolved government since 1999 and the voting system was designed deliberately to make sure that there could never be an SNP majority.

    The main problem with your article, what is wrong with most articles written by English nationalists, is that you aren’t able to understand forms of nationalism other than your own (essentially race-based) English nationalism, you don’t understand languages other than your own English and so when you try and write authoritatively about these subjects you tend to end up just talking about yourselves to yourselves. A bit like masturbating in public.

    Then you have the cheek to go off in a huff when somebody tells you to stop.

    Your article is full of the most ridiculous inconsistencies. You offer Catalunya as evidence for what might happen in Scotland and then you shoot yourself in the foot by emphasising so many of the differences between the two countries. There are many ways in which an article comparing Catalunya and Scotland could be interesting, informative, even entertaining and thought-provoking. You decided not to bother with any of those. The SNP’s brand of civic nationalism is popular here just now. It is not a language based nationalism. The attacks that the Catalan people receive from the Spanish nationalists are not just in the past, they are what happen in the present and they are often focussed on language. Attitudes to language are often what reveal fascists. Maybe time you had a wee look at yourself?

  20. Miqui Mel

    Scottish independence: time for a homage to Catalonia? Left Foot Forward

  21. Pep Gimeno

    RT @miquimel: Scottish independence: time for a homage to Catalonia? Left Foot Forward

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