I must confess that an interest in Catalonian politics was not the principal reason for my presence in Barcelona this week. There was also the much more important matter of a football match. But sometimes sport serves as a metaphor for the wider argument. I recall, the last time Celtic played Barcelona, sitting beside one of their directors at lunch and the conversation turning to political comparisons between our two nations, which while inexact are close enough to be relevant.
Rhodri Glyn Thomas looks ahead to negotiations over European funding for Wales in Brussels next month
While Catalans regularly returned Nationalist governments to the regional assembly, he explained, they did so mainly in order to exercise leverage on the centre – in their case Madrid. Only a quarter of the population would be likely to vote for independence, though he quickly added that he would count himself among that number.
Ah, I replied, you must really be looking forward to the day when your big game of the season is against Espanyol (the other Catalan club) rather than Real Madrid in El Classico. The silence that followed suggested that this was not a prospect to which he had given consideration. Finally he deployed the ultimate Nationalist argument: “A way would be found to get round that.”
It was a friendly occasion and the conversation moved on, though if I had wished to pursue the subject, it would have been to say: “Oh, no it won’t, mate, if our experience is anything to go by.” Cross-border leagues do not figure in Uefa’s thinking which goes a long way towards explaining the difficulties faced by Scottish football. We are excluded from being part of something bigger.
The Catalan independence movement has been given a considerable boost by Spain’s economic difficulties and that 25 per cent figure, according to opinion polls, has increased significantly, though it is still in the minority. The Spanish constitution does not permit referendums but the Catalan government intends to press ahead with a “public consultation” if, as expected, the Nationalists win an election next month.
For very obvious reasons, therefore, events in Scotland are of considerable interest here. And this is reciprocated. The SNP has long cultivated links with Nationalist movements around Europe whom they see as kindred spirits. As one prominent SNP MSP put it last week, independence offers both Catalans and Basques an “escape from unfair and unjust Spanish rule”.
This enthusiasm for breaking up Spain (and maybe a bit of France) as well as the United Kingdom is perfectly rational in its own terms. For many of its adherents, Nationalism is an ideology rather than a cause restricted to Scotland. If one believes that the boundaries of a state should equate to those of a nation, then it is perfectly logical to apply that philosophy beyond one’s own borders. Logical but dangerous.
The problem is that most states are made up of more than one nation. One of the nonsenses we have been fed over the years is that there is something unique about Scotland’s position within the United Kingdom as a nation that is part of a bigger state. “You don’t believe Scotland is a nation,” the Nationalists are wont to tell opponents, to which the answer is: “Of course Scotland is a nation, dumbo, but that is not the same as wanting it to be a state.”
Scotland, we are often told, does not have a “seat at the top table”, as if the achievement of Scottish independence would result in another chair being brought into the room and life going on as before. The EU, now Nato and every other international organisation, we are invited to assume, would welcome us with open arms as the lost tribe of Europe once our allegedly anomalous status as a nation which is not a state had been resolved.
It is, of course, simplistic nonsense. If all the nations in Europe which are not states were to go down the same route, then it would be necessary to hire a very large room in order to accommodate that legendary piece of furniture, the top table. And if all the Nationalist movements inside the EU were to take heart from a Scottish secession, then the political unity of many countries would become much more fragile.
Leave aside for the moment the question of whether the world would be a better or safer place if the boundaries within Europe reverted to those of 300 years ago.
For countries which have their own Nationalist movements, it is inevitable that the Scottish debate is of direct and legitimate interest – not out of any great concern about Scotland but because of the messages that would be sent to their own internal movements demanding secession or greater autonomy.
And this is why the concerns of Spain and other countries about prospective Scottish membership of the EU are so significant and, from their own point of view, entirely reasonable. If the message went out to Catalans, Basques and half a dozen other Nationalist movements that a seceding state would simply waltz into the EU as of right and on its own conditions, then the implications for the internal politics of these countries would be enormous.
So how on earth could the Scottish Government defend not publishing the legal advice it claimed to have received on this crucial issue? Whatever it said, all reasonable people agreed, it should have been in the public domain. Well, now we know why it was not published – it never existed. Like so much else associated with this outfit, it was all a fraud and deception based on the assumption that they would get away with it.
At the moment, the prospectus of the SNP appears to be that we are going to be members of the EU but not accept its rules; that we are going to retain the pound sterling while breaking away from Britain; that we are going to be members of the Nato nuclear alliance but not have nuclear weapons; that we are going to have a different immigration policy from what’s left of the UK but not have border controls, and so airily on.
The common theme that runs through these contradictions is that the Nationalists assume the right to make their own rules and that everyone else will abandon theirs in order to abide by them. The fantasy that one team can also act as referee whenever a problem arises, while the rest of the world looks on in awe, is increasingly ripe for ridicule.