Catalans are watching Scotland closely

Geraint Talfan Davies reports from Barcelona on Catalonia’s national day when 400,000 will join hands the length of their coastline

Few people know that today, 11th of September, is Catalonia’s national day – La Diada – when it celebrates, or rather mourns, the loss of Catalonian independence. This is the day Catalan forces were defeated and Barcelona captured by the Bourbon army at the end of the War of Spanish Succession in 1714, and subjected to Castile. It was a rather different end to independence than that of Scotland’s seven years earlier: military defeat, nothing like the same level of local acquiescence, and no joining of Parliaments.

Tomorrow on ClickonWales

David Melding argues that if the UK is to survive unionism needs to speak the language of bilingual nationalism. His new book The Reformed Union: the UK as a Federation is published as an E-book and is available for download here.

Even today there would seem to a greater head of steam behind Catalan independence than there is behind Scottish independence. On their national day last year, 1.5 million Catalans (out of a population of 7.5 million) turned out in a massive demonstration in favour of independence. Soon after, at the Barcelona football stadium, precisely 17 minutes and 14 seconds after the start of a game with arch rivals Madrid, the crowd starting chanting the word ‘independencia’. Today 400,000 people will join hands along the length of the Catalonian coast in a similar protest. The Catalans are clearly good organisers. Scottish feelings seem rather more hesitant by comparison. Or are the Scots behaving in a more British or, at least, more northern European way?

The same might be said of the behaviour of the respective central governments in Madrid and London. Whereas one can argue that the acquiescence of successive British Governments in the devolution process is in a tradition of British gradualist reform -constantly heading off something perceived to be worse, like democracy in the 19th Century – the response of Madrid has been much more hard line, whether under monarchs, dictatorships or democratic governments.

The consequences of the loss of independence for what was then the Principality of Catalonia (under the crown of Aragon) were much more severe than for Scotland. In fact, they were more akin to the consequences of Wales’s union with England in 1536: abolition of existing privileges, centralised administration, relegation or repression of the indigenous language, and consequent decline of its literary tradition. Economic development, particularly in the latter half of the 19th Century fuelled national feeling in Catalonia, Scotland and Wales, but Scottish involvement in the British Empire created a quite different focus.

A brief revival of limited Catalonian government took place in 1914 but was quickly snuffed out in 1920s by another Spanish dictator of the 20th Century, the aristocrat Primo de Rivera. It was revived again by the Second Spanish Republic only to be suppressed by Franco after his defeat of republican forces and did not see the light of day for another forty years. The Generalitat of Catalonia was restored in 1977 after Franco’s death and the return of democracy.

This is a very different history from that of Scotland or Wales despite any generic similarities. The dissimilarities continue. Whereas David Cameron and Alex Salmond have agreed on the terms of the Scottish referendum, and on the right of the people of Scotland to decide their own fate, the Madrid government accepts no such thing. Its line is that Spain is Spain, and that no inherent sovereignty resides in the people of any part if it. This is a very different approach and one that critics see as fuelling the Catalan independence movement rather than containing it. The Catalan government of Artur Mas – wishing to stay, if possible, within constitutional bounds – is torn between holding an informal poll or simply using next year’s election as a plebiscite.

Madrid tends to see the prospect of Catalan independence as an existential threat to Spain. By contrast England, perhaps scarred by the history of its relationship with Ireland, perhaps because of its more stable democratic tradition, sees no existential threat to itself even if the loss of Scotland (less than 10 per cent of the UK population) would mean a diminishment of Britain in the world. Symbolic declarations of sovereignty may be water off a ducks back to Westminster politicians delighting in our largely unwritten constitution. However, Catalonia’s 2006 Statute of Autonomy – despite being accepted by the Madrid Government of the time – has now been referred to Spain’s constitutional court. Welsh jurisdictional rows between Cardiff Bay and Westminster might well be labelled ‘Spanish practices’.

Of course, the perceived existential threat to Spain has an economic basis. Catalonia represents 19 per cent of the Spanish population, 20 per cent of its GDP, and nearly 20 per cent of all central government income. It is a net contributor to the Spanish exchequer since it currently receives only about 10 per cent of central government expenditures. A Declaration of Independence by Boris Johnson might have the same effect in Britain. The parlous state of Spain’s finances exacerbate the problem.

One commentator has described Catalonia as “the most Scandinavian Mediterranean country”. But despite being an industrial powerhouse, unemployment in Catalonia is only a few percentage points behind Spain’s overall rate of 26 per cent. Catalan critics of Madrid claim that a scheme introduced in 2010 to equalise the fiscal capacities of Spain’s 15 regions (excluding the Basque Country and Navarre) overcooked things, leaving Catalonia – the region with the fourth highest per capita GDP (behind Madrid, the Basque Country and Navarre) – with a fiscal capacity lower than the average for all regions. Where Catalonia sees injustice, Madrid sees selfishness. Whatever the economic rights and wrongs, the politics was not clever. On the face of the data Catalonia need have less fear of the economics of independence than Scotland.

Madrid has also been accused of treading on the eggshell of the Catalan language, strengthening Spanish language rights within Catalonia and interfering with Catalan language policy, especially in relation to immigrants. This is seen an important in a situation where only 58 per cent of the population are Catalan born (comparable, say, with north east Wales) with 24 per cent born in the rest of Spain and 17 per cent born abroad.

It is doubtful whether the mass of tourists that now swarm over Barcelona’s main attractions – Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia seems to be merely the world’s most spectacular and crowded roundabout – will be conscious of these strong currents of opinion and argument. Catalonia is not only the country of Gaudi, but also of Miro, Dali, Picasso, Casals, Caballe and Carreras. Yet when the Olympics made Barcelona a world famous city it perhaps eclipsed the country of which it is such a culturally vital capital. Political developments in the next year may change that. In the meantime Catalans will be watching Scotland closely.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA.

18 thoughts on “Catalans are watching Scotland closely

  1. As usual, a fine article by Geraint. But I was stunned by this:
    “Madrid tends to see the prospect of Catalan independence as an existential threat to Spain. By contrast England, perhaps scarred by the history of its relationship with Ireland, perhaps because of its more stable democratic tradition, sees no existential threat to itself even if the loss of Scotland (less than 10 per cent of the UK population) would mean a diminishment of Britain in the world”.
    Surely the opposite is true. England is probably the least assured nation in Europe. The English desperately need a lesson in existentialism. Whereas Catalans, Scots (and even ourselves) are fairly sure of who we are and what we want, the English are a “lost tribe”. Hence, their visceral reactions in the face of change or challenge – be it against Scottish independence, the EU, or perceived threats to “our way of life”. What the English are not (and I work with them on a daily basis, and therefore hear their political views constantly) is themselves. Undoubtedly, the best thing to happen to England would be a Scottish Yes vote. Then they would have to self-reflect. When that happens they will invariably choose to ‘stand alone’ and they will rapidly eschew Wales and Northern Ireland.
    For those of you who rate the Union, enjoy your UK whilst you have it. In the meantime, hearty greetings to all Catalans. Enjoy La Diada!

  2. “Whereas one can argue that the acquiescence of successive British Governments in the devolution process is in a tradition of British gradualist reform.”

    In relation to ruling other countries/peoples I disagree. “British” Governments have been equally brutal to any tyrant in putting down opposition to their rule all over the old Empire right down to Aden and Ireland in the latter part of the 20th Century. I have even heard English Unionists on TV opining the loss of Eire and (seriously) wanting to “take it back” which I take to mean “Invade”.

    “By contrast England, perhaps scarred by the history of its relationship with Ireland, perhaps because of its more stable democratic tradition, sees no existential threat to itself even if the loss of Scotland (less than 10 per cent of the UK population) would mean a diminishment of Britain in the world.”

    Don’t you believe it!

    The Scottish referendum is, by definition, a matter for Scotland, but look and listen to the London media and English politicians who are muscling in on it. Even to the extent to claim that they claim they should have a vote in the referendum too!!! I have little doubt that the Labour/Conservative Alliance would send the troops in to Scotland to stop Independence. At the moment they don’t think they need to. They control nearly all the means of propaganda, but if that backfired their knee-jerk reaction will be to look first to violence. Whether they will actually resort to it is another question these days. The Americans probably won’t allow it.

  3. “Surely the opposite is true. England is probably the least assured nation in Europe.”
    Now there’s a quantifiable, evidenced and objective statement if ever I saw one;)

    “The English desperately need a lesson in existentialism. Whereas Catalans, Scots (and even ourselves) are fairly sure of who we are and what we want”
    Indeed we are sure Bob Jones! 93% of us dont want independence for Wales! That’s never going to change to 51% wanting independence in our lifetimes… or even 50.3% of some pathetic turn out if you’d prefer.

    I’d suggest you concentrate on something that can be changed within our lifetime…. the state of Welsh education and healthcare is as good a place as any to start. Perhaps there’s a lesson there for most IWA contributors.

  4. The most recent poll I saw showed more English respondents than Scottish responents were in favour of independence for Scotland – 25 per cent against 23 per cent. The English governing classes would regret any diminution of their standing in the world (the sacred Security Council seat and all that) but the bulk of English people would be fairly indifferent and would certainly not support a colonial invasion, as fantasized by Gwyn.

  5. A thoughtful article by GTD. I have lived in Madrid (with many business trips to Barcelona) for 20 of the last 24 years of my life and support Welsh independence as long as long as it is peaceful. But, before voicing blanket support for smaller countries becoming independent, I believe it is important to reflect on the means, the ends and the political and social conditions in the country concerned.

    Left-leaning Welsh and Scottish nationalists need to think carefully before supporting Basque and Catalonian separatism, whose main parties are right-wing (PNV and CiU). Both regions are richer than the 15 others in Spain (with the exception of Madrid and Navarre) and seek to reduce the subsidies they pay to poorer regions (as many Londoners, Parisians, Madrileños etc would no doubt wish).
    Some Basques and Catalans will evoke work ethic as a reason for their prosperity but I feel one of the main reasons for their riches is proximity to European markets. Wales and Scotland are peripheral to London and the EU. Catalonia and the Basque Country are peripheral to Madrid but close to the EU

    The poorer people in Catalonia tend to speak Spanish (whether the “immigrants” from the South of Spain who are disparagingly referred to by some Catalans as “charnegos” or immigrants from Latin America) and are anti-independence because they fear becoming even more of a second-class citizen than now (they are much less likely to turn out in autonomous elections or “plebiscites” organised by the nationalist parties). A trip to Barcelona will also confirm that most of this Spanish-speaking underclass is confined to the shabby post-industrial suburbs either side of Barcelona’s magnificent central grid. It would be a bit like finding English migrants to Wales in the most deprived council estates of Cardiff! Catalan is compulsory in the schools and a requirement for most jobs, probably all in the state sector. Some will say “just like the Taffia” but the difference of scale is enormous. Catalan native speakers have a huge advantage over Spanish speakers (both migrants from the south and recent immigrants Latin America) While 58% are Catalan-born this includes the children of many of the first wave of migrants from Southern Spain who have resisted assimilation and tend to vote for the socialist party (PSC), which saddled Catalonia with an unsustainable debt. Children who speak Catalan at home are less than 30%. Having said that, learning Catalan for a Spanish-speaker is akin to a Berliner learning Swiss German so most residents understand Catalan

    While a wonderful place to live with extraordinarily generous people, Spain’s democratic tradition is shaky, the judiciary is not independent and political corruption is rife. In this sense Catalonia is very much an integral part of Spain and I foresee that some prominent Catalan nationalist politicians who have embezzled millions will have their cases “filed” mysteriously at some convenient moment. When voting in local and European elections in Madrid, I was horrified to see members of political parties checking my identity while I cast my vote (in the UK I thought the political activists had to be outside or maybe it’s nostalgia!). The thought of walking in to vote in the Basque country with this system (where one party is the political wing of ETA) is terrifying

    I think Catalan independence is a distinct possibility despite the threats of a forced exit from the EU and a Spanish veto. I also feel that a referendum should be granted and the democratic will of the people respected. But anyone concerned with social justice must examine carefully the consequences for those without a voice and an independent Catalonia has as much work to do on its institutions as the country it may leave

  6. Eastern Europe had it’s ‘constitutional reinvention’ a generation or so ago, now it’s the turn of Western Europe I suspect. It’s been a long time coming. Rhyddid!

  7. @belowlandsker- the case for Welsh independence has never been put to the Welsh people. A small number of people would vote to leave the UK in Wales at the present time, because at the present time there is next to no solid and continuous debate about what Welsh independence would mean and how it would work, and why it should happen. The unknown and undebated has a bearing on the 9% figure. I’m not saying people would overwhelmingly vote to leave were a two year campaign and a referendum were put to the Welsh population, but the fact that a Welsh nation-state has never been discussed in main stream political discourse is a determining factor without a doubt. However mark my words, that discussion will happen before I’m grey whatever the outcome. Our post-colonial mindset doesn’t help either.

  8. This article could be subtitled “why Spain will veto an independent Scotland joining the EU”

  9. I seem to remember similar people saying similar things about devolution i.e that ” it will never happen in my lifetime” etc. However what tends to happen is a gradual almost imperceptable move to freedom and I have no doubt that process will continue in Wales as well as Scotland and Catalonia. History will show that states born from bloodshed and oppression like the UK as well as Spain and others are currently in their death throes.

    I wouldn’t mind having a little wager that within a generation Wales will be in charge of all the important levers of power including Taxation, Borrowing and Micro/Macro Economic policy. As was stated, ‘Devolution is a process not an event’ and I doubt we are even halfway on that journey. As more and more people appreciate the benefits of devolution, the current fears about Welsh freedom will diminish. After all it took just 18 years to turn a massive no vote on devolution into a positive.

    I doubt many of the Unionist reactionaries rest easy in their beds at present. The tide of history is against them and they know it!

  10. ‘The nightmare scenario for Scotland is voting for separation and the Orkney and Shetland Islands opting for a channel islands type arrangement’… (with thanks to Mike Hedges).

    Where would this leave Wales?

  11. belowthelandsker – Rubbish.

    The people of Wales have always been looking towards independence from England. 60% are open to the prospect of freedom from England.

    The English Conservative Party in Wales is “relaxed” about Wales becoming Independent.

    The English Labour Party in Wales says that Independence is “inevitable”.

    Because we’re conquered our confidence has been battered. Conquest is immoral, illegal and unjust so let’s assert ourselves and throw off the yoke and work WITH other nations NOT UNDER them.

  12. “because at the present time there is next to no solid and continuous debate about what Welsh independence would mean ”

    Lol! I nearly fell off my chair at that one! No debate?!? Where have you been the past few years? Look at the past articles on this very site, orchestrated debates by Radio Wales…. barely a day goes by without the question of independence being thrust in to the Welsh public domain by those that currently make a handsome living out of devolution (but would do even better out of independence).

    As for Gwyn… I didnt quote a reference for my figure for those against independence because I knew I wouldnt have to- it’s common knowledge. However, I’m sure many of us would love to know where you pulled yours from.

  13. The last three times I talked to English people about independence for Wales, England and Scotland the reply from all of them was more or less identical……”We’re just a small island. We need to stick together in case somebody invades us”. And that’s was it. Paranoid and living in the past where British military might was a force on the world stage or what? The last time was on Saturday night……just after ‘The last night at the proms’ when the couple I chatted to were on the crest of English/Brit euphoria. I know because I was in a pub listening to them sing along to ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Jerusalem’ etc. Talk of living in the past…..

  14. @ David

    I take your point but are you sure they said “in case somebody invades us” or did you add that bit?

    I think the bit about being a small island is actually a very valid point! Perhaps you could point us to examples of multiple succesful countries all on the same island…. because all I’m thinking is Haiti/Dominican Republic, East/West Timor, PNG/Irian Jaya…. not exactly encouraging examples are they?

    Of course though, one must not expect confidence inspiring examples from Welsh Nationalists… let us not forget the shining examples they’ve pointed at thus far: Iceland – banking crisis anyone, Ireland – no comment needed (other than perhaps ‘have you been there recently!?!?’) and last but not least the Basque country – great! Cant wait for the Welsh version on ETA!

    I think I’ll stick with the status quo thanks all the same!

  15. also, your experience in the pub sounds truly horrendous and cringeworthy! but in the interests of balance in relation to ‘living in the past’…. ever seen the unsheething of the sword by the Gorsedd of the bards at the eisteddfod?

  16. The Spanish situation is not a particularly good proxy for the British situation, despite the tempting parallels.

    GTD hints at the main difference but shies away from exploring it in any depth. That is a pity, since the reasons why Britain and Spain will go down different paths in the next 10 or 20 years lie almost exclusively in them.

    Spanish political philosophy is largely based on Continental (and more specifically French) constitutionalism. At various points in its history, it has anchored its ideas of democracy and sovereignty to the abstractions of the ‘patria’ and ‘immutable rights and obligations’ as defined by reason and natural law (with the occasional [violent] swing back to clericalism and feudalism from time to time). Rather like the USA, political priorities and the idea of the ‘truth’ have therefore been fossilised in a 200 year-old constitution (or constitutional tradition in the case of Spain – since the 1978 constitution is merely the latest incarnation of a tradition dating back to 1807). Whilst the terms of the debate are still determined by a dogged faith in the Napoleonic ‘code’ they are highly unlikely to break free from arcane debates about the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ of political separation. Were this only a characteristic of the Castilians, things might be different, but even Catalans struggle to define their own issues and solutions in empirical and pragmatic terms. Prolonged conflict (possibly violent but certainly destructive) is inevitable.

    Contrary to the fears of some of the contributors’ on this blog, British political philosophy, and its underlying ‘constitution’, is largely free of this impediment. ‘Right’ and ‘wrong’ (and most other abstractions) are largely irrelevant in the British constitutional tradition. ‘Good for my interests’ and ‘bad for my interests’ largely determine the terms of a constitutional debate. If all players in the British game remain loyal to the principles and practice of a free market and cooperative defence, there are very few pragmatic barriers left to ‘political’ independence, and neither should there be.

    I am deeply worried about the powder keg that is Spain at the moment. I am utterly relaxed about British constitutional development and a likely confederation of free-trading partners.

    For that reason I caution David Melding and others from trying to set in stone today’s values and today’s solutions, believing that they are somehow based on immutable principles. The Spanish constitution is the reductum ad absurdum of that proposition.

  17. Thanks Phil Davies,

    Much opposition to Catalan independence is couched in constitutional language which is unfamiliar to most people from the UK

    The date of 1714 seems more meaningless to me than 1282 and 1536 in terms of justifying independence. Surely democracy is the reference not the whims of a few aristocrats (although the parallels with some of the political class are glaring!) What I haven’t seen mentioned in this debate is that the 1978 constitution was voted for by an overwhelming majority of Spanish MPs: 345 for, 6 against and 4 abstentions. Only one nationalist MP voted against along with the 5 right wing MPs.

    As for the “people”: Only 4 regions were more enthusiastic about the constitution than Catalonia and even in the Basque Country 69% voted in favour! That constitution did not include provision for self-determination so why did people and MPs vote in favour (or at best abstain?)

    Please an international constitutional law expert, set us right!

  18. @belowlandsker- are you capable of having an intelligent debate without resorting to belittling other peoples points of view and writing ‘lol’ like some immature 12 year old? In fact, the case for Welsh independence has never, ever been put. Once it has, more people will embrace the idea.

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