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.

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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.

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