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A trick question : Catalan & Scottish independence

Updated: Dec 21, 2022

An impending Catalan referendum on independence dismissed as illegal by the central Government via The constitutional court. Here we are again, teetering on the brink of domestic chaos as Barcelona and Madrid are on a collision course, in the perennial political hot potato that is Catalan independence.

Brits have undergone two divisive and bitter referendum campaigns in recent years, the Brexit campaign and that of Scottish independence. The Scottish nationalist campaign draws natural parallels with the Catalan question. Such parallels are oblique. The history, constitutional arrangements and approach are very different, but there are key lessons that could be learnt from the Scotland experience. A ballot sold as a “once in a generation” opportunity was narrowly lost by the nationalist campaign. There are bitter recriminations about the style of the “No” campaign, dubbed “Project Fear” by the losing side, but when under clear pressure to produce fiscal plans and coherent strategy for separation the Independence campaign was found wanting by the Scots, and distasteful by the population south of the border.

Scots are often stereotyped as not being generous with their money, a stereotype of Catalans often cited by the Spanish. The discussion in both places, seems to revolve around finances. Who benefits most from a Union, the satellite or the centre? Catalans argue they contribute more to the Madrid purse than they receive from central funding, much as Scottish nationalists argue that the oil profits have propped up British finances. Both London and Madrid argue that significantly more per capita funding heads north than to other regions and the recalcitrant separatists could not survive alone. The campaign in Scotland was increasingly acrimonious and drew distaste from the rest of the Union as nationalist proposals read increasingly like a divorce without surrendering the joint credit card. Such was the strength of feeling that it is now often said for Scotland to win independence they should ask the Welsh, English and Northern Irish to vote on the issue. There seems to be a growing attitude of similar exhaustion amongst Spaniards regarding Cataluña.

The problem that is apparent in both the Scottish and Catalan nationalist campaigns is two fold. Firstly, such political movements garner support by appealing to the heart rather than the head. Waving a flag and laying the fault of all society's failings on the occupying overlord. This brings significant political gain and a solid power base but requires a constant escalation of emotion and identity to maintain relevance. This is possibly why the paramilitary conflicts of the Basques and Northern Ireland have moved in a different direction. The reality of corrosive violence and murder brings a stark reality to political barter. It could be argued that without such horrendous bloodshed, pragmatism will not overcome the ever increasing demands of the politics of identity.

The second issue, sadly, feeds the first. Such movements built on such energy of emotion cannot accept defeat. All failed attempts to achieve the goal are resold to the world as steps toward the goal. To admit the ultimate aim is unachievable leaves the aspirations of a generation of political operators in tatters. The relentless drive to expend emotional investment in the unending quest builds expectations that are impossible to deliver.

This leads to an odious conclusion that will have separatists spluttering with rage. Political movements, such as those in Cataluña and Scotland, cannot achieve their stated aims, in fact, they benefit from the never-ending story rather than the destination. They are a campaign, and once objectives are achieved, the ties that bind come loose. Once the bogeyman catch all blame of London or Madrid down south is removed from the rhetoric, people would grow tired of failure rather quickly. So such movements walk a tight rope between hyped emotional energy, a population believing nirvana is just around the corner, while using that threat to squeeze ever better deals from the central government machine and maintaining devolved autonomy.

The rhetoric in both Madrid and Barcelona is unhelpful, let alone inaccurate. Madrid, contrary to public outcry, are not behaving like fascists. A clear demonstration of authoritarian diktat, certainly. Anti-democratic idiocy, quite probably. Labelling them fascist serves no useful purpose and feeds the fevered hyperbole of the debate, the actions alone are enough to feed the emotive apparent moral high ground of the separatist position. Barcelona will make great play of this and will feed a victim mentality as ballots are seized and those that facilitate the vote are marched away. Tempers are fraying as large crowds gather in the streets. If Rajoy was able to allow the referendum campaign to happen like Cameron did in the UK, the inevitable flaws in the emotive independence bid would have been exposed and democracy served, marginalising the separatist movement for a generation, however much noise they make to the contrary. Or possibly, the domineering haughty attitude of the ailing political class in Spain would have only managed to ignite the fires in the hearts of the floating voters and handed independence to the region. It is clear to most observers the most successful recruiting sergeant for the independence campaign has been Rajoy himself. If anything the events of the past 18 months should have demonstrated to us all that people when offered a vote can be delightfully unpredictable. The legal position is clear and not in dispute, but surely even the most fervent critics of the Catalan separatist movement cannot deny the continued refusal of a referendum does not cast the Spanish state in a good light to most overseas observers.

While the state and the aspirational state act with disappointing predictability, we can be quite sure, this dance of a thousand sighs will continue to an accelerated and pulsating rhythm. It is, by design, an issue that simply is not going to go away, and as such is another in a long line of issues that serves a smoke screen to shroud the unremitting failure of the Spanish political class to manage the affairs of State.

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