Scotland and Catalonia at the Crossroad of Independence

by on Thursday, 05 December 2013 Comments

A comparison between the independence movements in the two european territories. 

It happens that I am originally from a territory and I live nowadays in a different one, whose citizens are involved, simultaneously, in discussions about political independence. I am a native of Catalonia, which is one of Spain's seventeen regions. For the last four years, I have worked and lived in Scotland, one of the four countries that alongside England, Wales and Northern Ireland form the United Kingdom. I am also the president of an association that represents the Catalan diaspora in Scotland, and this role has given me numerous opportunities to compare the two political processes in Scotland and Catalonia. The people from these two territories hold a strong sense of national pride based on millenarian culture, traditions and language. The emergence of many successful (think Sweden), sexy (think Costa Rica), smart (think Singapore), even cool (think Iceland) small countries in the world since the start of the 21st century has fueled the independence aspirations of some Catalans and Scots since then.

The similarities between the political processes in these two countries mainly refer to the coincidence of space and time. Both territories belong to the European Union and will hold a referendum on secession in 2014. This is a very iconic year in the history of both nations: 2014 is the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, where Scotland first became independent from England and the commemoration of the 300th years of the defeat of the Catalan-Aragon kingdom against the Spanish crown. Beside its symbolism, the coincidence of the referendum year might have significant consequences. The voting results in one place might favor or weaken the independence position in the other one as a result of a mimetic effect. The specific date of the Catalan referendum will be announced in the following weeks, but in deciding on one date or another, Catalan government officials are considering the date of the Scottish referendum (September 18, 2014) as an important factor to take into account. Some people in Catalonia think it makes sense to hold the Catalan referendum before Scotland does in case the no vote prevails there. Similarly, the holding of the Catalan referendum before the Scottish referendum might favour both groups, assuming a pro-independence victory in Catalonia. Likewise, the fact that both Spain and the United Kingdom are member states of the European Union has raised concerns in Catalonia and Scotland about the future status of their citizens, if each region seceded. Membership in the European Union, including op-outs from the euro and free travel areas, are therefore similar topics of debate in both contexts.

 However, the resemblances between the two independence movements stop here. The main difference is that Scotland's independence movement is 'top down' while Catalunya's is 'bottom up'. In Scotland, the process is practically exclusively led by one political party, the Scottish National Party (SNP) that won a historic majority on May 2011. In Catalonia, by contrast, the pro-independence movement rose from the grassroots and has pushed political parties, forcing them to take an increasingly clear position on independence. Several members of the four main political parties in Catalonia support independence, but there is no single party or a single leader to run the process. This political plurality makes the process much more complicated to manage, but also more transversal.

Despite the fact that the 'yes' option is rising in the two territories, there are some differences in the citizens' support for independence. The referendum results will be the definitive proof of this disparity, but until then, we have to rely on more ambiguous indicators. According to the latest polls, more than 50% of the population of Catalonia would vote for independence, while this compares to a third of Scots (44%). It is important to consider that, as with any survey, the sampling population and the wording of the questions have a massive effect on the poll results . However, some people interpret the results in Scotland as a paradox: SNP support in the latest elections doubled while support for Scottish independence has increased less rapidly. In fact, this is the main challenge of the referendum campaign in Scotland: to convert the popularity of the SNP as a party into votes for independence. An alternative form of evidence of the popular backing for independence in the two regions is the amount of people taking part in the annual independence rallies. Two years ago, more than a 1.5 million pro-Catalan independence supporters brought Barcelona to a standstill and last September, thousands of people formed a 400km (250 mile) human chain across Catalonia. This figures contrast to the 20,000 participants at the latest independence march in Scotland.

One final difference between the Catalan and the Scottish political process is the attitude of the central governments in Madrid and London, which is rooted in the distinct formation of the Spanish and British states. Whereas the United Kingdom is the result of a political and fiscal agreement in 1707 between two sovereign kingdoms (Scotland and England), Spain's current political and administrative structure is the result of a civil war, forty years of a dictatorship and a precarious transition to democracy. These two contrasting historical trajectories have resulted into two very distinctive political styles and constitutional systems. Bilateral negotiation between the constitutive parts of the British state is the standard practice. Instead, as the Catalan Prime Minister explained in a letter published in the New York Times last September, countless demands for more political and fiscal autonomy from Catalonia to Madrid have been rejected out of hand by the central government and court rulings. Even worse, calls for a referendum have been responded by threats to suspend Catalonia's autonomy amid accusations of military sedition against the Catalan government.

(Photo above by Oscar Gracià)

Cataloniapic(Photo by SBA73)

The inflexibility and inadaptability of the Spanish political and legal systems to the demands of Catalan people contrasts to the agreement reached between the British and the Scottish governments. This explains yet another paradox: Scotland has a referendum but the people do not seem very keen to vote. Catalonians are indeed very interested in voting but do not have yet a date for a referendum. Pro-Catalan independence supporters, including the Catalan Prime Minister in his letter to the NYT, frequently cite the Scottish case to back their case and to present Madrid's opposition to the Catalan referendum as undemocratic.

This explicit reference to the Scottish political process from Catalan government officials is exceptional. High-level links and formal contacts between SNP leaders and their counterparts from the Catalan Government seem to be on hold. This lack of institutional solidarity and moral support between Scotland and Catalonia's politicians might seem strange, but some people interpret this non-interference as a political move to maximise the possibilities of international recognition after the referendums. I defended elsewhere (here in Catalan) that regardless of the strategic decisions of the political elites, grassroots pro-independence movements in Catalonia, Scotland and elsewhere in the world should collaborate more closely to learn from each other. For this reason, dear reader, if you know of any lesson from the political situation between Taiwan and China that might be useful to Catalans and Scots, please do contact me at meritxell[AT] We would very much appreciate your thoughts and advice.

Meritxell Ramírez-Ollé

Meritxell Ramírez-Ollé is doing a PhD in the area of the sociology of science at the University of Edinburgh. In this beautiful city, Meritxell met Jiahe Lin, the current editor at Renlai Monthly. In her free time, Meritxell enjoys the company of her partner, friends and family. You can know a bit more about here in this website:




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