Comment: No link between Catalunya and Scotland

The people of Catalunya will have a vote on 9 November 2014.


Published in the Scotsman on 16th December 2013

This week the Catalan premier Artur Mas announced that the people of Catalunya will have a vote on 9 November 2014 on a two question ­referendum asking firstly “Do you agree that Catalunya should be a state?” and secondly “If yes, do you agree that state should be independent?”

With elections too to the ­European Parliament in May and national elections in Belgium, Hungary, Moldova, ­Sweden, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and, of course, our own referendum in September, 2014 is shaping up to be a year to celebrate for Europe’s democracy enthusiasts.The_Parliament_of_Catalonia_approving_a_referendum.jpg

The Catalan wording looks odd not because anything is lost in translation but because it reflects the odd situation Catalunya finds itself. Surely, we would ask, if Catalunya becomes a state (and is it not at least kind of a state already?) then that means it is de facto independent, so the second question is redundant? Well no, the questions have been carefully written to reflect how things work there.

This is, right at the start, where any breathless comparisons, indeed linkages, of what is happening in Catalunya and Scotland need to be debunked. We are two very different ­places with two very different histories, geographies, neighbours, needs and wants. Scotland is Scotland and Catalunya is Catalunya, end of.

Scotland has been independent for more of our history than we have been part of our present state. Our geography is naturally distinct, with only a small land border with our neighbours and no territorial disputes.

Scotland, by the international Treaty of Union, agreed to form Great Britain (albeit by the ropey standards of democracy at the time) and has remained distinctive in crucial ways ever since. The re-establishment of our national parliament has allowed the formulation and expression of a long submerged and ignored demos, which is already distinct from our friends and neighbours and sufficiently so to merit international recognition. We have no significant linguistic issue to our politics, and no ethnic issue whatsoever. There may be debate in Scotland about the merits of independence, but only the most bone-headed Westminster nationalist would claim it is not our decision to make. The Scottish and UK governments have reflected this reality in the Edinburgh Agreement, the people of Scotland have the right to make a choice, and that democratic choice will be respected.

None of these facts apply to Catalunya. Not one. However, the temptation to link the two is strong and we cannot deny that there is intense interest in Catalunya at what we’re up to in Scotland. So let me say now, I would not be so crass, so impertinent or so unprofessional as to say publicly I support Catalan independence. That is none of my business. I am a democrat, so I support the right of anyone, anywhere, to choose their government and, indeed, state. I don’t see how anyone could think otherwise and still call themselves a democrat. I have my private thoughts, but being a professional is sometimes about knowing when to be quiet.

Things are going to get fraught in the state of Spain. The overheated economy remains a mess, a deeply embattled right-wing government is lashing out all over the place. Over Gibraltar, as we’ve seen, another ongoing spat with China of all places and for good measure the present premier, Mariano Rajoy, is fighting a gruesome corruption scandal. Within minutes, literally, of the referendum announcement, Madrid had responded saying it would block it. Within the Spanish constitution, on paper, it can. That can only build resentment and can only end badly. It is also evidence that democracy in the state of Spain remains a new concept and democrats the world over are quietly viewing Madrid’s antics with increasing concern.

But there is another issue which has been used to link the two places: membership of the European Union. Again, the comparison does not stand analysis. The EU is a club of states, with entry criteria and a membership process. As you would expect, the other members need to approve a new member, and this will be done on the basis of the facts of the case. Within EU treaty law where there is no applicable way to leave, there is no right to stay either. So as the Scottish Government has in great detail outlined in the White Paper, we are left with a process of dialogue based on pragmatic mutual self interest. The EU has no settled view on such matters because each case will be dealt with on its merits. So things are going to get heated, but in Brussels cooler heads will have the final say.