Having lost its independence in part because of Scots, Catalans are fascinated by the 2014 referendum, writes Michael Fry
In great part it is the Scots’ fault that 300 years ago the Catalans vanished into a Spanish state from which today they are still struggling to get out.
In 1713 the War of the Spanish Succession was coming to an end, with France about to win it. Barcelona alone among Spain’s big cities held out against the candidate for the throne that the French wanted to impose. The resistance was bolstered by a British expeditionary force under the command of John Campbell, Duke of Argyll.
But as overwhelming enemy forces closed in on the Catalan capital, Argyll decided further resistance would be useless and withdrew his regiments to the island of Minorca.
Soon afterwards Barcelona, now defended only by its own citizens, fell. Catalonia then had its historic privileges taken away by the new Bourbon tyrant.
Strange to say, the other side in this battle was commanded by a Scotsman too.
James Stewart, Duke of Berwick, was a bastard son of King James VII, whom the Scots had thrown out in the revolution of 1688. The Stewarts went into exile, trying from time to time to regain their crowns in Scotland, England and Ireland. Meanwhile the young Duke of Berwick joined the French army and rose to be one of its best generals. This was how he came to be fighting in Spain. For his capture of Barcelona he was created Duke of Berwick in the Spanish peerage too. His descendants are still around: one was Spain’s ambassador to London in the 1940s.
So that is what the Scots have done for the Catalans, and if I were a Catalan I would not be impressed. But there must be something stubborn or wayward in the Catalan character, because three centuries later they are still looking to Scotland for an example. Scotland lost its independence at about the same time Catalonia did, but next year we will have a referendum to decide whether we should get it back.
This is what causes all the interest in Catalonia, for under the Spanish constitution a referendum such as ours is not allowed. Since the death in 1975 of General Franco, whose Fascist regime was rigidly centralist, Spain has followed a generous policy of devolution. It remains modest enough in Galicia or Andalucia, but in Catalonia it reaches about the same extent as in Scotland, and in the Basque country it goes a good deal further in terms of fiscal autonomy. All the same, the purpose of these huge constitutional reforms has been to maintain the integrity of the Spanish state. They rest on the thesis once put forward here by some in the Labour party, that devolution would kill nationalism.
Yet in both Scotland and Catalonia the reverse has been true: the appetite for independence has grown with the nourishment of devolution. The Catalans’ appetite is starting to look ravenous and some polls suggest that 70 per cent of them would vote for independence if they ever had the chance. In Scotland we are much less hungry: we pick and choose and turn up our noses at anything unfamiliar put on the plate in front of us. As things stand, it seems the deep-fried Mars bar of unionist dependency may well win out over a healthy diet of fending for ourselves.
These things have not gone unnoticed outside Catalonia. Recently a Spanish politician, Alejo Vidal-Quatras (the local equivalent of Tam Dalyell), claimed his country was likely to throw down a veto against an independent Scotland staying in the EU, precisely on the grounds that it would set a dangerous precedent for bits of other member states which might want to break away. France and Italy have separatist movements too, if not especially serious ones.
In any case, no existing government is likely to find a future Europe of regions an enticing prospect: bad enough with 27 bums on seats at the Eurosummits, let alone 54.
And at any rate, it is at the moment fairly important for Scotland not to give an impression that we want to set a trend or anything. When, for example, the lady premier of Quebec, Mme Pauline Marois, recently turned up at the First Minister’s official residence, Bute House, it was not quite as if she got asked from behind a half-opened door, “So you’ll have had your tea?” But, once they let her in, any reference to a shared struggle of the Scots and the Québécois in breaking down inherited imperial structures was definitely not on the tray with the shortbread. The two leaders parted with expressions of mutual esteem rather than of a common cause.
In the circumstances I have a suggestion for Mariano Rajoy, prime minister of Spain, who finds himself with the thankless task of shepherding a country that had all but gone bankrupt through several years of austerity as the price of a European bail-out. No wonder he has now decided to giddy busy minds with foreign quarrels and rattle his sabre over Gibraltar, for good measure bringing in the feline President Cristina Kirchner of Argentina to rattle her sabre over the Falkland Islands too. They present a fine spectacle of righteous Hispanic passion up against perfidious Albion.
What Rajoy should do now is announce that, in the event of a Yes in the Scottish referendum of 2014, he would at once recognise the new state as a legitimate successor to the defunct UK, one therefore able to assume all its existing commitments, including full and immediate membership of the EU. This would in no way alter the ban on separatist referendums in Spain. But it would deprive Great Britain of the promontory at one end – admittedly a rather big promontory called Scotland – in just the same way as in 1708 Great Britain deprived Spain of the much smaller promontory called Gibraltar. Quid pro quo, we might say.