THE SNP has maintained a stranglehold on the independence agenda but the STUC may yet challenge that, writes Peter Jones
Few will be scrutinising the results of the weekend elections in Catalonia more closely than Alex Salmond. The lessons he will learn, I reckon, will be two-fold: the importance of unity around his independence project and the difficulties of presenting a clear vision of what post-independence Scotland will look like.
The result in Catalonia is certainly perplexing. After a demonstration in which at least 1.5 million people (on official estimates, 2 million on other reckonings) took to the streets apparently to demand independence, the leader of the Catalan nationalist party, Artur Mas, who headed the regional minority government, called an early election, seeking a mandate to push for independence.
Somewhat oddly, the people responded by reducing his party’s number of seats from 62 to 50, but increased the number of seats of other parties wanting a referendum on independence to 37, putting the total pro-independence parliamentary majority at 87 and well past the 68 seats needed for a majority in the 135-seat Catalan parliament. But this, according to various analysts, means that a referendum is less rather than more likely.
Like you, I find this hard to follow as well. Partly, it is to do with austerity and the public sector wage and job-cutting agenda that Mr Mas has had to pursue which reduced his popularity while increasing the appeal of more marginal parties. But it is also to do with the complexity of Catalan politics in which history and culture play a much bigger role than is the case with Scottish nationalism.
Even the name of Mr Mas’ party sounds odd – Convergence and Union (CiU). It sounds like the antithesis of nationalism, not its epitomé. That’s partly because it is not actually one party, but a coalition of two parties, one having convergence in its name, the other having union.
The reason for these words becomes clearer when you realise that one meaning (there are other historical references) of the joined-up title refers to the political aim of achieving convergence amongst Catalans towards a unity of opinion in support of independence. In that respect, at least, Mr Mas’ coalition party is no different to Mr Salmond’s SNP.
Evidently, however, the CiU has been a lot less successful at achieving a Catalan unity of nationalist purpose than has the SNP under Mr Salmond. And it is this lack of unity which Spanish federalist politicians in Madrid and the political analysts seem to be banking on in concluding that the possibility of an independence referendum has become more remote.
So lesson number one for Mr Salmond is to keep control of the nationalist agenda and make sure that he remains the undisputed leader of that movement.
Nevertheless, while the Spanish political analysts might be right in the short-term, it seems improbable that the issue has been parked for the next four years. After a pro-independence demonstration in which perhaps a quarter of the population took part, and elections which handed pro-referendum parties a convincing majority, it seems more likely that pressures for a referendum will grow. Catalans have spoken and I doubt they will take meekly to having their voice ignored.
One sign of that is that the biggest gainer in the elections was the Republican Left which, unlike the CiU, has long had the straightforward aim of independence. The CiU, in contrast, has been a moderate party, aiming for increased degrees of independence but not a complete break with Spain. Until this election, Mr Mas never much used the word independence.
The Republican Left more than doubled its vote and its seats from 10 to 21. It, therefore, has momentum and is entitled to lay claim to the populist leadership of the nationalist cause. It would be surprising if it did not use its new political clout to push Mr Mas’ party towards a referendum.
What militates against both the holding of such a poll, and much more clearly against there being a clear, convergent, and unified proposition for Catalans to vote on, is the huge ideological divide between the parties.
The CiU has always been a pro-business centre-right coalition, prospering from its links with Catalan businessfolk and their desires to win business-friendly concessions from Madrid which, since Catalonia is the most prosperous part of Spain, has historically worked both economically and politically for Catalan businesses and the CiU.
But now under the pressures of austerity-driven wage and job cuts, this game plan has broken down and the anti-capitalism, anti-profits, pro-workers’ rights Republican Left has gained. Add in a third ideology of the Initiative for Catalonia Greens, which won 13 seats and which explicitly rejects both traditional capitalist and far leftist creeds in favour of ecosocialism, a kind of green communitarianism, and the problems of building a united pro-independence platform become obvious.
Although in Scotland we also have red and green nationalists who chafe against Mr Salmond’s business tax cuts and oil-pumping agendas, they are fringe threads on the all-embracing yellow cloak of the SNP. This cloth designed for all the people is nevertheless developing holes. Two MSPs have left the SNP disagreeing with the party’s pro-Nato decision.
Dennis Canavan, chair of the Yes campaign, and some other radical leftists, don’t think the Queen should be the head of an independent Scottish state.
I presume, come polling day, they will all hold their noses and vote Yes. But this week’s declaration by the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) portends more of these problems ahead for Mr Salmond. By waiting to see what’s on offer for their members from both sides, the STUC is opening a negotiation.
And any concessions on employment and trade union rights that Mr Salmond might offer them could well cost him the minority support he has managed to win in the business lobby.
So lesson number two for Mr Salmond is to find ways to construct an independence vision that is as all-encompassing as the electoral agenda he presented in 2011. Judging by the Catalan example, it isn’t going to be easy.