Even though I have been living in Britain for more than a decade, I have a rather limited knowledge of the history of this country. Yes, I have watched the epics (historical films and series) and I have visited the landmarks, but this can hardly allow me to discuss the historical background of the politics of today.
I certainly have an opinion about current affairs, but I would be rightly discredited if I drew parallels between the nationalist movement in Scotland and the separatist movement in the Crimea peninsula. Indeed, in spite of the fact that nationalists in Scotland, the Basque region, Catalonia, Flanders and elsewhere may, to a degree, share a common goal, it does not make them any more similar. In fact, some of them are quite clearly xenophobic, racist and supremacist, while others have a much more social agenda and are Europhiles.
Certainly, I can understand that if I only had one source of knowledge of a controversy, then it would be more likely than not that I would be persuaded by those arguments. More so, if that source was none other than a lecturer at one of the most prestigious universities in the country with the appearance of the underdog in that conflict. Everyone loves the underdog. If that same source throws another element on to the scale, a dictator whose inheritance is felt in every walk of life (police, justice, education, television), then I am sure I would be marching the streets of my university in support of that academic.
That is, of course, what has happened in relation to Clara Ponsati, an escapee of the Spanish justice system for her involvement in the attempted secession of Catalonia during her time in the regional government, and a lecturer at the University of St Andrews.
Three different factors have coincided in this situation.
The first is a natural tendency to compare situations by reference to what we know. If you know, whether you agree or not, the reasons argued by Scottish nationalists, you will be inclined to assume a similar pattern elsewhere.
The second one is an incredibly well-funded (by taxpayers) propaganda machine which spreads the message of Catalan separatists. According to the latest figures, the regional government of Catalonia spent €2.6 million a year on its unofficial embassies; separatist grassroots organisations, with their own offices abroad, having received themselves millions in taxpayer funds. I am sure any nationalist movement (grassroots or official) would love to have a share of that budget.
The third factor is an intention to destabilise the EU by Brexiteers. Where the focus of the EU needs to be elsewhere, and where there are risks of internal conflict at the heart of Europe, there is less ability to maintain a united front in the negotiations with the UK. Brexiteers can be nationalists, but they are not separatists; the support of Catalan nationalists by pro-Brexit media has nothing to do with a newfound support for the right of self-determination, but an interest in creating conflict in the EU.
Against that background, the question I have been asked many times is why Catalonia does not have the right to a referendum on independence. The response is that according to the Spanish constitution, voted for by 90 per cent of Catalans in 1978, the decision over the future of Spain (to include its territory) lies with the Spanish people. Unlike other constitutions in Europe (France and Germany, for example), it is perfectly possible to defend and seek secession of a part of the country in Parliament. It is not an easy achievement, but there are mechanisms to attain that goal.
As things stand, there is not a majority of Spanish (not even a majority of Catalans) who want to hold a referendum on the separation of Catalonia from Spain. The regional elections in Catalonia held in December 2017 (with the former regional government on the run or in jail) gave a majority of votes to those parties in favour of the Spanish constitution, but this majority was not reflected in members of regional parliament due to the electoral laws.
The referendum organised by Ms Ponsati’s government in Catalonia on 1 October was an illegal referendum which was held against a series of rulings from the Constitutional Court. The Scottish Government would have never held such referendum against the law and in contempt of court.
The second question of those unbiased enquirers is the force with which the Spanish police forces conducted themselves in preventing the referendum of 1 October. As investigations by the court demonstrated, Ms Ponsati’s government actively sought clashes between voters and the police by way of: inviting people to vote even though it was an illegal referendum; instructing the regional police to disobey court’s orders and obstruct and confront the work of the Spanish police (called at the request of the Catalan judges); all this witnessed by ‘independent’ international observers who were paid, in some cases, 200,000 euros. The result was police charges, a large number of injuries (according to official figures: four civilians received treatment in hospital and 431 police officers) and an unlimited number of references in the international media. Even the German court dealing with the extradition of Carles Puigdemont recognised that Ms Ponsati’s government employed force in pursuing this referendum. This result was exactly what the government of Ms Ponsati planned in a document called Enfocats which is available in English.
I said at the outset that Catalonia lives under the influence of a dictator whose influence is felt in the police, justice, education and television. Catalonian regional government controls seven television channels (which broadcast only in Catalan); its own regional police with 17,000 police officers; an education system where no Spanish is taught until the fifth year and then only two hours per week.
Nationalists have been in government in Catalonia since 1980. Catalan separatists are not the underdogs, unionists are.
l Alfonso Valero is a Principal Lecturer at Nottingham Law School, Nottingham Trent University