Brian Wilson: Nicola Sturgeon should keep her nose out of Catalonia
I suppose for those whose lives revolve round referendums, the consolation prize for not having one of your own is to stir the same pot somewhere else.
That is the best available explanation of Nicola Sturgeon’s imprudent pronouncements on the delicate constitutional affairs of Spain. The certainty is that Sturgeon is not having one of her own any time soon. That matter was settled months ago, so her recent musings about uncertainty of timing imply a degree of control that does not exist.
Even Peter Wishart, in a rare shaft of enlightenment, seems to have a better handle on reality.
He has intimated that there should be no referendum this side of 2021 when the next Holyrood elections are due. If there is a separatist majority within that Parliament, it will undoubtedly come knocking on the door for a referendum. That will be well understood in advance and Scotland will respond one way or another.
If the eventuality arises, we will go through the same rigmarole all over again, probably, Quebec-style, with the same outcome. That is the nature of referendumitis. It never entirely goes away and has a debilitating effect on everything else around it. But at least, for the present, Scotland is in remission.
In the UK, questions of whether or not to hold referendums involve only political judgements. There are no other impediments and the decision by David Cameron’s government to facilitate the 2014 referendum was politically correct. However, it is facile to draw a direct comparison between UK/Scotland and Spain/Catalonia as Ms Sturgeon did.
True, the Catalonian separatist movement leans heavily on Scotland for inspiration and Ms Sturgeon duly obliged when she called on the Spanish government to act on the “right of self-determination” even though the country’s constitution – overwhelmingly approved in a referendum - specifically excludes the right of any of its autonomous parts to secede.
Furthermore, there is no general “right” in international law to secede on the basis of a majority vote. The UN resolution supports such action in cases of “colonial or other forms of alien domination or foreign occupation” but is careful to state that “this shall not be construed as authorizing or encouraging any action that would dismember or impair” democratic states.
Current actions to prevent a Catalan referendum in defiance of the constitution are not a pretty sight and may have a counter-productive element to them. However, the alternative idea that constitutions on which all sorts of freedoms are built can be airily discarded to satisfy a political demand is equally unattractive.
I found Sturgeon’s intervention surprising since it kicks away any chance of Spain, in future, accepting separate Scottish entry into the EU – a presumption which propped up one of the shoogly pillars of the last independence campaign. More than ever, Spain now has good reason to insist that secessionist states do not stroll into the EU.
Parallels between Scotland and Catalonia are less commanding than we are invited to believe.
Like Scotland, Catalonia is deeply divided with polls suggesting 40-odd per cent would, in normal circumstances, support secession. After that, the differences arise and deserve to be considered.
The first time I travelled in Spain was in the mid-70s, following the fall of fascism and the death of Franco.
It was an exhilarating time for a desperately poor and oppressed country.
Spain is one of the miracles of the late 20th century – prosperous, sophisticated, liberal, enlightened and, above all, democratic.
There was no guarantee that this would be the outcome. In 1981, army officers attempted a coup to wrest back power for a dictatorship. The young democracy hung in the balance and King Juan Carlos saved the day by ordering the military back to barracks rather than putting himself at the head of a new dictatorship as the plotters intended.
In 1978, Spain had fortified itself against such events by putting in place a constitution which also sought to underpin the other delicate balance – respecting the autonomy of all its provinces while insisting upon the unity of the state. It was overwhelmingly approved by referendum.
In Catalonia, 91 per cent of the voters endorsed that constitution.
Twice as many people supported it than have ever voted for separatist parties.
If there is to be a change in the constitution, then it cannot affect Catalonia alone. After decades of violence, peace has been secured in the Basque country.
Moderate nationalists share power with other parties and independence has been kicked into the long grass. How long before the cry would go up for a Basque referendum and, of course, nationalities are not co-terminal with either provinces or states? The Spanish constitution’s emphasis on autonomy rather than separateness was not without very good reason.
Probably the most widely-held view in Catalonia is that both sides have blundered into the current impasse.
Many who oppose independence accept that constitutionality cannot be deployed as a sufficient reason to permanently refuse a referendum. Many who support independence are deeply unhappy about a referendum that is both illegal and unconstitutional.
Another problem for the Madrid government is what the rest of Spain thinks.
Whereas there was a genuine regret about the prospect of Scotland leaving the UK, the attitude in the rest of Spain to Catalonian separatism is rather different.
It is seen as a materialistic movement with Catalan prosperity, which derives from being part of Spain, now used to justify the claim that Catalonia is being “plundered”. For that audience, the straightforward view is that Madrid should say “no”.
If Sturgeon believes that “the right to self-determination, in Catalonia and everywhere else” trumps all else then, as a Nationalist, she has to elaborate on that doctrine.
There are dozens of nationalisms around Europe, some uglier than others. Does she support them all? Should rich parts of existing states secede in order to rid themselves of poor ones?
Until she has a view on these questions, perhaps it would be best to just stay out of other people’s complex business. There is quite a lot to be done at home.