Brian Wilson: There's a lesson for Scotland in this attempt at Catalan tyranny

It's remarkable how quickly a unilateral declaration of independence can move from the audacious to the absurd. The Catalan leader, Puigdemont, may have set up court in Brussels to applause from right-wing Flemish nationalists but nobody else wants to know.

Protesters wave Spanish and Catalan flags at a pro-unity demo in Barcelona following the declaration of independence. Picture: Getty
Protesters wave Spanish and Catalan flags at a pro-unity demo in Barcelona following the declaration of independence. Picture: Getty

Meantime, life proceeds quite normally in Barcelona. The two main separatist parties now say they will contest the elections called for December 21, thereby acknowledging the continuing writ of the Spanish state. It will, they say, be “a plebiscite”, but it won’t. It will be an election, which is something quite different.

When two of Puigdemont’s ex-ministers flew back to Barcelona, they were greeted with cries (loosely translated) of: “Whaur’s yer independent republic noo?”

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They are currently more concerned with consulting their defence lawyers than defiant gestures, though doubtless these will soon resume.

All this should lead us to ask: “What exactly was it that the Scottish Government found to ‘understand and respect’ when the rest of democratic Europe was uniting in rejection of an illegal and unconstitutional act?”

That question should not be lost in the melee because of its relevance to Scotland. Quite simply, what they were understanding and respecting was the tyranny of a minority which had behaved as if it was a majority. In that sense, there was much to be recognised from our own vantage point including the language used. Scottish Nationalists continue to tell us that “the will of the Catalonian people” was asserted. Oh no, it wasn’t.

Forget the drama of the doomed unilateral declaration of independence (UDI). The hard fact is that not one single indicator suggests a majority of Catalonians favour independence from Spain. It may be unfortunate this cannot be confirmed in a referendum, but that is a separate argument which does not detract from the evidence that independence is desired, as in Scotland, by a substantial, noisy minority – not a majority.

It has taken a while for that message to reach a wider audience which has become used to seeing vast demonstrations in favour of Catalan independence while, in general, its opponents sat quietly at home. Long ago, philosopher Marshall McLuhan wrote that “the medium is the message” and those who understand that maxim are, more than ever, able to create an exaggerated impression of strength.

The moment when all democrats should have recognized Puigdemont as an adventurer and chancer was when, in advance of his referendum, he said a majority vote would justify a declaration of independence, regardless of turnout. This was said in the knowledge that the vast majority of anti-independence voters had no intention of participating in an illegal poll.

In other words, he knew in advance that his mandate was worthless by any international standard but continued to assert it. This reality was recognised by every member state within the EU and those outside it who bothered to express a view. Our own Nationalists, purporting to speak for Scotland, should have done the same or at least kept silent. A third of their MSPs are demanding full “recognition”of the UDI, whatever that might entail, which is too much even for the SNP leadership.

Another trait we can readily recognise is continued reference to the “unreasonableness” of the Spanish government and its “refusal to negotiate”. In her statement, Fiona Hyslop parroted what their Catalan associates were claiming. In fact, the president of the Basque region brokered an agreement with Madrid which Puigdemont agreed to and then, fearing a backlash, reneged upon.

The deal was that action to assert Spain’s authority over Catalonia would be suspended, pending the outcome of elections. That was a risky option for Madrid which would not have resolved the question of “what happens if the separatists win?” But it makes nonsense of the claim that UDI was the only option.

There is a strong parallel with the Scottish Government’s approach to Brexit negotiations.

After every meeting, we are told the same tale of woe about UK Ministers’ “unreasonableness” and “refusal to negotiate”. That is the pre-ordained script for the conclusion somewhere down the line: “We tried but they offered nothing.”

Without doubt, Puigdemont and co have learned lessons from Scotland and we should reciprocate. Gone is any pretence that a welcoming community of nations in Europe would extend open arms to a seceding state. The unanimity of response from EU members confirms the obvious: they are not going to vote for their own potential fragmentation.

Another lesson lies in the flight of business to the rest of Spain. Almost 2,000 companies moved their headquarters because of uncertainty created by the constitutional shenanigans. We were told in Scotland this would never happen because, in effect, nothing would change. That is another delusion which has been laid bare in Catalonia.

I spent time this week in the Basque country, in the cause of trade. Twenty years ago, the expectation would have been that if anywhere was going to head for the Spanish exit, it would be the Basques. I remember visiting gloomy cities with Basque flags hanging from every balcony in a gesture of silent hostility.

How things have changed. The mainstream Basque nationalists have essentially done a deal with Madrid – a high degree of autonomy in return for constructive practical politics. The Nationalists are the dominant party but, at various levels of government, are in coalition with parties aligned to the main Spanish ones. I asked a Nationalist minister how this worked. Easy, he said. Independence has been kicked into the distant future. Their priorities are the economy and maintaining the Basque language and identity. On that basis they can work with those who agree on most things.

There is little sign that events in Catalonia have stirred much appetite for parallel Basque activity though doubtless at the first indication otherwise, the Scottish Government would be offering “understanding and respect”. What exists at present must, in contrast, be a real disappointment – a successful economy, relaxed dual identity and hardly anybody talking about independence.