Lesley Riddoch: Catalan independence movement poses dilemma for SNP

The choice between Madrid and Barcelona is one that all political leaders will soon face, writes Lesley Riddoch.
Supporters wave pro-independence Catalan flags in Barcelona.  Pic: PAU BARRENA/Getty ImagesSupporters wave pro-independence Catalan flags in Barcelona.  Pic: PAU BARRENA/Getty Images
Supporters wave pro-independence Catalan flags in Barcelona. Pic: PAU BARRENA/Getty Images

Madrid or Barcelona?

It’s a dilemma usually faced by holidaymakers. But the un-official Catalan independence referendum set for October 1st means Scottish politicians are getting involved too.

19 MSPs have backed a Holyrood motion backing the poll – now the Scottish Government’s been urged to choose sides and is resisting the temptation.

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A spokesperson said they would congratulate the Catalans if they won, adding “these are matters for the people and the governments of Catalonia and Spain.

The constitutional arrangements in Scotland and the UK are clearly different.”

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SNP facing diplomatic crisis as Catalan independence vote looms

Well yes. The Constitution declares Spain to be a single, indivisible whole, making “regional” self-determination legally impossible. So there’s no agreed process between Madrid and Barcelona of the kind agreed by Westminster and Holyrood before 2014.

That’s why the newly elected pro-independence Catalan parliament has decided to steam ahead with a referendum of its own.

That is a very different approach to that of the more consensual SNP.

The constitutional consequences of the Catalan vote are different too.

Scottish independence would probably mean nothing more for the rUK but Catalan independence might embolden others.

Catalonia is just one of seven Països Catalans (Catalan speaking regions) and 17 regional governments. Others might flex their muscles if Catalonia’s vote succeeds.

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But the biggest difference is the crazy boldness of their plan - which could, if successful, pose an unintended challenge for the SNP.

If the Catalans win an “illegal” referendum with no opinion poll lead, no “Mother state” permission, no “White Paper” and only a general idea of how to run their independent state, the SNP’s detail-heavy, gradualist approach might suddenly look very sluggish.

Of course, the odds are stacked against such an outcome.

In their last unofficial 2014 referendum, 80 per cent of Catalonians chose independence, but the majority didn’t vote at all.

Still Madrid’s heavy-handed prosecution of Catalan leader Artur Mas has become a recruiting sergeant for independence.

In March of this year, Mas and two former government ministers were found guilty of civil disobedience, fined and banned from holding office for two years by Catalonia’s Superior Court of Justice. Thousands of supporters filled the streets outside the Barcelona courtroom chanting “you are not alone”, “democracy is not a crime” and “independence”.

Feelings are running high, and no-one can be sure if the October vote will be disastrous, or daring enough to create a democratic impasse between Madrid and Barcelona and thus command the attention of governments across Europe.

Would it really be acceptable to the EU that one member denies a constituent nation the right to self-determination? Might that not look like disdain for democracy – the kind of behaviour the EU will not tolerate amongst aspiring member states?

European governments – Brexiting Britain included – may soon have to take a stand on the Catalan question, whether they like it or not.

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Now, none of this means the devolved Scottish Government would be wise to support the Catalans right now.

Such a move could provoke tit-for-tat action from the Spanish government, which only recently dropped veiled threats to torpedo any bid for EU membership by an independent Scotland.

Membership of the Norway-style “halfway house” also requires the unanimous backing of all EFTA and EU members - so an angry Spain could theoretically block Scottish access to the EEA too.

Why provoke Spain for a gesture that won’t advance the Catalan cause and may not be expected by their political leaders.

As SNP leaders discovered the hard way in 2014, no foreign government (however privately sympathetic) will risk angering an existing state by openly supporting a breakaway – until that bid is successful.

The Catalans are currently in the same boat and they know this.

But their dilemma and their “just do it” solution is hugely interesting for Scotland, whose Government has “reset” its timetable for independence as a wounded Prime Minister continues to insist that “now is not the time” for a second vote.

Exposure to Catalonia’s dilemma over the next three months will raise an obvious question for Scotland’s independence supporters - which strategy works best? Catalonia’s strategy of urgency and defiance or Scotland’s keeping the heid and biding time? Or is it a case of horses for courses?

There’s nothing wrong with having that debate.

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SNP strategists fear the Catalan government may not be ready to collect taxes in the messy aftermath of a pro-independence vote.

According to one senior SNP figure, the relatively un-planned Catalan referendum is more like Brexit than the Yes campaign. But here’s the thing - Brexit won while the more detailed Yes campaign lost.

Independence is not just about having control of taxation, oil revenues and domestic policy levers.

It also gives Scotland the chance to act on the world stage and to calculate how and when to intervene.

If it looks like a judgement call on Catalonia is just too tough for little Scotland to take – or even debate – where will that leave Holyrood’s ambition to take on more powers over foreign policy, trade and diplomacy? Discretion is often the better part of valour. But Scots politicians must also practice the art of independent thought to perfect the business of independent action.

After all, it was little Iceland (current population 323,000) that first recognised the independence of Lithuania in 1991.

Jon Baldvin Hannibalsson was the only western foreign minister to arrive on the scene, when Soviet troops tried to suppress secession by attacking the TV station and killing 14 Lithuanian civilians. Jon Baldvin quickly began the process of establishing diplomatic connections between Lithuania and Iceland and the Baltic state became a member of the United Nations six months later and a member of the EU in 2004. Today, a monument beside the Lithuanian Parliament bears the inscription “To Iceland - they dared when others remained silent.”

Why did he intervene? “If the breakup of a federation becomes inevitable, the international community should assist in the establishment of constituent republics, in an orderly manner.”


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The stand off between Madrid and Barcelona may soon become the business of every EU leader - Theresa May included.

So there is no need for Scotland’s devolved government to nail its colours to the mast right now.

But the challenge posed to the Scottish and British Governments by the crazy, stubborn and visionary Catalans won’t go away anytime soon.