Eddie Barnes: Collective thinking on independence

Around 1.5 million people took to the streets in protest in Catalonia. Picture: Getty
Around 1.5 million people took to the streets in protest in Catalonia. Picture: Getty
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THEY knew it was going to be big. But not that big. As ­Barcelona throbbed last Tuesday night to the sound of more than one million Catalans on the streets, under the banner “Catalonia: a new European State”, shockwaves spread across the continent.

In Madrid, Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister curtly dismissed the “big gesture” and said the ­focus should be on the economy and jobs.

In Brussels, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and a commission spokesman muddled their way through explanations of what might or might not happen if part of an EU state were to secede. In Edinburgh, those comments kicked off another round of tit-for-tat about the uncertainties that a “Yes” vote in the forthcoming independence referendum would trigger.

The rally last week marked the crossing of a Rubicon in Catalan politics. Polls published last week put support for independence from Spain at 46.4 per cent – twice as high as in 2008. It has caught the political leaders there on the hop. But is it a wider trend? Two weeks before, in Quebec, the independence-supporting Parti Quebecois won back power in the Francophone province for the first time in nine years – and despite twice failing to win independence in previous referenda.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, no-one needs reminding that a referendum on independence is now set for 2014. Is there some global trend going on? And what light might the sudden political revolutions in Canada and Spain shed on the path Scotland is set to take over the next tumultuous months?

Watching events unfold in Scotland last week was Meritxell Ramirez-Olle, the president of the Centre Catala d’Escocia, a charity based in Edinburgh which promotes Catalan culture. For her, the wave of people marching across Barcelona’s streets last week was transformative. “The situation in Catalonia is unsustainable in many senses. Spain is a failed state and Catalans want to have another future for themselves. I’m happy that over a million-and-half-million people expressed this same idea.”

The language is blunt, but gets to the heart of the matter. Catalan nationalism has always been strong, fanned by the oppression of the Franco years. But, say academics, it is the more recent failures of Spain’s political and economic system which has now tipped many Catalans towards a full-blown split. First, there is lingering resentment over the fact that governments in Madrid have opposed a substantial increase in fiscal powers to Barcelona over recent years. Second, there is anger over the Spanish economic catastrophe which Catalonia – one of the wealthier regions – believes is not its own doing.

Catalans note that, as a richer part of the country, they contribute more to the central pot in order to assist poorer parts of the country. These “equalisation” payments, says Professor Michael Keating, a political scientist at Aberdeen University, are the driver behind the region’s deep debts. Consequently, he notes: “A lot of people in Catalonia who previously didn’t even support devolution are now supporting the idea of keeping their own money. They feel they are losing out to other ­regions and being subject to tough conditions when it isn’t their fault.”

The perceived insensitivity of the Spanish state, which (unlike the London government, it is noted) refuses even to countenance an independence referendum, has roused anger even further. Ramirez-Olle adds: “The drop that spilled the cup was that days before the rally, a Spanish colonel threatened military intervention against Catalan independence. In particular, he said that any secession of one of Spain’s autonomous regions will only be ‘over my dead body’. ” Add in nice weather, and – as one SNP figure puts it – the fact that “they’re all unemployed, what else are they going to do?” – and suddenly most of the region is on the street.

On the other side of the Atlantic, independence is in the air as well. The ­province of Quebec is weighed down by $186 billion (£117bn) of debt. And, to prove that politics is the same wherever you go, the Liberal party government, which lost power earlier this month, had spent much of the last year rocked by a lengthy student protest over attempts to increase tuition fees. Add into the mix corruption allegations against the former Liberal premier Jean Charest and it provided a perfect mix for the opposition. It led to victory for Parti Quebecois’ Pauline Marois, who during her campaign pledged to make French the mandatory language for small firms and to limit access to ­English-language colleges.

But, despite the fact that a sovereigntist party is now in power, the election of PQ has paradoxically failed to spur on the independence movement. Keating adds: “PQ got just 34 per cent of the vote. They actually lost votes. It’s just that ­other ­parties lost even more. It was hardly a great ­victory and the PQ is not in a ­position to put a question about independence because they don’t have a majority and even if they did they would lose.”

So what are the lessons for Scotland? Counter-intuitively perhaps, Scottish Nationalists are of the view that few broad similarities can be made. Countries are different – and have to be taken in their own context. MEP Alyn Smith declares: “I’ve spent a lot of time in a lot of ­places and in my view there are few actual links between the various places because they are all so different in philosophy and ­history. Each place has an entirely different history, need and future, and it is only logical that the various parties active in each country should have very different ambitions.”

But those differences do provide insight into Scotland’s own journey. Taking Quebec first, SNP figures are noticeably reluctant to be linked in anyway to ­Marois’ movement. Keating notes that PQ figures have bent over backwards in recent years to show they aren’t “ethnic nationalists”, out to put French speakers before the English. But the very fact that this cloud hangs over them, makes the mainstream SNP wary. “It is just a different type of thing altogether,” says one. If anything, he adds, Scots identify more with Canadian independence, rather than Quebec’s. It illustrates the modern SNP’s attempt to mould a civic nationalism, not an ethnic cause.

As for Catalonia, the links are closer – SNP figures have travelled to Catalan ­Nationalist conferences and welcomed journalists here for the YesScotland launch – but the differences are just as great. In Catalonia, where a home rule ­administration has ruled for decades, ­content to remain within the Spanish state, it is the grass roots who are pushing the cause of independence.

“The rally was organised by a group of citizens – the National Assembly of Catalonia – and the politicians joined later,” notes Ramirez-Olle. That’s the opposite of Scotland, she says, where “the SNP and the government go in front and it seems they need to convince the people about the necessity of independence. People don’t seem to be in a rush.”

Jennifer Dempsie, of the YesScotland campaign team, who has spoken at Catalan independence conferences, concurs: “We have lessons to learn from each other. We have lessons to learn about their cultural and social movement. They have lessons to learn about Scotland’s economic and political movement. But ultimately they are very different movements and very different campaigns.”

A stark demonstration of this difference is likely to be illustrated next weekend with a “Scotland for Independence” rally set to take place on Saturday in ­Edinburgh. Organiser Jeff Duncan says people are coming from as far afield as Thailand, America and Australia. He adds: “We’ve got an 82-year-old woman from the Highlands who can barely walk who is coming down on a coach and she is going to walk the length of the march.”

Pre-publicity for the march is not helped by the fact that an eccentric group of Union flag-burners called the “Scottish Republican Socialist Movement” have had to be removed from the original list of ­organisations invited after ­attracting unwelcome publicity. One thing is certain, there won’t be a million people coming down Princes Street. While Catalonia lacks a party with the purpose of the SNP, the SNP so far lacks an independence movement of the size of Catalonia’s.

Perhaps what does link these newly emboldened independence movements is the fact that in a world of interconnected yet struggling states, they seem like increasingly attractive options. They all seek to reassure, notes Keating, by pointing out that they will all remain part of supra-
national blocks. Quebec would remain in the North America Free Trade area; Catalonia in the Eurozone; Scotland in a sterling zone. But they offer flexibility also by promising to get out of a big, unresponsive country which, in the middle of recession, is losing the trust of the people.

The SNP’s Smith adds: “If there is 
anything that links Scotland, Quebec and Catalonia together it is that they are a little like the Occupy movement. People have lost faith with the normal way of things and are therefore more amenable to something that says: ‘It doesn’t have to be like this’.” There is a flipside to this, however. Economic woes may be turning people against the status quo. But it might just as well, Keating notes, be making people feel even less likely to want to take a leap into the dark. “There is also worry about being on your own,” he notes. “What would happen to the Scottish budget? The same thing applies in Catalonia. So there’s that caution as well.”

It means that, even in Catalonia, none of the polls currently show more than 50 per cent in favour of independence. The leap of faith required has yet to be fully realised. The Scottish independence movement will take its cause to the streets next weekend as leaders try to mount the kind of grass roots push for change that may bring it success. In different parts of the world, the effects of Great Recession and the disappointments of politics are forcing change breeze into the air. Directing it into the change the SNP wants, however, remains a task still to be achieved. «

• ebarnes@scotlandonsunday.com