George Kerevan: What Catalonia can teach Scotland

Catalans have taken to the streets in a series of mass mobilisations in pursuit of their goals. Picture: Getty
Catalans have taken to the streets in a series of mass mobilisations in pursuit of their goals. Picture: Getty
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EVERYONE seeking Scottish independence has much to learn from the Catalan agitation, writes George Kerevan.

What lessons can Scotland learn from the independence referendum in Catalonia? The Catalans certainly feel they learned a lot from us. Artur Mas, the Catalan Alex Salmond, was fulsome in his references to the referendum process in Scotland, especially the fact that the UK government was a willing participant. In Spain, the right-wing PP administration in Madrid has not just declared the Catalan “consultation” flagrantly illegal, PP ministers have used incendiary language to denounce it, calling it “undemocratic”, “rigged” and a “mass deception”.

There were hundreds of Scots in Barcelona for the referendum, myself included. Anyone wearing a kilt was likely to have a microphone pushed in their face and asked for a comment. To be Scottish in Barcelona last weekend was to be treated like an honorary Catalan. But can the movement for Scottish self-determination learn anything in reverse, especially as our own progress to Home Rule remains uncertain? Answer: quite a lot, actually.

For starters, the Catalan sovereigntist movement has retained momentum despite Madrid’s intransigence by perfecting the art of mass street demonstrations involving millions of ordinary citizens. This visible expression of public sympathy has legitimised Catalan demands for autonomy in the eyes of the world media and neutralised attempts by Madrid to dismiss the movement as irrelevant.

In Scotland, where the tradition of street demonstrations is more limited, the Yes campaign made only minor use of mass events. There was a demo in Edinburgh in September last year that attracted around 30,000 people – quite a crowd by UK political standards. As a participant, I can vouch for the carnival atmosphere. Yet the event was dismissed by the London media and No campaign as proof independence had only limited support.

No-one could make such an outrageous claim in Catalonia. On 11 September last year – Catalonia’s National Day – 1.6 million people linked hands in a gigantic human chain stretching 250 miles from one end of the country to the other, in a call for Catalan independence. The chain was symbolic of Catalonia’s unity of purpose, and it made great television. It was also a massive feat of organisation and discipline by the independence movement. Participants were mobilised by e-mail and given strict instructions on where to be and when.

This was no fluke. A year earlier the Catalan Yes campaign mobilised a million and a half supporters on National Day. They formed two giant living Catalan flags, which flowed down the main streets of Barcelona.

Here’s my point: we cannot leave the Scottish self-determination process to discussions behind closed doors at the Smith Commission. Nor can we assume automatically that Westminster – especially in the chaos of a hung parliament – will deliver Home Rule or devo-max. Which means we need to maintain mass political pressure – peaceably on the streets – till we get what was promised in the “Vow”.

The SNP has never rejected such demonstrations but neither has it utilised them as a political tool. I suspect there are some in the SNP leadership who are suspicious of where that might lead. But the Catalan experience proves that mass mobilisations generate a sense of solidarity and are difficult for a metropolitan media to ignore. For starters, how about linking arms between Glasgow and Edinburgh?

A second lesson from Catalonia concerns the importance of having a genuine citizens’ campaign for self-determination that embraces – equally and fairly – all the pro-independence parties but also the civic institutions. Of course, we had a prototype of this in the Yes campaign. But the Scottish version was nowhere near as sophisticated or democratically accountable as the National Assembly in Catalonia, which organised the mass demonstrations mentioned above, as well as last weekend’s spectacularly successful referendum, which involved more than 40,000 volunteers.

The Yes campaign was a good first try and the SNP – as the dominant force in the project – was more accommodating to other organisations than might have been expected. Nevertheless, there were rough edges. Much of the Yes media operation during the referendum was in the hands of the SNP and so reflected party policy in (sometimes) too narrow fashion, rather than the need to popularise self-determination as a principle.

With circa 50,000 new members and a commanding lead in the polls, the SNP can’t help being the elephant in the room when it comes to extending the cross-party and no-party citizens’ movement for independence. In Catalonia, on the other hand, the independence movement is more evenly split between different political parties. The onus is now on the SNP’s new members to ensure that the party does not try to swallow the wider independence movement that was born during our own referendum.

By the way, I was impressed by the main Catalan TV channel whose extensive, impartial coverage of the referendum was lucid, popular and attractive to watch, without being patronising, facile or tabloid. But Catalan big business has always seen the necessity of owning its own mass media, the better to get its voice heard in Madrid and Brussels. Supine Scottish business seems happy to have the economic rules set by London. Anyone fancy financing an impartial but Scottish-focused internet TV station? Barcelona welcomed an earlier generation of Scots. They came to fight in the International Brigades, defending democratic Spain – including a briefly autonomous Catalonia –from Franco’s thugs. I went in search of the old POUM headquarters on the Ramblas, where they joined up. POUM was a leftwing group linked with James Maxton’s Independent Labour Party. Their HQ – immortalised in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia – is now a rather plastic tourist hotel. Next door is Café Moka, frequented by Orwell and those Scottish ILPers. Miraculously, it is still serving coffee.

Sadly, there is no plaque to mark where Scots fought and died for the freedom of another European nation. Nothing is written in history unless we organise to write it. That is the lesson Scotland’s nascent democracy must learn from the Catalan experience.