Hugh Reilly: Time to hit targets in EU debate

Catalonia president Artur Mas has 56 per cent support for independence. Picture: AP
Catalonia president Artur Mas has 56 per cent support for independence. Picture: AP
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The EU has allowed membership to the likes of Romania and Bulgaria, so is hardly in a position to bar Scotland, writes Hugh Reilly

SOME years ago, two of my friends on opposite sides of the Old Firm divide were strolling through Bangkok’s version of The Barras when they came across a stallholder punting fake football tops. Gerry “Mad Dog “O’Neill, living up to the Scottish stereotype, haggled mercilessly until the poor vendor accepted the pittance offered for a Celtic shirt. Although no Rangers tops were on display, Rab asked for one. The seller gave the quizzical look of a cat being shown a cross-section of the internal combustion engine. Believing perhaps the stallholder had experienced some difficulty understanding his glottal-stop Weegie accent, Rab helpfully spelt out G-L-A-S-G-O-W R-A-N-G-E-R-S, adding an uncalled-for snarl to the final “s”. The man shook his head, fleetingly closed his eyes and said: “Solly, onee beeg teams, onee beeg teams.”

Although Rab was somewhat disappointed, he took succour from the fact that Thai stallholders think there is a merchandising opportunity in selling SPFL football kits. Jack McConnell, the much-not-missed former First Minister, christened Alba “the best wee country in the world”. The only problem is, of course, that by any definition, Scotland is not a country. The land mass north of Gretna is, at best, a region of the United Kingdom. London holds the purse strings, the Westminster Treasury deciding how much it will dole out to provincial mendicants. Scots nationalists, desperate to destroy the reality of the homogeneity that is present-day multicultural Britain, point to Caledonia’s different history, language, legal system and culture.

History? Most kids –and adults – think Flodden happens after heavy rain and that The Darien Scheme is a peripheral housing estate in Airdrie. Language? More people speak Urdu than Gaelic. Legal system? Yes, we have the nonsensical “not proven” option, the bastard verdict, according to that great wordsmith Sir Walter Scott. No other jurisdiction in the world has three court outcomes (okay, Italy has five which must come as something of a relief to Amanda Knox’s appeal team). Culture? Traditional folk singers attract audiences on a par with those of Christian evangelists in Saudi Arabia.

It’s been a year since my exodus from Scotland to Spain. Much has changed. For one thing, Spanish acquaintances no longer enquire as to whether I’m a Celtic or Rangers supporter. These days, my Iberian amigos pester me for my take on the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence. Just last Friday, I was subjected to something of a Spanish Inquisition at a surprise birthday party. Animated guests interrogated me with gusto, hands flailing and eyes bulging; for them, it was heresy to merely contemplate the notion of independence.

Spanish television news stations give regular updates on the Scottish independence debate, not out of Scotia-philia but due to Catalonia’s bid for freedom. Catalonia’s president, Artur Mas, intends to hold a “consultation” on independence in November, a political stunt that the prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has vowed to prevent (“Not now, Artur,” to paraphrase Morecambe and Wise). Unlike Britain, Spain has a written constitution which expressly forbids the notion of secession from the Spanish state.

Further, it’s Rajoy’s conviction that any referendum/consultation must first seek approval from Madrid.

Rajoy is a tad upset that support for holding this de facto referendum is snowballing: two thirds of Catalonia’s MPs have signed up to it. However, opinion polls show only a slight majority of the citizenry – 56 per cent – favour outright sovereignty. The split was satirised recently in a Catalan TV programme in which an Alex Salmond lookalike struts into a room where Catalan leaders are discussing whether or not to confront Madrid’s demand to abandon any idea of a referendum. “What shall we do?” they ask Scotland’s First Minister. “Set a date and ask the people,” he answers gruffly before stomping out.

Rajoy is a charisma-free technocrat, a man who steadied the listing galleon as it headed for the financial rocks. He is, if you will, the Juan Major of Spanish politics. He governs Spain on behalf of the true rulers of the country, the European Central Bank (ECB), whose leaders perceive him to be a safe pair of hands; considering his zealousness in implementing severe public spending cuts, impoverished Spaniards could be forgiven for believing they are receiving an uncomfortably vigorous neck massage from the Boston Strangler, but to be fair, he is a serious individual who, thank goodness, hasn’t stooped to the level of the Better Together campaign by claiming that mobile phone texts will cost more in an independent Catalonia (maybe it’s his ace in the hole if he feels he’s losing the argument).

However, his scaremongering over Catalonia’s membership of the EU spookily resembles that of Johann Lamont’s dire warnings of Scotland being denied entry. In my view, it’s incredible that anyone in possession of critical faculties still imagines that an international organisation which allows membership to corrupt countries such as Romania and Bulgaria would bar Scotland, a nation that led the Enlightenment, a country overflowing with natural resources, a thriving democracy with an impeccable human rights record. We are, after all, talking about the EU, of which 23 of its 28 members enthusiastically recognised Kosovo’s right to break away from Serbia. Those who persist in saying that Scotland would be told “Not tonight, mate” by EU club bouncers are either liars or fools.

For Rajoy, Spain’s very existence is at stake. Rightly, he fears a possible domino effect should Catalonia secede. Basques will doubtless be emboldened to demand the right of self-determination. Despite decades of repression, ETA, the Basque separatist movement, enjoys much popular support. Only a few months ago, Spain was forced to release nine ETA terrorists – including one sentenced to 4,000 years for the murder of 24 people – to comply with a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights. Public anger intensified when the killers were given a torchlit hero’s welcome in their home towns.

By way of contrast, David Cameron appears diffident on the issue of a seismic constitutional reconfiguration. It’s bizarre that such a photogenic British Prime Minister does not wish to participate in a television debate, preferring to rely on the so-called “black arts” of backdoor diplomacy and patronising platitudes. Perhaps, given the current pro-union majority found in every survey, Cameron considers the result to be in the bag. In my view, the Yes campaign is gaining traction and will receive a shot in the arm thanks to Commonwealth Games euphoria and a pumped-up Braveheart factor on the back of the 700th anniversary celebration of Bannockburn.

Rather than persisting with puerile negative campaigning tactics, the Better Together group should set out their stall as to why “onee beeg” countries can be economically and politically successful.