Professor John Elliott: What Scots and Catalans can learn from history

A demonstrator holds a sign saying 'Let's not let governments divide us' during a pro-unity rally in Barcelona a week after the disputed referendum on Catalan independence was held in October last year (Picture: Getty)
A demonstrator holds a sign saying 'Let's not let governments divide us' during a pro-unity rally in Barcelona a week after the disputed referendum on Catalan independence was held in October last year (Picture: Getty)
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Relations between Catalonia and Madrid soured in the 1800s as the Romantic Movement took off and inspired a new kind of nationalism, writes John Elliott.

As the current generation of Scots and Catalans face up to unusually agonising decisions about the future they want for themselves and their children, it is perhaps salutary to take a step back and consider how and why this dilemma has arisen.

This is what I have tried to do in my book, Scots and Catalans. Union and Disunion, a comparative history of two peoples without states of their own, whose attempts to define, reassess and perhaps transform their relationship to the larger polities to which they belong has been drawing headlines across the world.

The book begins with the Middle Ages and ends in December 2017 after the flight to Belgium of the Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont, following the failure of a unilateral bid to break away from the Spanish state and establish Catalonia as an independent republic.

Many years ago I wrote a study of the origins of the Catalan rebellion of 1640 against the royal government in Madrid – a rebellion that inspired the creation of a Catalan republic which lasted for a week. As I contemplated the unfolding of today’s Catalan separatist movement and the simultaneous rise of Scottish separatism, I thought it might be illuminating to attempt a sustained comparison of the historical experience of the two countries and of the ways in which a sense of national identity has manifested itself over the centuries.

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Naturally there are important differences between the two national histories, but differences can be as revealing as similarities in reaching historical conclusions. One obvious difference is that Scotland was for centuries an independent kingdom, whereas Catalonia was never a truly independent state. It was a principality that formed part of a federation, the Crown of Aragon, which was united with the Crown of Castile as a result of the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile in 1469. This dynastic union created the country that came to be known as ‘Spain’. Dynastic union between Scotland and England came more than a century later, when James VI of Scotland’s inheritance of the English throne in 1603 created ‘Great Britain’.

The immediate effect of these unions was similar, in the sense that, although both Scotland and Catalonia preserved their traditional forms of government, they were now linked to a far more powerful neighbour. This produced inevitable tensions, and at the start of the 18th century attempts were made to resolve them, although in very different ways. The 1707 Anglo-Scottish Union created a British parliamentary monarchy, in which the Scots surrendered their Edinburgh parliament in exchange for access to England’s expanding commercial and colonial empire.

In 1716, following the surrender of Barcelona two years earlier to the forces of Philip V, who was the monarch of the newly enthroned Bourbon dynasty, Catalonia, like the rest of the Crown of Aragon, was stripped of its traditional laws and liberties, and was merged into what became an authoritarian monarchical Spain.

Scotland and Catalonia both benefited economically from the constitutional changes of the early 18th century, although the expansion of Britain’s overseas empire gave the Scots many more opportunities than those enjoyed by the Catalans. The British empire of the 18th and 19th centuries was a joint Anglo-Scottish creation, whereas the Catalans remained on the margins of Spain’s long-established American empire. Instead, they turned their energies to economic development, and became the pioneers of Spanish industrialisation, based on a rapidly growing textile industry.

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Scotland, too, was being transformed by the growth of its industries in the same period, but, unlike Catalonia, it never became the main power-house of the wider, national, economy. The long-term effect of these differences is still to be seen. In Spain, economic and political development were out of kilter in the 19th and early 20th centuries. While Madrid was the country’s political capital, its economic capital was Barcelona. In Britain, London was both.

In the 19th century, Catalonia’s relationship with the government in Madrid soured. This was partly the result of Spain’s chronic political instability in the decades following the Napoleonic invasion and the Peninsular War. But it can also be explained by a pan-European phenomenon, the emergence of a new-style nationalism inspired by the Romantic Movement.

The researches of historians, literary scholars and folklorists into the origins of their societies generated a sense of the nation as an organic community with its own distinctive characteristics. Such explorations of the Catalan past helped produce another significant difference between Scotland and Catalonia. It was language that became the point of reference for national identity in Catalonia, in a way that Gaelic would never be for that of Scotland.

The Catalans clung to their language when the repressive regime of General Franco sought to replace it with Castilian, the predominant language of Spain. After Franco’s death in 1975, a reaction was inevitable. The autonomous Catalan regime created by the 1978 Constitution of the newly democratic Spain was determined, through its control of the educational system, to ‘Catalanise’ Catalan society in the face of the encroachment of Castilian through the national media. The resulting linguistic question has played a large part in creating the current impasse between Catalonia and the Spanish government.

It is one of the ironies of this stand-off that the 30 years between 1978 and the financial collapse of 2008 have been the most prosperous and successful in Catalonia’s colourful history. But the economic crisis gave radical Catalan nationalists a chance to depict Catalonia as the victim of a malign Spanish state, and the inflexibility of a Spanish government determined to treat the secessionist movement as a constitutional question that should properly be left to the courts handed the separatists a propaganda victory that they have exploited to the full.

Referendums, whether authorised or unauthorised, as in the Catalan case, are at best blunt instruments for determining the will of the people. In forcing binary choices they can be deeply divisive, and Catalonia is now a bitterly divided society, in which intimidation is being exercised by secessionists who claim to speak for all its inhabitants. A highly creative people with a long and distinguished history, the Catalans deserve better than this.

Scots & Catalans, by Oxford University history professor John Elliott, is published on 9 July