Scott Macnab: Catalan struggle not a priority for Scots

Catalan ministers march in support of the referendum, which has been ruled illegal by Spain's constitutional court. Picture: Getty Images
Catalan ministers march in support of the referendum, which has been ruled illegal by Spain's constitutional court. Picture: Getty Images
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The SNP’s intervention in Catalonia may seem strange as schools and hospitals flounder here, writes Scott Macnab.

The sight of Catalonian flags being flourished at pro-independence rallies across Scotland has become a common sight in recent years as Nationalists here find solidarity with a sister movement in the Spanish region.

The links blossomed during the referendum campaign in 2014 which Catalans saw as a beacon of how democracy should work, with London agreeing to Scotland’s demands to determine its own future.

The Spanish region has now received supportive noises from the Scottish Government as it prepares for its own unofficial referendum on independence next month. Some even believe a successful process should embolden Nicola Sturgeon to hold her own vote in Scotland – with or without Theresa May’s approval.

READ MORE: Letters: Catalan vote could be huge for Scotland

But are the two situations really that similar? The relationship with other Nationalist movements around the globe has always been awkward for the SNP. Alex Salmond and other senior party figures were always at pains to distance their cause from comparisons with the situation across the Irish Sea, insisting that not a “drop of blood” was ever spilled in the name of Scottish independence.

READ MORE: Police arrest 12 in raids on Catalonia government offices

Similarly when the independence-seeking Premier of the Canadian province of Quebec, Pauline Marois, visited Scotland and held talks with Salmond in Bute House a few years ago it was a markedly low-key affair. Media conferences, TV interviews and photographs were dispensed with, and the visiting leader had to brief journalists in an Edinburgh hotel.

SNP leaders were attempting to avoid associations with the Quebecois struggle which had been marked by a more militant approach, including violent insurrection and generations of ugly constitutional upheaval.

Catalonia’s campaign has always seen far more of a sense of kinship. It culminated in Fiona Hyslop, Scotland’s de facto foreign minister in her role as cabinet secretary for external affairs, stepping into the row over Catalonia’s disputed referendum and endorsing the right of its people to “self-determination”, effectively criticising Madrid’s attempts to block the process.

Ms Hyslop’s comments have been met with a predictably warm reaction from senior figures in the Catalan Nationalist movement after growing pressure in recent weeks for the Scottish Government to speak out against the approach being taken by the Spanish government which vigorously opposes plans for the forthcoming vote.

This is a matter of Spanish constitutional law, according to Madrid, which enshrines the “indivisibility” of the Spanish nation. It also makes it clear that sovereignty of the state belongs to Spaniards as a whole, Daniel Cetra, a research fellow for the centre on Constitutional Change at Edinburgh University told The Scotsman in a recent interview.

He said: “The UK is a union of different nations – this is not the case in Spain.”

The Catalan Assembly, which has a pro-independence majority, has called next month’s referendum. This is despite support for secession from Spain standing at about 45 per cent, while backing for an unofficial vote staged without Madrid’s approval, is even lower.

A previous attempt at a referendum in Catalonia was staged in 2014, just a couple of months after the Scottish vote. Various interventions by Spain’s constitutional court saw this watered down to a “participatory process”. About 2.3 million Catalans nonetheless voted for independence – about 81 per cent of those who took part.

But fewer than half – 42 per cent – of the region’s electorate took part, meaning well over half of the electorate did not back independence.

The former president of Catalonia, Arthur Mas, was even found guilty of acting in defiance of the constitutional court for his role in the process. He was banned from seeking electoral office for two years and fined.

This time around, 700 local mayors have been threatened with prosecution if they assist with next month’s vote.

And it’s here that the comparisons with Scotland run into difficulties.

Ms Sturgeon has always accepted that to have a second referendum in Scotland would require the same section 50 order which was agreed for the last referendum in 2014. The Edinburgh Agreement set the “gold standard” which such plebiscites must be measured against in future and the First Minister has been quick to rule out the possibility of a go-it-alone Catalan-style vote fearing the knock-on impact such guerilla tactics may have in attracting a majority of Scots to her cause.

Catalonians may be a bit more open to a more confrontational approach given the inflexibility of Madrid to referendum demands. In Scotland, we’ve been through years of constitutional debate and argument which split the country down the middle in the build up to the 2014 vote.

Theresa May has not had her problems to seek. But when the Prime Minister ruled out Ms Sturgeon’s demands for a second referendum in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, insisting “Now’s not the time”, she seemed to be more in touch with the broader views of Scots than the SNP leader.

The First Minister’s highly public and painful “reset” on her indyref2 demands in July were evidence of this. And it is notable that Ms Sturgeon herself opted against commenting on the Catalonian issue, instead leaving it to one of her ministers to issue a statement on a Saturday when the impact on the wider news agenda was likely to be minimal.

The issue has always been problematic to the SNP’s wider vision of EU membership after a successful Yes vote. This will only happen if there is a unanimous vote from all EU nations – and Madrid may be reluctant to do this if it gives encouragement to its own secessionist movement.

And after the surprising losses suffered by the SNP in June’s election, when the prospect of second referendum was the dominant issue, perhaps Ms Sturgeon is keen curtail the party’s constitutional forays.

At a time when the education system here is mired in unsavoury headlines and NHS targets are routinely missed, Scots may struggle to understand why their government is so pre-occupied with the internal politics of Mediterranean Spain.