Lack of dialogue ‘could boost Scottish and Catalan independence campaigns’

Clara Ponsati, a former minister in the Catalan devolved government, leaves Edinburgh Sheriff Court following an extradition hearing. The charges against her were later dropped. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Clara Ponsati, a former minister in the Catalan devolved government, leaves Edinburgh Sheriff Court following an extradition hearing. The charges against her were later dropped. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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A breakdown in dialogue between central and regional governments only strengthens breakaway independence campaigns, a leading historian has warned in a landmark comparative study of Scotland and Catalonia.

Sir John Elliott, an expert on Spanish history and one of the UK’s most prominent historians, said “a failure of imagination” too often led to rows between devolved governments in Edinburgh and Barcelona and the central authorities in London and Madrid.

The academic has examined the social, political and historical factors of both pro-independence movements in a new book, Scots & Catalans: Union & Disunion.

Its publication by Yale University Press comes as the relationship between Holyrood and Westminster is tested over Brexit, while Catalonia is split over the aftermath of a hugely controversial independence referendum staged in the north-eastern Spanish province last year.

“The failure of dialogue is the result of a failure of imagination - of the ability to put oneself into another’s shoes and grasp the power of sentiment,” Sir John writes.

“This failure of imagination has all too often bedevilled relations between Edinburgh and London on the one hand and Madrid and Barcelona on the other, creating an impasse where bridges might otherwise have been built.

“Dialogue alone is not enough to solve long-standing and complex problems of mutual accommodation, but whenever dialogue ceases, one more obstacle on the road to independence is removed, and secession comes closer to being the final response.”

READ MORE: Why Catalonia’s independence vote is ‘very different’ from Scotland’s

Sir John, whose books are published under the name JH Elliott, is a former regius professor of modern history at the University of Oxford.

Having written about Spanish history for five decades, he found himself “wondering if there were any parallels between the two movements that might be worth exploring”.

In a careful examination of how the modern British and Spanish states came into being, the academic highlights both the differences and similarities between Scottish and Catalan quests for self-determination.

Scotland, unlike Catalonia, was once a sovereign state recognised by other European powers. But as part of the wider Crown of Aragon, whose power stretched from what is now north-west Spain to the heel of what is now Italy, Catalonia enjoyed a high level of autonomy, including its own assembly and the right to set laws.

The process of how Scotland was united with England - firstly by a shared monarch, then a formal political union in 1707 - bears some similarity to the unification of the crowns of Aragon and Castille under Phillip II.

The gradual centralisation of powers eventually caused resentment in both. “In Scotland, as in the Crown of Aragon and now Portugal, prolonged royal absenteeism was a significant source of discontent, although a long history of royal minorities may have inured Scots to seeing little or nothing of their monarch,” observed Sir John.

A later chapter details the growing resentment in the second half of the 19th century in both Scotland and Catlonia over their relationship with a remote central government, and subsequent demand for some form of Home Rule.

“Unequal unions inevitably encourage in the junior partner a feeling that the stronger partner fails to understand it and ignores its concerns,” the author notes.

As early as 1853 an Association for the Vindication of Scottish Rights was formed. It did campaign for the Union to be dissolved, but claimed “the justice the Union promised... had not yet been received”. This translated as Scotland not receiving a fair share of public funds and lacking appropriate representation at Westminster - two issues that would later be taken up by the SNP.

Sir John also quotes a famous Times leading article in 1857, which boldly claimed that Scotland was “manifestly a country in need of a grievance”.

He said that both Scotland and Catalonia, from the 17th century onwards, “did in fact have many good reasons to feel aggrieved” but added: “Incorporating union had brought benefits to both countries, even if these were not always acknowledged or even obvious”.

READ MORE: Brian Wilson: Catalonia is evidence of the benefits of a Union