The Catalonian campaign for independence is a phenomenon of our times, like the Scottish. They both claim they are ancient entities enjoying sufficient cohesion to go it alone and find their own balance between globalisation (the great big world now closer to all of us than ever) and self sufficiency ( provided it comes under the safety blanket of the EU). They seem to think they deserve as of right, easy acquiescence and the blessing of a good deal from their former allegiance. That may be a flaw in their case. However, as the contest with the metropolitan power is not that between oppressor and victim, violence is firmly disavowed – at least for now. The scars of civil war which left a million dead by the 1950s throughout Spain are still visible. That general experience differed from the Irish. Oppression in Spain was class-based, ideological and common to Catalans and other Spanish alike. Today the contest is not about good guys versus bad guys, but between two fairly comfortable choices.
But – wouldn’t you know it? – life is not so simple. In the 19th and 20th centuries, wars in Europe were avowedly fought to establish more cohesive nation states. Outside the former Yugoslavia, that cohesion was broadly achieved in the European heartland but at the cost of the savage ethnic cleansing of the Second World War, after the false start of the uneasy peace that followed World War One. By 1945, regions along new national borders were no longer to be grabbed as the spoils of victory or traded as compensation to a victor or powerful third party neighbours.
Scotland and Catalonia on the fringe of Europe were spared the agonies of the post- war settlement, although Catalonia had suffered its own proxy version in the civil war . It is perhaps no accident that they are now the most prominent in Europe in driving for independence. Both Scotland and Catalonia were fully incorporated into larger unitary states only three hundred years ago. They fear no outside strategic threat and offer none, and are relatively prosperous. Does that mean they should be let go without active resistance?
In the end probably, but only in the end . There is an acute sense of unease about Europe turning into a patchwork of small countries at time when the third world is growing fast in terms of wealth and population but not necessarily in political maturity. Only a few years ago “ subsidiarity” in Europe or the devolution of power closer to the people, was trumpeted as the more congenial option for regions championing at the bit of over-centralisation.
Now, the EU has rolled back on this, and has grown cool, even frigid, at the prospect of Scottish and Catalonian independence. The EU has re-asserted itself as a confederation of nation states which is also hostile to whole country secessions like Brexit. The TV drama Gunpowder reminds us that this is an old story. Catholic and Protestant monarchs were often reluctant to support the overthrow the other, in case their own legitimacy came under threat.
Democracy cannot hide the fact that a drive for independence is a revolutionary act however peaceful in intent to begin with. And democratic Spain is a very new country indeed. After centuries of internal oppression up to 1974 interrupted by a short lived republic in the 1930s (read Lorca), the Spanish centre will not surrender easily the principle of unity embedded in its 1978 constitution. This need not be a reactionary view – see Abraham Lincoln – but it is a dangerous gamble.
Spanish behaviour has differed radically from the British example of the 1990s. “Devolution will kill nationalism stone dead,” was why Scottish Labour leaders like George Robertson championed devolution. When the opposite proved true within a decade, they were stuck with it, and good thing too. The British are also blessed by the absence of the hamstrings of a written or codified constitution which in the Spanish case appears to tie hands and steers towards intransigence.
Most outside observers would agree that Independence declared by a government with a wafer thin majority after a referendum turnout of less than 50% ( admittedly subject to harassment by Spain’s police) is a result than cannot stand.
The Irish example from history looms in the background. The introduction of violence, whether justified or not, creates a different agenda which nobody can control. On the other hand, secession by the south in 1919 was not only accompanied by a campaign of violence which destroyed the police force but by the gradual assumption of power at local level. The Catalan government are there already. The immediate question is, can they hold onto it?
Both Madrid and Barcelona seems to believe than brinkmanship will force the issue and that quick elections will create a new beginning, Fingers crossed that on this, they are both right.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London