by Rab Bruce’s Spider
Events in Catalonia are moving so quickly that this article may well be out of date by the time you read it. However, for the purposes of comparison with Scotland, the details are less important than the overall picture which is emerging. Sadly, the Spanish Government appears to be adopting tactics which are worthy of any extreme authoritarian State. The fact that the Catalans, or some of them at least, are still prepared to go ahead with their planned referendum on independence in spite of the legal, financial and physical intimidation they are suffering shows a degree of resolution which the majority of scots have not so far displayed.
The reasons for this will be many and varied, but there can be little doubt that the fact Catalonia has its own media must play a significant part in shaping public opinion there. In contrast, Scots have no control over their own media which constantly tells them they are better off being subject to Westminster rule no matter the consequences.
In political terms, the Catalonian experience presents a thorny problem for the Scottish Government. Naturally, there are calls for Nicola Sturgeon to express support for the rule of local self-determination which is seen to operate in a democratic way. However, doing so could create difficulties in the future. Despite the long-running and persistent claims by the Unionist media, the Spanish Government has never threatened to veto Scotland’s admission to the EU. Its stance has always been that it will not intervene in the constitutional affairs of another State and that any Referendum which is carried out in accordance with a state’s constitution will be respected. Whether that attitude would alter should Scotland ventured opinions on Spain’s constitutional affairs is something which , politically, the Scottish Government must consider carefully. To be too vocal in criticising Spain’s actions could turn Spain’s view on Scottish independence from one of neutrality to one of political hostility. That may sound cynical, especially because there is no doubt a lot of support for Catalonia on a personal level, but we live in a political world, so such decisions cannot be taken lightly.
As for that Spanish constitution which lies at the heart of the current Catalonian situation, it does serve to show how public opinion can shift in the space of a few decades. Spain has had a raft of constitutions since the 19th Century, and several in the 20th Century. The current constitution was adopted as recently as 1978 following a Referendum in which, it must be noted, Catalans voted 95% in favour on a turnout of 67%. That there is now a considerable demand for independence shows just how public opinion can shift. The Spanish example also shows that no constitution can be cast in stone, since the current one is only the latest in a long line, albeit we must acknowledge that the political situation in Spain over the past two Centuries has been very volatile, involving invasion, occupation and civil war, with shifts between dictatorship, absolute monarchical rule, and democracy under a constitutional monarchy. Bearing that in mind, it is little wonder that the constitutional position has shifted so often.
What is worrying is the Spanish Government’s apparent determination to prevent any move to break away from the unitary State. They may have the legal right, or even the obligation, to uphold the constitution, but they must realise that, while repressive tactics may succeed in the short term, they will only serve to harden attitudes, as well as creating a poor impression internationally. Of course, they may not care about this, since the loss of prestige and access to its wealthiest region may be the driving issues behind its attitude. The law is often a convenient smokescreen for such views, and we should not forget that laws can be altered to cope with new situations. Indeed, if that were not so, there would be no need for Parliaments to legislate at all. Currently, though, the Spanish Government seems determined to entrench its position no matter what Catalan public opinion might say.
Does any of that sound familiar? The question of prestige is close to the heart of the UK’s arguments against Scottish independence, as is the loss of Scotland’s wealth, a wealth which the media has done its best to disguise with, it must be admitted, considerable success.
So, does the current Catalan situation provide any clues as to what might happen in Scotland? It is too early to say because events are still unfolding, but there are two potential outcomes at opposite ends of the spectrum of possibilities which may turn out to provide some clues.
The happiest outcome would be that Spain sees sense, realises it will never control the move for Catalan independence without severe authoritarian clampdown, that Catalonia votes Yes and is welcomed into organisations such as the UN and EU with minimal difficulty. The new nation’s relationships with Spain would no doubt be strained for some time, but the Catalans clearly believe that it would be worth some problems in order to achieve self-government.
If all of that happened – and it’s a big if at the moment – then perhaps more Scots would realise that Scotland could follow the same path, especially when the full horror of Brexit eventually becomes apparent.
On the other hand, there is a much darker scenario. What example would it provide if Spain did clamp down, impose a virtual Police State in Catalonia, and stamped out all opposition by imprisoning the leaders of the Yes movement and abolishing the Catalan Parliament?
You can see where this is going, can’t you? The Tories are already instigating a power grab which is reminiscent of the moves taken by the likes of Vladimir Putin. (In order to avoid invoking Godwin’s Law, I won’t mention similar characters from the 1930s, but you can no doubt appreciate that history is full of people who came to power more or less legitimately and then took measures to ensure they could not be ousted).
One advantage the Tories have over Putin is that he had to contend with a considerable portion of the Russian media which opposed him. Gary Kasparov, the former World Chess champion turned Human Rights activist and political commentator, has written that Putin was forced to concoct charges against the media moguls who opposed him. Once these individuals were either imprisoned or driven into exile, Putin installed some of his cronies in their place, thus ensuring that the Russian media is always on his side.
In the UK, the media is already on the side of the Tories. This is why Brexit is being normalised and why we are seeing a concerted effort to portray Devolution as a failed experiment. These could well be the latest steps on the road to the abolition of Holyrood. If the Tories see Spain getting away with repressive measures, then they will feel emboldened even more than they already are. And, gloomy and pessimistic as this may sound, we should not forget that the UK has serious form when it comes to taking repressive action against people it viewed as rebellious secessionists from its Empire.
Hopefully, this dark outlook will prove wrong. Things have moved on in the post-War era, and it may yet be that Brexit and the Tories will be thwarted by democratic means. However, one thing we must take from this is that the time for IndyRef2 is once the full calamitous consequences of Brexit are known, but before we are actually dragged out of the EU. To wait any longer would be folly.
As for the lessons of Catalonia, only one thing is clear at the moment; we should never underestimate the lengths to which an authoritarian Government will go in order to protect its own position of power.