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Brits in the EU

A view from Europe: Catalonia and Scotland

With an independence referendum causing major headaches in Spain, Adam R. Mathews explores whether Scotland's experience may help shed light on a solution?

Of all the countries I know in Europe, and I'm lucky enough to have lived in a few, Spain always seems to be the one that most closely resembles the British experience. Both, for example, are the accumulations of ancient kingdoms, the results of hundreds of years of royal marriages and successions, of repression, and of war. Both were once colonial masters of the world, neither are today and both delicately ignore that epoch of their histories. The two countries have fought civil wars, all be there some three hundred years between them. And while those conflicts went their distinct ways they both resulted in dictatorships that ended with the restoration of the monarchy; in England that happened in 1658 after five years under Oliver Cromwell the Lord Protector, in Spain that transition came just forty years ago, in 1975, after almost as many years under Generalissimo Franco.

Up against the similarities however, it's our profound differences that are most relevant to the question of devolution and independence. The historically short time in which modern Spain has existed means the 1978 constitution has yet to be really tested, but when Charles the second returned to England to be crowned its king in 1658, a constitution was something out of the dark ages - in his time the right to rule came directly from the hand of God and to this day the United Kingdom survives without a written constitution. For many, it may be impossible to imagine living without a formal constitution, but these inscribed norms are merely the formalisation of laws to whose likeness British citizens are equally obliged. In the same way, all countries are exposed to the slow grind of geopolitical plates. What Britain has over Spain in this case are the centuries it's taken for the current situation to settle, while the relatively recent upheaval of losing Ireland means UK governments now tend to use kid gloves when handling matters in the devolved regions.


Are Scottish and Catalan independence movments really all that similar?

Not so in Spain, where four decades of repression, including the prohibition of Basque and Catalan languages, culminated in a 1978 constitution which further cemented the indivisibility of the Spanish state. Almost immediately there was a push for greater freedoms for the 'autonomous communities', and clandestine terror groups, whose members were forced home from exile in France, picked up their activities against the Spanish state; 1978-80 were Basque terror group ETA's most deadly years, in that period they killed almost 250 people, while the Catalan separatist group Terra Lliure came into the national consciousness when two of their members were killed in the first half of 1979. Just two years later the group announced its presence to the world at a football match in Barcelona's Nou Camp stadium. They would go on to commit over two hundred acts of terrorism and kill five people.

Of course, Britain too saw separatist (and nationalist) terrorist acts throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, but its cause was something quite unlike anything the Spanish have experienced in the modern era. A hundred years ago, while the British Army was occupied with mass slaughter in Flanders, the Irish were rising up against their colonisers. The British reaction to the 1916 Easter Rising was so harsh - they executed the leaders and imprisoned thousands - that it led to a surge in Irish desires for independence and Sinn Féin's landslide victory at the 1918 general election. War followed immediately, and it was one which the British fought as they would any standard colonial conflict - the reprisals carried out by the British 'Black and Tans' ranged from the sacking and burning of villages and towns, including Cork, to firing into a crowd at a Gaelic football match on what became known as Bloody Sunday. The respective reputations the IRA and the British security services acquired in those times would carry through beyond the Good Friday Agreement.

Yet Spain has never been through a peace process like the one that ended with agreement in Belfast on Good Friday 1998, the dictatorship was averse to reconciliation after the civil war, and the subsequent constitution is far too rigid to allow for a bespoke and negotiated end to violence. Terra Lliure were finished off by some well-directed Police raids and an uncompromising position from Madrid finally forced ETA to declare unilateral disarmament earlier this year.

Also in the Series

Policing and the rule of law
Attitudes towards policing in authoritarian Hungary are a lesson that Spain would do well to heed

The Hungarian Referendum
Hungarian President Viktor Orban uses referendums to push his political agenda

The Decline of the European Left
Traditional left parties are losing out, but is it all the fault of the far right?

The Left's Resurrection
How a new left emerged out of centerism

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These details of history are vital for understanding the striking differences between the Scottish and Catalan independence referendums. In Britain, dialogue between parliaments from north and south of the border led to the Edinburgh agreement which temporarily permitted the Scottish parliament to enact legislation for a legal referendum. In the days before the vote, as the polls seemed to turn towards Yes to independence, Westminster politicians flooded north of the border to make promises and reiterate dull economic concerns. In the end, No won with over 55% of the vote on an 85% turnout.

But in Spain, the reaction from Madrid has been to block a Catalan vote at every turn. They arrested the former President of the Generalitat of Catalonia for organising an illegal vote, on which he was found guilty and banned from holding public office for two years. More recently, numerous Catalan cabinet ministers were arrested for disobeying the Constitutional Court of Spain, prevarication and embezzlement of public funds, only for many to be released without formal charge two days later. In the last couple of weeks, Madrid has ordered offices to be raided, the confiscation of millions of ballot papers, and has even sent three ships full of Civil Guardsmen to keep order. In the time it took to write this article, the spanish government forcibly closed over a thousand ballot stations in Catalan schools.

These tactics have led more and more Catalans to balk at the behaviour of central government, and wonder if self-governance may not be so bad in comparison. Writing the day before the vote it is still unclear what will happen on Sunday 1st October. Whatever the result, Spain seems set to follow their old enemy England out into unchartered constitutional waters. They would do well to remember that what worked in 1492 is impossible to repeat in 2017, and that no settlement ever lasts forever.

Adam R. Mathews, Madrid, 30 September 2017

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