Financial Times

October 15, 2012 5:44 pm

Spain, Britain and the forbidden fruits of independence

Gideon RachmanBy Gideon Rachman

No marriage can survive by declaring divorce illegal
Ingram Pinn illustration©Ingram Pinn

Arriving in Scotland a few years ago, I was greeted by a poster boasting that Glasgow has “the latitude of Smolensk and the attitude of Barcelona”. It was a vivid example of the mixture of comradeship and admiration with which Scots look towards Catalonia. Barcelona, the Catalan capital, has many things that Glaswegians covet: better weather, better food, better football. In a striking homage to Catalonia, the Scots even chose an architect from its capital, Enric Miralles, to design their new parliament building.

Now, however, Catalans have a reason to look enviously towards Scotland. On Monday it was confirmed that in 2014 Scotland will hold a referendum on independence. The Catalan government would dearly love to hold its own vote on independence, but is being determinedly blocked by the Spanish government in Madrid.

Spain is attempting to thwart the movement for Catalan independence through the use of a legalistic Catch-22. The central government says Catalan nationalists must respect Spain’s constitution. And that constitution makes it illegal to hold a referendum on independence.

The British are taking an approach that is simultaneously more pragmatic and bolder. Prime Minister David Cameron could easily have insisted that only the British government had the legal right to organise a referendum. Instead he has agreed to allow Scots to organise a vote on their nation’s future – on condition that independence should be the only question on the ballot.

On the grounds of both justice and prudence, the British government’s approach seems wiser. Mr Cameron, like Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, is a conservative and a patriot. Both men would be appalled to preside over the break-up of their nations. But the British government has recognised that, by winning power in Edinburgh, the Scottish Nationalists have earned the democratic right to hold a referendum on their longstanding goal of independence. There is no point in trying to find legalistic ways of thwarting them.

The British government’s approach, while risky, is also psychologically astute. Telling people that there is something that they are absolutely forbidden from doing is a sure way of stoking their desire to do that very thing. This principle – first established in the Garden of Eden – applies just as surely in modern Catalonia. By contrast, it may be slightly deflating for Scottish Nationalists that a recent opinion poll showed stronger support for Scottish independence in England than in Scotland itself.

The parallels between the Scottish and Catalan causes are intriguing. In both places, nationalists date the loss of independence to the early 18th century. The Scots signed the Act of Union with England – which created Britain in 1707 – after a misbegotten colonial venture, called the Darien scheme, had almost bankrupted Scotland. Catalan nationalists date their loss of independence to the fall of Barcelona in 1714. In a recent match between Barcelona and Real Madrid, Catalan nationalists marked the anniversary with an earsplitting roar – 17 minutes and 14 seconds into the football game.

Both the Scottish and Catalan nationalists have used the EU to bolster the case for independence. An independent Scotland or Catalonia, it is argued, need not fear isolation, since the new nations would be members of the larger European club – and so could combine independence with the security of membership of the EU.

Some Scottish intellectuals also argue that hostility towards the EU is a specifically English vice – and that Scots are much less chauvinistic. This idea goes down well in Brussels, where the notion that the English might be punished for their euroscepticism by Scottish secession tickles some people. In truth, opinion polls suggest that Scots are only slightly less hostile to the EU than the English. One recent poll suggested that 60 per cent of English voters want to quit the EU; a view shared by 50 per cent of Scots.

The economic crisis within the eurozone has led the Scottish Nationalists to play down the European angle to their campaign. They now say that an independent Scotland would not immediately seek to join the euro, and would instead retain the pound as its currency – in Scottish notes, as it is now.

Spain, by contrast, is right at the centre of the euro crisis, so the rest of the EU still looks good by comparison. Most Catalan nationalists insist their new nation would remain part of the euro.

There is, however, one big difference between the Scottish and the Catalan cases that helps to account for the difference in attitudes in Madrid and London. Scotland accounts for just 5.2m of a total British population of about 62m – and is widely regarded in England as being heavily subsidised by the rest of the country. (The Scottish Nationalists dispute that.) By contrast, Catalonia accounts for 7.3m of a Spanish population of 47m – and is one of the wealthiest regions in the country. Its loss would be a terrible blow to Spain.

Still, even the English might find their stiff upper lips quivering slightly if Scotland really does vote for independence in 2014. Personally, I hope both Britain and Spain manage to stay together. But, if that happens, it has to be on the basis of consent. The Spanish government should stop hiding behind the law, and allow a Catalan referendum. No marriage can survive simply by declaring divorce illegal.