Having recently experienced both the national day of Catalonia on 11 September and the recent anniversary of the 1 October 2017 “referendum”, it is becoming increasingly clear that not all European nations appreciate and promote freedom by the same measures.
To provide some context, this debate must delve into the subtleties between the Catalonian case for independence and the Scottish one. It is worth noting, though, that these subtleties are no excuse for the stark differences in the way European countries deal with or suppress political opinions.
In the 12th century, Catalonia was part of a larger realm – the kingdom of Aragón. So, unlike Scotland, whose army under Robert the Bruce secured independence at Bannockburn in 1314, Catalonia was never a sovereign state. Still, it had its own laws and representative institutions, and its people were fiercely proud of them. When the region rose in rebellion in 1640, it was because Catalans suspected Spain’s rulers of subverting their liberties for the goal of a more centralised Spanish empire.
Similar tensions marked the 1701-14 war of the Spanish Succession. By 1710, fighting was deadlocked; allied victories in Italy and the Low Countries had driven the French back to their borders, but they couldn’t achieve a decisive breakthrough while Philip was secure in Spain. When Archduke Charles unexpectedly became Emperor Charles VI in 1711, Britain effectively withdrew, forcing its allies to make peace.
This then led to the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, which involved concessions on both sides – the recognition of Philip as king of Spain, while Gibraltar and Menorca were ceded to Britain. Catalonia’s choice to back the Habsburg candidate for Spain’s vacant throne led to a harrowing 15-month siege of Barcelona and the loss of the region’s ancient liberties.
However, in the Scottish case, David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum allowed the debate to focus on the costs and benefits, effectively sidelining “Braveheart nostalgia”. Moreover, the prolonged process of campaigning and public debate opened space for renegotiating and reconsidering the common framework of the United Kingdom.
With independence narrowly defeated in the Scottish referendum of September 2014, fully-fledged Scottish statehood seems to have lost its appeal. This makes me wonder why the Spanish government are so intransigent on offering a referendum to the people of Catalonia. Perhaps if they had done so in 2017, the Spanish wouldn’t find themselves in the mess they are in right now.
But Enric Millo, the former Spanish government delegate to Catalonia, recently said that the Scottish experience was not relevant to the Catalan situation: “The case of Scotland and the case of Spain are not comparable because they have different constitutions.” If this is the case, surely the Spanish constitution should be amended to allow varying levels of political discourse, rather than having an effective blanket ban on independence referendums.
Spain however, is in its infancy as a democracy, and the Catalan question has definitely shown that it is juvenile in nature compared to more mature democracies such as the UK and Canada (which allowed Quebec to hold a referendum).
Crucially, the Spanish people have still not come to terms with the civil war and the divisive Franco years. At some point, the Spanish people, including the Catalans, must face this painful chapter of their past and renegotiate the consensus of what the Spanish nation is, where it is coming from, and how the different interests and identities should be balanced in the future. What is needed is a positive appreciation of their diverse identities and memories.
History shows there is no use in trying to outlaw separatism, as the Spanish government has attempted. Instead, national governments – and the European Union – need to provide a framework that allows for such grievances and movements to play out within democratic and legal fields. This may, as a last resort, lead to national independence – if that is what voters want.
Unfortunately, the EU itself makes empty statements when it describes itself and its institutions as “modern and democratic”. You can’t permit a member state to beat up senior citizens or shoot rubber bullets at their own people while also asking Britain to vote again on Brexit, and then describe yourself as a “democratic institution”.
For this reason, we must continue to defend and promote the United Kingdom’s appreciation of political and civic freedoms. Theresa May, in her speech at Conservative Party conference, was right when she made the case for political freedom. In that case, it was referring to Diane Abbott – regardless of whether we agree or disagree with what she says, she has the right to say what she believes without facing physical abuse.
Because political freedom is what democracy is all about, and we should champion the freedoms that are ingrained in British society. For Brits, such freedoms are the norm. For Catalans, they are still a dream.