The pro-independence movements in Scotland and Catalonia have both enjoyed recent electoral success, but while they share similar aims of breaking away from the UK and Spain, they face very different challenges due to their contrasting constitutional and political realities. While Scotland is recognized as a constituent nation within the UK, the Spanish constitution only recognizes one nation: Spain itself.
Robert Liñeira, a politics lecturer at the University of Glasgow, says that there are historical reasons for the differing attitudes of the British and Spanish states. “Spanish nationalism was built against peripheral nationalism,” such as Catalonia and the Basque Country, Liñeira explained to Catalan News. “Spain didn’t fight any international wars in the 19th or the 20th century, so the enemy was not outside. Whereas in the 19th century, Britain was building the largest empire ever. So what triggers British, and in particular English, nationalism is not Scotland, it’s Europe,” Liñeira argues.
In 2014, Scotland, in agreement with the UK government, held an agreed, legal and binding referendum that asked voters “Should Scotland be an independent country?” 55.3% said No and 44.7% said Yes, with an incredibly high turnout of 84.6%. Catalonia’s 2017 independence referendum took place in completely different circumstances. Over 1,000 voters were injured after Spanish police were deployed to prevent people casting their ballots in what was deemed an illegal vote.
Independence vs. self-determination
Liñeira says that in Catalonia, in contrast to Scotland, “they are not actually fighting for independence, they are fighting for the right to self-determination.” For supporters of Catalan independence, the 2014 vote in Scotland is a beacon, a blueprint. “For us, the model is the first Scottish referendum,” says Esquerra Republica (ERC) MEP Jordi Solé.
As expected, Scottish nationalists don’t look south to Catalonia with the same kind of envy. Gavin Newlands is an MP in Westminster for the Scottish National Party (SNP). He was part of the All-Party Parliamentary Group who visited Catalonia in 2018 and whose members met with the then Catalan president Quim Torra and jailed pro-independence activist Jordi Cuixart. Newlands says he views “the position of Catalans with a great deal of sympathy, because ultimately there’s a constitutional roadblock in the way of Catalans’ self-determination whereas in Scotland that roadblock is political only.”
Although pro-independence parties won majorities in Scotland’s May election and in Catalonia in February, the political makeup of the two blocs shows sharp contrasts. In Scotland, the SNP are by far the biggest party and the two pro-independence parties in parliament are both left-leaning. Catalonia’s three parties, however, range from far-left to right and struggle to find unity, as the ongoing negotiations over the makeup of the next government illustrate, more than three months on from election day.
The organizers of Catalonia’s 2017 referendum are now mainly in exile, such as former president Carles Puigdemont, or behind bars: nine politicians and activists were given prison sentences of between 9 and 13 years for sedition. On the other hand, the courts have had little role to play in Scotland’s independence push to date, but a future clash in the UK Supreme Court is a possibility. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has told the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson that a second referendum is a matter of “when, not if,” but there is no guarantee that the government in London will agree.
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