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Why Catalan and Scottish independence movements are swapping tactics

Catalan Estelada flags fly alongside Saltires at a pro-Scottish independence march in Glasgow in May, 2019 - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

In both Scotland and Catalonia, the sense of inevitability that independence would soon become reality has receded as quickly as it appeared. What changed? 

As Nicola Sturgeon fights for her political life in the wake of the scandal tearing her party apart, her former counterpart at the head of the Catalan independence movement, Carles Puigdemont, has his own personal battle.

He and other separatist MEPs who fled to Brussels after the failed independence referendum in 2017 are facing the prospect of extradition to Spain after the European Parliament recently voted to waive their immunity.

The plights of both leaders – who once seemed to be taking their causes inexorably down the path to independence – show how quickly political fortunes can change, and with them the matters of immense importance on which the fate of nations literally hang.

For all their parallels between the Scottish and Catalan independence movements their stars have never quite aligned. Indeed, as both movements enter a pivotal year – with crucial elections – the two are becoming more divergent, even swapping the other’s tactics for their own, with Catalonia moving closer to the SNP approach in government, while the SNP ponders the legality of a referendum without London backing.

The extent of the links between the two independence movements are obvious from any event organised in either country, where the Saltire and Estelada flags are flown side by side.

The parallels go back centuries. Both Scotland and Catalonia entered into union with larger neighbours at the beginning of the 18th century, albeit under very different circumstances – while the Union with England was ratified by the Scottish parliament, Catalonia was occupied, after defeat in the War of Spanish Succession.

After long years in which greater autonomy was the main focus of political debate in both Barcelona and Edinburgh, their modern independence movements have dramatically accelerated over the last 20 years.

The SNP secured a referendum in 2014. And although that vote was lost, the party has since increased its dominance of Scottish politics, while opinion polls – at least until the recent scandal – had suggested a solidifying majority for independence.

The Catalans, meanwhile, staged their own referendum in 2017, securing a majority, but amid a low turnout, a boycott from anti-separatists and a clampdown from Madrid, which had not consented to the vote. Where then, is there most momentum for change?

Certainly, the SNP’s advance has been checked by the sleaze scandal centred on former first minister, Alex Salmond, and his successor, Sturgeon. This year had seemed to offer such opportunity for Sturgeon and her party – generally praised for her handling of the pandemic, and with Brexit providing a particularly pressing motive for independence for many. 

Yet it is shaping up to be somewhat of an annus horribilis for the SNP, the prospect of an overall majority at Holyrood slipping from its grasp, and with it a mandate to hold a second independence referendum, in the wake of the scandal.

It’s unlikely Sturgeon will resign, despite the accusation she misled the Scottish parliament. She will also scrape through any no confidence vote, but all this will nonetheless damage her credibility. And the scandal is certainly showing that there’s sand in the once well-oiled party machinery. The SNP’s stringent code of conduct is renowned for forming an effective phalanx to shield the party from criticism and also unites its members in a common purpose in stifling internal dissent.

In recent months, chinks in the armour have begun to show with infighting over the Gender Recognition Act reform, for instance, breaking out into open combat between the party’s frontline politicians and ordinary members alike over trans and women’s rights.

Why is this significant? Having been in power for nearly 14 years, and facing a historic fourth consecutive term in government, the SNP has been untouchable despite a chequered record on flagship issues, such as education. However, the Salmond-Sturgeon saga has served to chip away the polished veneer. If electoral success ebbs away, so too do the chances of a legitimate, lawful second referendum on independence.

In spite of a thriving grassroots movement, the SNP is almost singlehandedly determining the debate over the constitutional future of Scotland – in contrast with Catalonia, where a more diverse political scene, featuring an array of pro-independence parties, offers the potential for a broader coalition.

To compound this, the fortunes of the Scottish independence movement are inextricably entwined with the electoral prospects of the SNP, as evidenced by the latest opinion polls showing support for both slowly waning in the run-up to the Holyrood elections in May.

It’s to Sturgeon’s credit, however, that the support for independence has reached such a high watermark, having until recently been the majority sentiment among Scots in 22 successive opinion polls. 

Her handling of Scotland’s response to the pandemic, often in stark contrast to that of prime minister Boris Johnson, is widely regarded as competent and reassuring north of the border. Such confidence in her stewardship of the country has assured her of net favourability ratings far outstripping those of her counterparts in both Westminster and Holyrood.

The overall result of her near seven-year tenure at the helm, navigating the country through the choppy waters of Brexit and the ongoing global health crisis, has been to sway soft No voters in the 2014 referendum to switch allegiances. Here again, there is stark contrast with Catalonia, where there is no single, powerful and charismatic figurehead for independence to compare with Sturgeon.

But as much as this surge in support for independence has been tied to the first minister’s rising star, so too is the extent of the damage any dent in her reputation would inflict on the cause.

While grassroots activists agitating for self-determination are quick to point out that the independence movement is not the SNP, aligning with the largest pro-independence party and current governing party seems to be the only viable vehicle to achieving their aims for now. It stands to reason then that any fall in support for independence also coincides with a withdrawal of support for the SNP at the ballot box. Amid such uncertainly, if the results from May’s election give any incentive, there is pressure from some nationalist quarters for an aggressive push for a ‘wildcat’ referendum, whatever Westminster says or does.

As with the travails facing Scotland’s ruling elite, the woes befalling Catalonia’s political class have also arguably had a detrimental impact on the support for Catalan independence.

While Catalans have been more or less evenly divided over the region’s constitutional future in recent years, the last poll conducted by the regional government showed support for self-determination had dropped to 45.5%. That is not to say that Catalans are more favourable to Madrid; nothing could be further from the truth. While independence is currently not an attractive prospect for a majority of Catalans, neither is the status quo.

What is perhaps more certain is the desire for a change in tactics when it comes to advocating for secession, one much more similar to the gradualist path taken by the SNP when it first secured power in Scotland in 2007.

Taking place more than three years after the disastrous 2017 ‘wildcat’ referendum, after which the regional government led by Puigdemont unilaterally declared independence from Spain, the Catalan elections in February have effectively cemented this change in direction. 

Viewed through the prism of street violence, and the exile and trials of their leaders for sedition, some commentators predicted a collapse of the pro-independence parties in that election. In truth, their divinations were only half correct. 

While the Socialist Party (PSC) – an Catalan iteration of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) currently in government in Madrid – became the largest party, the pro-independence parties actually increased their majority, albeit after shedding 600,000 fewer votes between them than in 2017.

While the pandemic is perhaps partly to blame for a much lower turnout, the PSC increased their votes, which serves only to highlight dissatisfaction with Puigdemont’s Junts party and the pro-independence Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC).

Having stirred up a hornet’s nest within the Spanish state with a virulently combative approach to Madrid – something some Scottish nationalists are beginning to sympathise more with as the Westminster government becomes ever more intransigent – pro-independence Catalans who turned out to vote in February have given the ERC a mandate to try its more gradualist approach.

The ERC have long advocated the so-called “Scottish Mirror” method. Taking a leaf out of the SNP’s playbook, it hopes progressive government in the interests of the people could be enough to persuade listless Catalans of the merits of being an independent republic.

Despite now being the leading secessionist party, it is not an easy sell. The region’s largest party the PSC, in particular, wants to shelve the idea of independence and a referendum. The other pro-independence parties are, unlike Scotland, scattered across the political spectrum and have differing views on how best to achieve their collective aim of self-determination for the region.

In both Scotland and Catalonia, the sense of inevitability that independence would soon become reality has all but dissipated as quickly as it appeared. Holding up a mirror to the electorate, only time will tell if the reflection is something either independence movement is willing to see.

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