The 2013 St Andrews Foreign Affairs Conference, hosted by the Foreign Affairs Society, was held this past Saturday in Parliament Hall. Titled “Nationalism in the New Era: Scottish Independence and Similar Movements,” the conference featured various academics who addressed the concept of nationalism and its application to the independence movements in Scotland and Catalonia. This year’s SAFAC was a well-organised and thought-provoking event that shed light on the fate of nationalism in the 21st century.

Image courtesy of Jan Vacula, © 2013, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Jan Vacula, © 2013, some rights reserved.

Holding with the Scottish identity of St Andrews, much of the conference’s focus was on the potential for Scottish independence and its subsequent implications for global politics. On 10 January, 2012, the Scottish government announced that it intended to hold a referendum in the autumn of 2014. The conference’s first speaker, Professor Michael Keating (Chair in Scottish Politics at the University of Aberdeen), said the British government conceding that there should be a referendum is already a minor victory for advocates of Scottish independence. Skeptics doubted anything coming from the Scottish Nationalist Party’s announcement of a referendum. However, with both David Cameron and Alex Salmond having signed an agreement outlining the framework for the referendum, it seems certain the vote will happen. The question now arises of the outcome of the vote.

Professor Keating pointed out that there are three possible outcomes that could stem from the vote: status quo, independence, or devolution max. The announcement of the referendum itself proves that change is desired in Scotland, so the preservation of a complete status quo is unlikely. The idea of total independence (with Scotland as a standalone nation with absolutely no affiliation to Britain) is not a commonly sought outcome. While the Scottish people are eager for some constitutional changes (such as Social Security and tax benefits), they are not necessarily looking for full independence.

The result most supported by Scottish political parties is devolution max. This essentially refers to the devolution of most powers to Scotland, but the allowance of Britain to retain some powers. Professor David McCrone (a founder of the Edinburgh National Identity Group and co-director of the Institute of Governance at the University of Edinburgh) told the audience the main problem with the concept of devolution max is its lack of a thorough definition. What powers would Scotland acquire? What powers would it forfeit?

The SNP holds that devolution max should give Scotland all powers with the exception of defence and foreign affairs. On the other hand, the Liberal Democrats have referred to devolution max as a “brand without a product”, and have refrained from providing details of what it entails. The conference’s final speaker, Professor Tom Mullen (Professor of Law at the University of Glasgow and a former expert adviser to the House of Commons Select Committee on Scottish Affairs), emphasised that these three possible outcomes of the referendum are not black and white. He believes a combination of status quo, independence, and devolution max yield a “spectrum of possibilities” for Scotland’s future.

Taking a break from Scotland, Professor Montserrat Guibernau (Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University, London), brought the attention of conference attendees to the issue of Catalonian nationalism. While media outlets have tried to relate Scotland’s quest for independence with that of Catalonia’s, Professor Guibernau pointed out that the two situations share few similarities. Britain has agreed to the need for a Scottish referendum, and will honour the outcome of the vote. Though the Catalonian government has announced a 2014 referendum, the Spanish government does not support it. Spain views its Constitution as static and is not open to amending it.  The Catalonian referendum is technically illegal, and repercussions that may stem from it are unknown.

There is also a greater degree of support and passion for independence within Catalonia than Scotland.  As of December 2012, 57% of Catalonians said they would vote for independence. Professor Guibernau cites economic losses as the primary reason for Catalonia’s outrage over the status quo. All autonomous communities in Spain collect taxes and then send them to Madrid. Madrid then redistributes these taxes as it sees fit. Nearly 8.5% of Catalonia’s GDP is collected, and according to the Catalan government, redistributed in a manner that selfishly serves Madrid. With a 23.9% unemployment rate, the Catalan government wants the ability to collect and spend its taxes in a way it believes will best serve its people.

The 2013 SAFAC enlightened attendees about questions of nationalism that will affect the course of global politics in the near future. From the various degrees of independence sought in Scotland, to the uncertainty surrounding the Spanish government’s reaction to the Catalan referendum, the conference’s speakers brought up interesting points that stimulated much discussion among the crowd. The conference organisers and the FAS put together an excellent production that left attendees pondering the fate of Scottish and Catalonian nationalism in 2014.