‘When the time calls we cut off our chains’ – Catalan independence and why Catalonia won’t be like Scotland

The idea of European separatism has been banded around a lot in the wake of Scotland’s 2014 referendum and the country that appears top of the billing for potential statehood is the Catalan region of Spain. So what makes Catalonia special? Scottish independence failed, and anyone who knows me knows that I came out strongly against idea. And yet I think Catalan independence is a viable and important project. Why?

Image courtesy of Jordi Boixareu, © 2015 some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Jordi Boixareu, © 2015 some rights reserved.

 I could sit here and talk about how Catalonia is the thriving industrial heart of Spain, with the highest GDP of any autonomous region of Spain, including that of the Community of Madrid, home of the Spain’s national capital. It has a GVA 18.8 per cent of Spain’s whilst maintaining a population 15.9 per cent the size[1]. According to Catalan President, Artur Mas, Catalonia further produces 20 per cent of the Spanish economic output and 25 per cent of exports, but only receives 10 per cent of the central Spanish government’s investment[2]. Catalonia has a larger economy than Finland, placing it in the top half of European states[3]. In comparison, Scotland has a GVA of 7.7 per cent, smaller than its population of 8.3 per cent of Britain’s total[4]. On top of that, World Bank studies show Scotland runs a larger budget deficit at 11.2 per cent of national income, as opposed to the UK-wide 5.8 per cent[5], whilst receiving 115.5 per cent of the UK average spending per head[6], making Catalonia far more economically able to ‘go it alone’ than Scotland.

 I could further charge the debate with emotional arguments about the distinct ethnic identity of the Catalans. Catalonia was a country long before Spain, and has a rich history, shown through its language – oft outlawed, and yet still spoken more widely today than many official EU languages[7] – and distinct culture. Catalans tend to distinguish themselves as ‘hardworking, moderate, responsible, thoughtful; that is, as characterised by an identity driven by reason and not by passion’, and ‘different from the rest of Spain, regarded as a multi-cultural and multi-lingual state with no legitimate right to promote a single national identity’[8].

 A short history lesson is probably in order. Defeat by the Bourbon Duke of Anjou in the Spanish Wars of Secession (1701-1714) meant the incorporation of the Catalan peoples under the Spanish Crown, seeing the end of the separately held rights, laws, and institutions of Catalonia. Since then – with some brief exceptions, such as during the short-lived Second Spanish Republic (1931-1939) – Catalans have been systematically oppressed, most notably perhaps under the dictatorial reign of Franco. And so the concept of Spain amongst many Catalans is thus: ‘Spain is not a nation. National unity was a reality historically imposed by the Absolutist Monarchy and has been maintained all along by the different political regimes of contemporary Spain’[9]. This belief is certainly founded – one simply has to look at the Franco regime which ‘sought to root out all traces of cultural and ideological differences’[10], outlawing the Catalan language and much of their culture. Scots can perhaps point to the Act of Proscription or the Heritable Jurisdiction (Scotland) Act, both of 1746, as repression of their culture, but both of these happened over 250 years ago, whilst anti-Catalanism is far more recent, and far more intense. Whilst Catalonia has been given some freedoms since Franco’s fall – it is an autonomous community of Spain with its own parliament and own language – this still fails to dispel the norm of successive national governments attempting to homogenise Catalonia with Spain. Indeed, Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, is already working to undermine the power of regional governments to curtail Catalan independence and autonomy[11].

 But ultimately, I’m not Catalan, and I’m not Spanish. So my major reason why Catalonia should be an independent state is because the Catalans want it. The Scottish National Party gained a mandate for the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 with 44 per cent of the vote in the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections when support for independence stood at around 30 per cent[12]. By comparison, in the recent Catalan elections, a coalition of pro-independence parties standing – despite ideological differences – on a purely independence platform garnered 47.8 per cent of the vote with a record 77.4 per cent turnout[13]. Support for independence currently stands at 42.9 per cent, with those against split, with less than 30 per cent supporting the status quo[14]. This gives the Catalan people a far larger mandate for an independence referendum than Scotland ever had. Moreover, in the two years leading up to the Scottish referendum, support for independence rose to 44.7 per cent[15]. A further comparison with Quebec shows support for the pro-independence Parti Québécois at 44.75 per cent before the calling of their referendum in 1995[16], with the final referendum result at 49.22 per cent in support[17].

 History shows that support for independence tends to grow with the promise of a referendum, and further shows that the mandate won by pro-independence parties at elections immediately before the securing of such a referendum are consistently lower than the final referendum results in favour of separatism. With the mandate won by Artur Mars’ coalition of pro-independence parties, precedent suggests that were the Catalan people given a referendum, support for independence could well rise and lead to the formation of an independent Catalan state. With protest marches regularly drawing well over a million people (with some reports stating up to two million) in support of independence, and an informal consultation (read illegal, non-binding referendum if you side with Mr Rajoy) recording 80.76 per cent of Catalans in support of independence (albeit with a turnout of little over 35 per cent – a participation rate still over two million people[18]) it is clear that enough Catalans want the choice; evidence suggests ‘a huge majority’ wants a referendum[19].

 The principle of self-determination is a paramount feature of human liberty. A community should have the right to determine their own future, and in Catalonia there is most certainly a desire to exercise that right. David Cameron got it very right, referring to Catalonia by stating: “I don’t believe that, in the end, [it’s right to] try to ignore these questions of nationality, independence, identity… I think it’s right to make your arguments, take them on and then you let the people decide.”[20] Mr Rajoy, is currently denying the right of the peoples of Catalonia to determine their future, and regardless of his support for Catalan independence or lack thereof, this is deplorable. Blaming this on the Spanish constitution – something Mr Rajoy is well within his capability to change – is not a viable excuse to deny this right. The status of Catalonia should be a decision for the Catalan people, and the attitude of Mr Rajoy’s government in denying this is continuing the tradition laid down by the absolute monarchs and fascist dictators who ruled Spain before him. He should grant the Catalans a right to self-determination and – in the eventuality of a referendum – the Catalans have every reason to seize independence.

[1] http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2015/09/daily-chart-17



[4] http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2015/09/daily-chart-17



[7] http://www.ethnologue.com/language/cat

[8] Solís, F.L. (2003) Negotiating Spain and Catalonia: Competing Narratives of National Identity, Bristol: Intellect Books, p.2

[9] Fernández, F. et al. (1983) in Solís, F.L. (2003) Negotiating Spain and Catalonia: Competing Narratives of National Identity, Bristol: Intellect Books, p.13

[10] Solís (2003), p.21


[12] https://www.ipsos-mori.com/Assets/Docs/Scotland/SPOM_Oct12/Scotland_SPOM_Oct12_charts.pdf



[15] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/events/scotland-decides/results

[16] http://www.electionsquebec.qc.ca/english/provincial/election-results/general-elections.php?e=27&s=2#s

[17] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-14224339

[18] http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2014/nov/10/why-an-independence-referendum-in-catalonia-is-inevitable-in-two-charts

[19] http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21632478-madrid-government-should-let-catalans-have-voteand-then-defeat-separatists

[20] http://www.catalannewsagency.com/politics/item/david-cameron-let-the-people-decide-and-do-not-ignore-questions-of-nationality-independence-identity