“All you have to do is say Madrid instead of Westminster.” That was Catalan president Quim Torra’s response after British prime minister Boris Johnson announced that he would not authorize an independence referendum in Scotland.
Torra is right, in a sense. While the governments in Spain and the UK are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, following the creation of the PSOE-Podemos coalition in Madrid, they have the same position toward their respective peripheral nations — namely, that there is to be no independence referendum.
That is despite the significant democratic mandates for self-determination recently won in both countries. In November’s Spanish general election, Catalonia’s pro-independence parties elected an all-time high twenty-three MPs — just short of 50 percent of all Catalan seats. Add in the left-wing En Comú Podem, which supports the right to decide, and both a majority in the Catalan Parliament and most Catalan members of the Spanish Congress back an independence referendum.
Just weeks later, in December’s British general election, the Scottish National Party (SNP) won a huge victory in Scotland, winning forty-eight out of fifty-nine seats — the second-best result in the party’s history. The Nationalists have won all six elections in Scotland since the “No” vote in the 2014 independence referendum, and there is also a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament. The mandate for Scots’ right to decide is strengthened by confirmation that the United Kingdom will leave the European Union in 2020. Scotland voted 62 percent to remain in the EU in 2016, and, if anything, support for Scottish EU membership has only grown since then.
Success has raised expectations within the Catalan and Scottish independence movements and brought strategic dilemmas to the fore. Both the SNP and the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) — the largest pro-independence party in the region — have sought to learn from each other’s recent experiences to avoid pitfalls and grasp on to useful precedents.
In the Spanish case, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon watched the Catalan independence referendum of 2017 and has vowed to avoid the “unilateral” route. The 2017 referendum was not authorized in Madrid and led to a boycott by some unionist parties, a crackdown by Spanish police at polling booths, the shutting down of the Catalan Parliament, and a long and messy judicial process which has endured to this date.
In the UK case, the ERC has contrasted the authoritarian approach of the Spanish state to the Edinburgh Agreement in the UK, which was signed by both the Scottish Government and then-British prime minister David Cameron in 2012. This led to a smooth referendum in Scotland two years later, with a binding result.
The conclusion both parties have drawn is to commit to pursuing a route to independence based on a referendum with clear legal consent from London and Madrid. For those seeking to establish an independent state, the benefits of such an agreement are huge: cooperation from the state they are leaving, consent among their own populations, and recognition by international institutions. However, it’s a strategy that is reliant on the assumption that the Edinburgh Agreement can be repeated, but 2012 was a long time ago — with much having changed in both British and Spanish politics.
Britain’s New Constitutional Politics
At the time the Edinburgh Agreement was signed, the most recent opinion poll had suggested a huge landslide was on the cards for the union. The anti-independence “No” side had a whopping twenty-four-point lead in opinion surveys, as just 28 percent of voters expected to vote “Yes.”
In this context, David Cameron saw an opportunity. He thought that holding an independence referendum would be calling the SNP’s bluff: by defeating the party on the issue that defines its reason for existence, Scottish nationalism would be demoralized, and the SNP’s victory in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections — the first time they formed a majority government in Edinburgh — would be a one-off.
It didn’t turn out this way. Cameron won the referendum — by a 55 to 45 percent margin — but the campaign saw “Yes” slash the “No” side’s poll lead to almost nothing. The experience also had unexpected repercussions: for the 2014 referendum supercharged Scottish nationalism, as the enormous grassroots movement it inspired mostly united behind the SNP. The party more than tripled its membership almost overnight, becoming the largest party proportionately in Europe.
Following the experience of the near upset of 2014 and the 2016 vote to leave the European Union (which Cameron hadn’t had in mind either), no Tory prime minister will ever be so naive again. The Scottish independence and Brexit referendums both centered on key questions of political power over which the public had direct powers of decision, at least for one day. Thus, the votes inspired an unusually intense level of political mobilization at the base of society, in campaigns that became highly unpredictable and polarizing — all things that competent managers of the neoliberal state seek to avoid.
Brexit Britain operates on a new political plane, one where the Tories are a very different party from before — more nationalistic, but also more learned. Boris Johnson and his special advisers — who cut their teeth at the head of the Vote Leave campaign in 2016 — have a greater understanding of the mechanics of constitutional politics, and thus know that opening the door to the huge threat a second independence referendum would hold to their project is a risk not worth taking.
In a terse letter to SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon on Tuesday, Johnson made clear that there would be no referendum. On Sunday, his Scottish Secretary Alister Jack had put it even more brutally, saying that until Nicola Sturgeon’s dying day, there would not be another referendum. In this new “One Nation” British nationalism — an idea of Toryism which originated at the peak of empire in the Victorian era, now given a modern makeover in an age of competing nationalisms — any pretense of recognizing Scotland’s democratic rights as a nation have been abandoned.
Retreat in Spain
For its part, Madrid has never indulged the right to national self-determination, even though it is asserted by Article I of the UN charter. Spain’s post-Franco constitution is based on “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation,” a line commonly interpreted by Spain’s courts as meaning that independence referendums are strictly out of bounds. Whether the center-left PSOE or center-right People’s Party (PP) are in power, the Spanish political establishment has been united in opposing Catalans’ right to decide.
The aftermath of 2017 has dominated Spanish politics, with the judiciary — never purged at the end of the dictatorship — meting out a combined hundred years in prison sentences to independence leaders. The authoritarian mood has spurred a rise in the extreme right in Spain through Vox, a party that does not just want to stop independence referendums in Catalonia and the Basque Country, but also to abolish their devolved governments altogether and centralize power in Madrid. Vox barely existed in 2017 but came third in the Spanish election in November 2019.
This harsh Spanish-nationalist response has led to a retreat both by the Left in Spain and within the Catalan independence parties themselves. Podemos, the left-wing party which burst onto the scene in 2014 promising to democratize the post-1978 regime, is now the junior partner in coalition with Pedro Sánchez’s PSOE, and has de facto accepted that its previous policy of supporting self-determination is off the agenda, at least for now.
The PSOE-Podemos coalition does not have a majority in Congress, and prior to last week’s confidence vote it had to secure either the support or the abstention of nationalist parties in Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Galicia. These latters’ ability to push a self-determination agenda appears limited. ERC only agreed to vote for Sánchez’s coalition after a long negotiation, but what exactly has been won is not clear. As Jaime Pastor has explained in Jacobin, a “dialogue” is now set to take place between the ERC and the Spanish government, based on a “process whose result is yet to be defined.” If common agreement can be found, it will be put to the Catalan people in a referendum, but Sánchez has been clear that any agreement will be “within the framework of the Constitution.”
Other key figures in the Catalan independence movement, including president Quim Torra, have been critical of the ERC’s deal with the PSOE due to its failure to set its own parameters on negotiations. Torra, who faces an attempt by Spain’s electoral board and Supreme Court to have him deposed for the high crime of hanging a banner from public buildings in support of jailed independence leaders, has insisted that “negotiations must allow for a clear vote on independence.” His party, JuntsxCat, voted against the PSOE-Podemos coalition, as did the far-left independentist CUP, which said the PSOE-ERC agreement “will give breathing room for repression” by the Spanish state.
ERC believes that its options are constrained — after all, if it rejected the PSOE-Podemos coalition and sent Spain back to the ballot box for the fifth time in five years, the initiative would surely be handed to an increasingly rabid Spanish right, including Vox. The Catalan independence movement is caught in a vice: bend too far and it will break its own fragile unity, but don’t bend enough and the door could be opened yet further to the neo-Francoites.
A Safe Route to Independence?
Resistance to independence from post-empire states like Spain and the UK should not be surprising. When looked at in a historical context, independence is a rare thing in Europe. Apart from the tumult in Central-Eastern Europe following 1989 — from “velvet divorces” to violent conflicts — we would have to go back to World War II to find European states achieving their independence. And there is little by way of encouragement from the European Union, which acts to protect its member states, not create new ones. For Europe’s elite, its internal borders are now a settled issue.
Pro-independence parties in Europe have proven more successful at securing extensions of devolved powers than winning independence for their nations. The example of the Basque Country is illustrative here. While leftist Basque nationalist ETA was fighting a bloody conflict with the Spanish state for Basque independence, the Basque National Party (EAJ-PNV) evolved into a party that became a specialist in the art of negotiation with Madrid, at ease with dealing with PSOE or PP. Suffice to say, EAJ-PNV has outlived ETA, which officially dissolved itself in 2018.
With the armed struggle long since abandoned, and unilateral routes to self-determination renounced, the SNP and ERC are left with trying to use soft power to leverage the right to decide. But this strategy is running up against its own limitations. While seeking to win a referendum through the constitutional mechanisms of the state may be the safe option, Madrid and London have little reason to be attracted to it.
In an international climate where democracy is receding, the realpolitik suggests Johnson and Sánchez will continue to spurn calls for self-determination as long as they can, and will combine authoritarianism with the olive branch of more powers for Scotland and Catalonia. This is reportedly the direction Sánchez would like his negotiation with the ERC to go, and Sturgeon has indicated that while she will continue to push for a referendum, she would also be interested in collaborating with other willing parties in Scotland on pushing for more devolved powers in the meantime.
The leaders of the SNP and ERC face pressure from their support bases to push for the very thing that Johnson and Sánchez don’t want to give away. Something has to give.