Catalonia: Spain's Scotland?

Global Centre Stage

Vicenç Villatoro charts the divergent roads to independence in the Western world in an attempt to understand the principal difference between the Catalan and Scottish cases

Catalonia, Scotland, Flanders, Quebec – all are cultural communities in the Western world with deep, historical roots that do not feature on a map of the world’s states, but, which in recent decades, have initiated processes with a view to entering it. Some years ago, in Eastern Europe, other territories and communities with strong historical roots that had once featured on old political maps started reappearing in the atlases of world states: Slovenia, Lithuania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine, Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia and more. There are also other realities in Western, Central and Eastern Europe that are associated with a demand for political power: the Basque Country, Galicia, perhaps Padania, Corsica, and Sardinia, Brittany, Moldova and, in a different way, Bavaria. Lengthy, fact-filled treatises could be written, affirming that each case is particular and differential in nature, to explain precisely what makes each different to all the others, to say that no two cases are the same or equivalent, in terms of history, sociology or politics. They are all different cases, just as the states of which they form (or have formed) part are different: the recent history of countries in Eastern Europe, where the emergence of new states coincided with the fall of Communism, is different to Western Europe or North America, where there are processes of supra-state unification, such as the European Union or the NAFTA.

Common Narrative

Each case is profoundly different. But do they have a common thread? There is a family likeness, certainly; they are communities with a cultural specificity, which have had in the past and continue to have political expression, and which are calling in some way for greater self-government, in some cases, the possibility of becoming independent states (and when the states to which they belonged underwent a moment of extreme weakness, as in Eastern Europe, this desire for independence achieved its goal). It certainly seems possible to find a narrative, a common factor, forming a thread between such different situations. The national state model generated in Europe and then exported – and imposed – the world over seeks to create an equation of equality between state and nation. But in that same Europe where it was created, this national state was constructed, often by means of wars and conflicts, on magma of human reality where different communities coexisted, each with its own history, culture and language, often mixed within a territory. For three centuries, in Europe’s case, nations tried to construct a state to suit their material and symbolic needs, but at the same time, states were trying to construct their nation: the powerful elements of uniformity and identity creation of modern states by trying to nationalise their subjects, convert them into nationals, give them an identity and a single, shared sense of belonging. This pretension was not shared by the old empires, which accepted the diversity of identities under centralised political control.

Convergence Between the Nation and State

Three centuries later, in some places, making states coincide with nations now jars; there are communities that consider themselves national though they do not have a state of their own, while there are states that have not managed to involve all their citizens in a frequently standardising idea of nation. It might be said that at the start of the 21st century, there are, in Europe and the Western world, entire communities made up of individuals who consider the state of which they are citizens useful neither to defend their specific material interests nor to preserve their cultural or linguistic personality. This occurs in various types of states, but particularly in those constructed on the French model, where the unitary nation is seen as a community that shares the same history, language, culture and identity. In some cases, such as France itself, the process of convergence between French state and French nation has been highly successful, with communities aspiring to greater recognition of their diversity and the possibility of some self-government without conceiving of separatism. In others, such as the Spanish case, the application of the French model has been less successful: some pre-existing communities have demonstrated greater resilience, and the state’s nationalising or standardising projects have not been able to remove it.

Desire for Transformation

It might be said that what all the above-mentioned cases have in common are politically aware communities that believe that the states to which they currently belong do not sufficiently protect their identity and interests, and therefore, aspire either to modify these states to allow greater pluralism or, in the absence of this possibility, to create their own state. In fact, all of these communities include people who, frequently sharing discomfort at their present situation, have varying degrees of confidence in the willingness to accommodate them and the transformation of their respective present-day states.

A Paradigm Case

In this respect, Catalonia is a paradigm case, perhaps even more than Scotland or Quebec. Linguistically, Catalonia has its own language, Catalan, with an extraordinary cultural vitality, a prominent literature and a much greater presence in the media and today’s information technologies than what is otherwise indicated by its demographic importance. Economically, Catalonia had one of Southern Europe’s few industrial revolutions in the 19th century, generating an economy quite distinct to the rest of Spain, with much higher levels of industrialisation and revenue. Politically, Catalonia had its own institutions until 300 years ago and was governed throughout the democratic periods of the 20th century by Catalan nationalist parties that aspired to greater self-government and recognition of Catalonia’s specific cultural personality. Even socially, Catalonia’s two and a half million inhabitants at the start of the 20th century were joined by three million people, arriving basically from the rest of Spain throughout the century, reaching today’s seven and a half million inhabitants without losing social cohesion or specific cultural and linguistic personality. Catalan demands for greater self-government and a state sympathetic to the preservation of its cultural identity and specific economic and social interests have, then, been sustained throughout history, and widely shared by much of the population. This is the ideology of the party that governs Catalonia, but also of the principal opposition party (the party that governs in Spain, meanwhile, is the fourth or fifth power in Catalonia), and cuts across differing classes and ideologies.

Why Spain is Different?

When the former Soviet Union broke up, the then president of Catalonia said in an interview: “Catalonia is like Lithuania, but Spain is not like the Soviet Union.” In other words, Catalonia as a national entity had the same rights as Lithuania (or today, Scotland), but Spain was then a more solid reality than the Soviet Union at the fall of Communism. Something has changed since then. Many of the Catalans who believed that Spain could be their state, subject to certain negotiated reforms, have been disabused of Spain’s willingness to change. They believed in a Spain with room for Catalan difference, though it was not the one that existed at the time: it had to be constructed. They were disabused of this possibility when the compacts proposed by Catalonia were not accepted by Spain: the Statute of Autonomy voted by the Catalans was subsequently seriously mutilated by the Spanish Constitutional Court. A significant number of Catalans, therefore, believe that the sympathetic state that their personality and interests need will never be Spain, and so a new state has to be constructed within the framework of the European Union. They believe this, curiously, because the European framework plays down borders; the creation of a new state means less scission, because a great deal of sovereignty has been transferred to Brussels. Pro-independence Catalans believe that the existence of the European Union actually makes independence more conceivable.

Are the Catalans who think this way a majority? It is not possible to know. Elections in Catalonia are won by parties that advocate it. A referendum held in Catalonia outside Spanish legality, in forcibly precarious conditions, mobilised almost two and a half million voters, producing a majority vote in favour of independence. But the Scottish or Quebecois formula of calling a binding referendum with full democratic guarantees was not possible in Catalonia. Catalan separatists would like this, but the Spanish state has never accepted it or been open to any kind of negotiation. And this refusal to negotiate has served further to fuel the desire for independence.

Apart from legal variances, there are profound differences in political culture between Great Britain and Spain. Great Britain is an old democracy. Spain spent half the 20th century under nationalist military dictatorships. Great Britain accepted a referendum, Spain will not. What is the biggest difference between Catalonia and Scotland? The majority of Catalan sovereigntists, whether or not they support independence, would answer: one has before it the political culture of London and the other has that of Madrid. This is the principal difference between the Catalan and the Scottish cases.

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Vicenç Villatoro

Vicenç Villatoro is a writer and journalist and the Director of the CCCB (Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona). He has been Member of Parliament of Catalonia CiU between 1999 and 2002, and Director General for Cultural Promotion of the Government of Catalonia between 1997 and 2000.

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