Naïve Catalans? Scotland’s on a different level of naïvety

by | 5 Feb 2024

An analysis of the state of the Catalan independence movement points to its naïvety in the aftermath of its referendum, and yet the level of naïvety of the leadership of Scottish independence leaves easily trumps it.

One of my Basque friends told me about the debrief they’d had from some of his colleagues who had gone to visit the Catalans in the run-up to the 2017 referendum. The basics of the debrief was ‘these Catalans are hopelessly naïve and they’re not prepared for what is going to happen next’. The Basques were right.

I was reminded of this story when reading the text of Carla Ponsati’s thoughtful speech (reprinted in the National), given that she draws much the same conclusion. It is a conclusion we should pay much more attention to in the Scottish independence movement – because sometimes we take naïve to a completely different level.

Remember the context; Catalan culture had been brutally suppressed during the fascist dictatorship of Spain, as was Basque culture. When the transition to democracy was completed, overt suppression of Catalonia was greatly reduced, but a little less so in the Basque Country (Catalonia was a wealthy nation, The Basque Country was much more deindustrialised).

Of course this kicks off a resistance/terrorist movement in ETA which pursues armed conflict with Spain for decades – and is brutally suppressed. This doesn’t happen in Catalonia. So by the time the Basques completed their peace process, they had been very much battle-scarred by their suppression. There was no room for naïvety among the Basques.

Not having had the same experience, the Catalans misunderstood what was going to happen next. Opinion is divided on whether the Catalans expected or even wanted a large turnout at the referendum, but that’s what they got. They had believed that a major, peaceful democratic event would be impossible for the powers that be in Madrid to ignore.

But what in turn the Catalans ignored was the nature of Spain. When Franco died Spain transition to democracy, but it did not reform. This is really important; the constitution that exists now was voted on only three years after the death of Franco. It is a document signed by a traumatised nation, not a considered position developed by a mature democracy.

In many ways the lack of bloodshed post-Franco is a godsend, but not in every way. Part of the price of this is that most of the Franco fascists stayed in power. The politicians may largely have been voted out but the judiciary, police, administrators and all the rest of the Francoist establishment kept their jobs, their power and their networks.

The constitution itself glossed over the status of the ancient nations of Catalonia and the Basque Country, recognising some autonomy but then simply stating that the constitution would prevent any and all legitimate means of pursuing independent statehood of these countries under any circumstances ever.

My concern is that if there are negotiations over Scottish independence the UK will absolutely pull out the stops to try and screw Scotland over

So when the Catalans staged their referendum they thought they’d be engaging with the democratic part of Spain – but it is more accurate to think of it as ‘legacy Franco’ which was battering old ladies on the head with wooden clubs for the crime of trying to vote.

The Catalans did not factor in any possible outcome other than reasonable compromise on the part of Madrid. That wasn’t just naïve, that was stupid. Their other assumption proved just as unsound – that the European Union was primarily a democracy and so it would come in in support of the Catalans.

This was equally naïve – the European Union is a coalition of nation states who are represented in a Council of Ministers which makes the main decisions, other than those made by the European Commission, a barely-accountable administrative state for the continent. There’s a democratically-elected parliament tacked on too, but no-one pays much attention to that.

The EU sat silent throughout the police violence, was 100 per cent behind Madrid and expressed no discomfort when politicians were jailed for holding a democratic event. The EU only pretends to be a moral body; it is there to represent the interests of governments of nation states and is exactly as moral as those governments.

So, hoping that something would ‘come along’ if they just held a referendum, that someone would be reasonable, was unsound. Catalonia had no strategy for winning, only for carrying out the process.

The reason I labour this is to highlight two things; the similarities with Scotland and the differences. The differences are perhaps more straightforward. For a start, Britain doesn’t have a written constitution and was never a fascist state and so there aren’t really any constitutional barriers to secession – Westminster would need to pass legislation to make that a reality. (Yes, the constitution is reserved to Westminster, but it is a democratic path, at least in theory.)

So I have less sympathy than you might imagine with the argument that somehow the UK will simply ignore the result of a Scottish referendum or never, ever under any circumstances allow one again. I just don’t think that’s true. There is no legitimate constitutional barrier for the UK to hide behind and generally it is rare for UK governments to act outright against or outside the law on their on territory.

That is not and never was my concern. My concern is that they will do everything else short of outright suppression to try and avoid the circumstances arising and if there are negotiations over Scottish independence they will absolutely pull out the stops to try and screw Scotland over.

If you just lay it out in reality, say explicitly what you kind of know in your head is the line, think about it for two seconds, you’ll quickly be hoping we don’t get a referendum in these circumstances

Getting beyond the former and winning out in the latter needs real savvy. The problem is that, naïve as the Catalan leadership was, the SNP leadership make them look like Sun Tzu. The Catalans thought they could become independent by winning a referendum and hoping; the SNP thought it could get a referendum by saying it over and over.

But we all know the SNP has no strategy for independence (how funny to think of all those people so worked up at me because I suggested that the ‘convention’ in Dundee and the big debate at the party conference afterwards were of no great significance, yet all of what was agreed has basically been dropped already). All but the most naïve can see how naïve they were.

My concern is much bigger than that, my concern is what happens if we ever get and win a referendum. Because the naïvety of the SNP leadership on this is somewhat breathtaking. I mean, Andrew Wilson’s While Flag Commission conceded the UK’s unbalanced position on Scottish debt before negotiations had even started and concedes on almost every one of Scotland’s strong cards so cravenly that it appears to want Scotland to fail.

And this is to be delivered by (if you believe the SNP’s own propaganda) a negotiating team being led by Humza Yousaf. By the summer there is a good chance we’ll realise he can’t even negotiate a Council Tax freeze, and he’ll be supported by the team who signed off on the Fiscal Framework (basically a slow-motion suicide note). Brilliant.

Of course the final backstop for the SNP strategy is the only strategy it has – the EU. If you summarise all the SNP’s independence papers so far you’ll realise that they really sum up to ‘if only we were back in the EU it would be like 2015 again’. Social media is never short of some no-name EU Parliament backbencher saying Scotland would be welcome, like that counts for something.

The independence movement operates on the basis that somehow or other we’ll just get a referendum at some point, win it by saying Brexit again and again and then, by surrendering all our strongest negotiating positions we’ll get an easy ride from Westminster by doing their job for them and then any remaining problems will be resolved by the EU swinging to our rescue. The end.

If you just lay it out in reality, say explicitly what you kind of know in your head is the line, think about it for two seconds, you’ll quickly be hoping we don’t get a referendum in these circumstances. Because all of that above is the full extent of the SNP’s ‘thinking’.

Sturgeon had contempt for intellectuals unless they were offering generous flattery. She hated anyone other than her being seen to think about independence. She put together all of the above as a reactive means to isolate the independence movement, retain complete control and hold to the most cautious version of a future Scotland as was humanly possible.

During its bizarre love-in, the independence movement and Scotland’s media behaved as if any of this was grown up politics. It wasn’t and it isn’t. The Catalans were naïve. The SNP leadership’s current plans go way beyond that in terms of drift and lack of direction, so and until we approach this question with a maturity the SNP has not yet displayed, Scotland will remain a part of the UK.

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