Catalonia: The Scottish path shows it didn’t have to be this way

Pro-Catalonia demonstrators protest outside the Spanish Consulate General in Edinburgh on the day Catalonia attempted to hold a referendum on independence, despite the opposition of the Spanish Government, on October 1, 2017 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo by Ken Jack - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

Mark Dawson outlines an alternative path in Spain, using Scotland as a recent historical example.

The Spanish government used Sunday’s independence referendum in Catalonia to assert a powerful claim: that by suppressing the vote, it was upholding the integrity of the Spanish Constitution. Legality has been one of the government’s strongest arguments, buttressed by rulings of the Spanish Constitutional Court questioning the conformity of any independence poll with Spanish law. Constitutionalism, however, relies on a larger claim: that grave social disputes will be settled through rules and deliberation; not through force.

With its reaction to the Catalan poll, the Spanish government has eaten at the foundations of its strategy to contain nationalist movements within Spain. If violence can be used to suppress votes, or to beat supporters of independence back into their homes, why can it not be used to advance independence? For a state with a raw and vicious history of separatist violence, this week opens a dark chapter.

There was another path. In 2011, having won a majority for an independence vote in the Scottish Parliament, Scottish nationalists also carried few legal claims for a referendum on independence. The government of the United Kingdom would have been within its legal rights to refuse such a vote. It saw, however, an opportunity to use law to channel the politics of separation. By inviting Scottish nationalists onto a legal path towards an independence referendum, the UK government took a huge risk. It also, however, put itself in a position to dictate many aspects of the vote and to guarantee a peaceful process.

The result was a narrow vote for Scotland to remain in the union. Above all, a framework was established to manage conflicts between the central and devolved levels of government over the division of their powers. The message from the central UK level was a simple one: stay in the union, not because you have to as a matter of legal obligation, but because you are better in than out. By recognising a legal path to independence, the UK government signalled that it took the concerns of Scots for autonomy seriously.

Once the legal path to independence has been established, politics can take its course. Nationalist movements often over-reach themselves. In the Scottish case, the expected clamour for a second independence referendum over Brexit last year was met with a Scottish public increasingly tired of constitutional upheaval. A notable feature of the aftermath of the 2014 referendum campaign was the mobilisation of unionists themselves, who in the last UK general election succeeded in engineering a revival of the Scottish Conservatives (in an otherwise disastrous Conservative campaign). Opponents of Scottish independence played the long game. Rather than suppress autonomy through force, they allowed the energy and dynamics of the independence movement to exhaust itself.

In another Spain, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy would have played such a game. As it is, those against separation have been associated not with rational defence of the Constitution, but with brutality. An entire political generation has been established whose defining political experience may be a federal government seeking to deny their vote. Mr. Rajoy could have shown – and could yet show – this generation Madrid’s goodwill by demanding and policing a properly representative vote (one amenable to opponents of separation too).  In another Spain, looking ahead 20 years, the Catalan independence movement could be the project that never quite got off the ground after a narrow referendum loss; not an existential threat tearing at the heart of the Spanish state. That other Spain is surely not merely a dream, but it cannot be reached by deploying the Spanish Constitution and state as a vehicle for repressing self-determination. A legal path towards a representative and legitimate independence vote offers both sides a different future.

More about Mark Dawson

  • Mark Dawson , Professor of European Law and Governance