Review of J.H. Elliot, Scots and Catalans: Union and Disunion (Yale University Press).
Are the United Kingdom and Scotland barreling toward a crisis over Scottish independence of the magnitude of that which rattled Spain in 2017, when Catalonia, the country’s northeast corner that includes Barcelona, unilaterally declared its independence? That possibility seems less far-fetched after early May’s parliamentary elections in Scotland, in which the Scottish National Party (SNP) fell just one seat shy of an absolute majority. In coalition with the Scottish Green Party, the SNP is now in a position to set the legislative agenda for Scotland. To no one’s surprise, Nicola Surgeon, Scottish First Minister and SNP leader, announced after the recent elections that she would seek a second referendum on Scottish independence, presumably similar to the one that took place in 2014. For Sturgeon, a second independence referendum is now a matter of “when, not if.” But British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reiterated his opposition to another referendum; that of 2014 was a “once in a generation” event, the Prime Minister explained.
Separatism also advanced appreciably in Catalan regional elections in February of this year, with pro-independence parties capturing a clear majority of seats in the regional parliament. But numerous parties with a range of views on separation seek to carry the independence banner in Catalonia. The movement has no single voice comparable to that of Sturgeon and the SNP.
While no one can say with certainty where Scotland and Catalonia are heading, J.H. Elliot, Regius Professor Emeritus at Oxford University, has produced an extraordinarily timely, in-depth guide to how separatism has come to dominate the 21st century politics of each: Scots and Catalans: Union and Disunion. From the mid-15th century up through the Catalan crisis of 2017, Elliot traces the relationship of Scotland and Catalonia to the larger entities we now call Great Britain and Spain, relationships in which genuine grievances mix with myths, resentments, and manipulations of history.
The Catalan crisis of 2017, the endpoint in Elliot’s narrative, ensued after regional authorities organized a non-binding independence referendum, conducted over the strong objection of the central government in Madrid. 90% of Catalans who voted approved the referendum, but several major Catalan parties boycotted it and only 43% of eligible voters actually voted. When the Catalan regional parliament adopted a resolution declaring the region an independent republic, the central government responded by invoking the 1978 Spanish constitution to remove regional authorities and impose direct rule from Madrid. Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan regional president, was formally accused of treason and fled to Belgium with key members of his cabinet, where he remains to this day.
In sharp contrast to the 2017 Catalan initiative, the 2014 Scottish independence referendum had the approval of the central government in London, having been negotiated by Johnson’s predecessor, David Cameron. Scottish voters moreover soundly rejected independence: 55%- 45%, with 85% of eligible voters casting ballots. But one of the main issues in the campaign was the desire of many Scottish voters to maintain membership in the European Union as part of the United Kingdom, rather than secede and apply for EU membership as an independent nation. The Brexit referendum two years later, also a Cameron-approved measure, upended this understanding. While a far from united United Kingdom approved the initiative to leave the European Union, Scottish voters adhered to the “remain” position by an emphatic 62%-38% margin, with about two-thirds of eligible Scottish voters participating.
Elliot is scathing in his condemnation of the Catalonian secessionists’ decision to press ahead in 2017 with their unilateral declaration of independence, describing it as an “act of folly, unleashing consequences that never seemed to have crossed the proponents’ minds as they took the plunge.” In more muted terms, he appears to endorse the outcome of the orderly 2014 referendum in Scotland: “Stability had triumphed over risk, pragmatism over utopianism, fear over hope.” But Elliot treats the Brexit referendum two years later only in two non-judgmental paragraphs. Many Scots who voted “No” in 2014 have felt compelled to reassess their position in light of Brexit. Elliot’s decision not to weigh in more forcefully on the impact of Brexit constitutes a missed opportunity in this otherwise painstakingly comprehensive work.
Although Elliot focuses almost exclusively on the Catalan and Scottish independence movements, easily the most visible in today’s Europe, they are hardly the only ones. Depending upon how one counts, there are presently about 20 active separatist movements in Europe, some of which seem to be mainly quests for more autonomy rather than secession. Finding common denominators among them can be difficult – each is mostly a product of its own historical and cultural circumstances. But nationalism is usually considered one such denominator, often the only one, and what Elliot terms a “resurgent nationalism” is at play in both Catalonia and Scotland.
These and other 21st century secessionist movements harken back to the classical 19th century European version of nationalism: the idea that a people with a common culture and history — and often a common language, as in Catalonia – have an inherent right to rule themselves. This idea, which buttressed Europe’s 1848 uprisings, produced the modern nation-state, a state with a nationalist creed binding it together — a common core of shared principles, traditions and values accepted by its disparate regions, and ethnic, religious, and cultural groups. But separatist movements in Scotland, Catalonia and elsewhere are predicated on a rejection, implicit if not explicit, of the nationalist creed and in this sense are the antipode of classical 19th century nationalism. Some separatist movements partake of xenophobic and authoritarian-leaning nationalist impulses. But neither the Scottish nor the Catalan independence movement can be described in these terms – if anything, both Scotland and Catalonia tilt leftward on 21st century Europe’s left-right pendulum.
Scots and Catalans consists of six chapters, each focused on a discrete historical period. It begins with “Dynastic Union, 1469-1625.” 1469, the year in which Ferdinand of Aragon married Isabelle of Castile, marked the beginning of a composite, multi-regional monarchy on the Iberian Peninsula, in which the Crown of Aragon included the principality of Catalonia. The last chapter, “Breaking Away? 1975-2017” covers the time from the death of Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco and the beginnings of modern democracy in Spain in 1975, up through the Catalan constitutional crisis of 2017. Unlike many comparative histories, Elliot does not rely on separate chapters for his two subjects. His narrative goes back and forth between Catalonia and Scotland, Spain and Britain, setting out the two histories side-by-side. Although not quite his intention, this technique highlights how different Catalonia’s relationship to Spain has been from that of Scotland to Great Britain from the early 18th century onward. Only in the late 20th and early 21st centuries does Elliot find significant convergences between the two independence movements.
Prior to its 1707 the union with England, Scotland had been an independent kingdom, one shaken by the 17th century’s religious and civil wars that had upended its more powerful neighbor to the South. Catalonia, by contrast, had never been a sovereign state in any modern sense of the term. But as one of several rebellious provinces within Spain’s composite monarchy, Catalonia had a colorable claim to a set of ancient liberties and privileges that the Nueva Planta decrees of Phillip of Anjou, the first Bourbon King of Spain, erased between from 1707 and 1716.
Designed to impose the centralized French model on Spain’s unruly provinces, the Nueva Planta decrees abolished the Catalan legislature and imposed the Castilian language – today’s Spanish — on the region. While Scotland’s consensual association with England was the result of genuine negotiations between two sovereign kingdoms, Catalonia was “subjected to a settlement imposed by a victorious monarch, who stigmatized its peoples as rebels.” Catalonia came to be seen, both by its citizens and the central government in Madrid, as a territory under military occupation.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the feeling in Spain that the Catalans were inherently intractable never disappeared. Catalans, constantly inveighing against “centralization,” responded to pressures from Madrid by emphasizing with “growing stridency” the “uniqueness of their own history and culture,” Elliot writes. By contrast, the Scots felt less need to be assertive about their distinctive heritage, and less obsessed about their potential loss of identity. Tensions between London and Edinburgh were “far fewer than those to be found in the Barcelona-Madrid relationship.”
Spain fell under the rule of two military dictatorships in the 20th century. That of Primo de Rivera, from 1923 to 1930, preceded the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War and the ensuing Franco regime, which lasted until the General’s death in 1975. Both de Rivera and Franco pursued national unity by ruthlessly suppressing regionalist tendencies across Spain. But Franco probably distrusted Catalonia more than any other region during his long rule. Spain did not begin its transition to a modern democratic nation-state until after Franco’s death.
In 1979, following the first free elections in Spain since the 1930s in 1977, Catalan voters approved a statute of autonomy for the region that recognized Catalonia as a “nationality,” gave the Catalan language an official status equal to Castilian Spanish, and conceded extensive powers to Catalonia in education, culture and language. Catalonia henceforth became what Elliot describes as an “integral but largely self-governing part of what the bulk of its inhabitants had long wanted – a democratic, decentralized and modernizing Spain.”
1979 was also the year Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Party were voted into office in Britain. Thatcher moved quickly to shut down all talk about “devolution,” which envisioned re-establishing the Scottish parliament and according more autonomy to Scotland. In Elliot’s view, Thatcher probably did more to spur the modern separatist movement in Scotland than any other single individual. Devolution came to Scotland in 1997, when Scottish voters approved creation of an independent Scottish parliament, its first since the 1707 union with England. By 1997, Scotland enjoyed approximately the same degree of autonomy from the central government in Westminster that Catalonia had achieved in 1979.
Elliot further fits both independence movements into a broader 21st century framework wherein pressures upon the traditional nation-state from above, driven by the European Union, economic inequalities, and what we often term globalization have generated a “general sense in many parts of the western world that highly bureaucratized central governments [have] become too remote to understand the true needs and problems of the governed.” Separatism for Scotland and Catalonia, as elsewhere, appears to offer an easy answer to those who feel they have lost control over their lives. “Independence [will] allow them once again to be masters in their own house,” he writes. But much of this, he adds tartly, referring more to Catalonia than Scotland, is “nostalgia for a world that never was.”
A second independence referendum for Scotland – and with it Scottish independence — now appears, if not inevitable, more probable than not, despite Boris Johnson’s opposition. As Scottish journalist Jamie Maxwell wrote in the New York Times after the May elections, a Johnson veto would be tantamount to “transforming Britain from a voluntary association based on consent into a compulsory one” –– an ironic transformation to the way Catalan secessionists view their relationship to Spain.
Continued political stalemate, rather than realistic prospects for independence, seems the better bet for Catalonia. The region lacks a leader comparable to Sturgeon, who has ruled out a “wildcat referendum” and is generally cautious, steady and unusually adept at playing the long game – words rarely used to describe former Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont. Sturgeon seems confident that Johnson will “ultimately buckle under the weight of democratic pressure,” as Maxwell puts it. Independence may nevertheless be in the cards in this decade for both Scotland and Catalonia. But in demonstrating the deep historical dissimilarities between Scotland’s relationship to Great Britain and Catalonia’s to Spain, Elliot’s erudite history suggests that the two entities are likely to travel distinctly different paths to independence.