Referendum is the New Revolt

Nearly 1.8 million Catalonians took to the streets, forming a giant human V to protest for independence from Spain. Source: Albert Gea/ Reuters, September 11th, 2014

Weeks of tension, anticipation, and indelible patience led to the ultimate “no”—or “No thanks”, as the Scottish campaign politely advocated—vote on Scottish independence from the United Kingdom on September 18th. Nearly 85% of eligible Scottish voters turned out to give their two pence on the contentious issue, according to NPR’s Ari Shapiro—a turnout that broke global records. The final results sent a strong statement. With 45% of the voting electorate in favor of independence and 55% opposed, independence lost out by a not-so-narrow 10% margin. However, the result will have implications even beyond the U.K. The referendum has instilled hope in a similarly disgruntled Catalan, where separation from Spain is far more likely to meet success due to the different histories, and collective memories, of each state.

For many, the Scottish independence referendum represents a successful democratic experiment. The President of Catalonia’s regional government, Artur Mas, went so far as to express to the BBC that the vote was “high quality democracy.” On November 9th, Catalan will participate in a similar experiment, though motivated by a history that is arguably more divisive than that of Scotland, and under different legal circumstances.

Catalonia’s history is complicated, and fraught with more controversy and warfare than that of Scotland. Scotland and England initially entered into a personal union—a governance structure in which one monarch rules over two distinct states with discrete boundaries and laws—in 1603, with the reign of James I. It was then by an Act of Union in 1707, previously negotiated and legislated by parliamentary representatives from each state, that Scotland and England harmoniously combined governance structures to form Great Britain.

Yet for Catalonia, the year 1707 meant violence and warfare. Originally united with the Kingdom of Aragon, it was during the War of Spanish Succession in 1707 that the Spanish crown forcibly annexed Catalonia. The Kingdom of Aragon sided against King Philip V of Castille, so that when King Philip’s troops prevailed, his bloody victory dismantled the Aragonian-Catalonian alliance and absorbed both provinces into Castille, replacing the Catalonian constitution, government institutions, and language with Castillian ones.

These historical legacies persevere to the present day. Not only does Catalonia remain only relatively autonomous within the Spanish state, but it also continues to share—albeit with some resistance—the Spanish language, known as “castellano.” When Castille annexed Catalonia, it fostered a culture of resentment that has remained prevalent in the region, and a fierce sense of regionalism that appears in the language (Catalan), capitol (Barcelona), and distinct cultural traditions of the province, including the celebration of Catalonia’s National Day each 11th of September. Scotland’s referendum has only intensified the fervor of Catalonia’s independence cry, and confidence in their ability to transform the concept of independence into a legislative reality. Catalonia’s new independence movement will be far less bloody than their initial demise, but no less fervent and hard fought.

History set aside, the circumstances for independence are significantly different in the two countries. Scotland worked closely with London to ensure that a referendum would be on the ballot and created a unique set of electoral regulations that ensured equity in voting; Madrid, on the other hand, have identified Catalonia’s potential referendum as illegal. The struggle for Catalonian independence will thus be more difficult to obtain, and comes at far greater risk, as Catalonia already enjoys many of the rights and autonomous structures that Scotland hoped to gain from independence. A referendum in Scotland was a call for greater autonomy; in Catalonia, it is a petition for cultural separatism.

Because Madrid has ruled a referendum over the Catalonia question as unconstitutional, the Catalonian parliament has instead passed a “law of consultations” that will allow a referendum to be called on November 9th. The Catalan Republican Left (ERC) minority party, which currently leads the Catalonian government with Artur Mas as its representative, may fall if the referendum does not occur according to The Economist. Indeed, the ERC has made it abundantly clear that should the referendum not occur, civil disobedience on behalf of the Catalonian government will follow, which may incite a possible reactionary restriction of rights by Madrid. Alternatively, Mas could make like Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, and call early elections as a clear indication of a demand for referendum. Madrid is sure to be less conciliatory to this act of strategic circumstantial capitalization.

Moreover, England hasn’t been entirely devoid of frustration with Scotland’s defiance. According to the Guardian, Prime Minister David Cameron has called for a change in legislation so that only English MPs can vote on acts that unilaterally affect England, suggesting that Scottish MPs would not be able to vote on English fiscal and tax issues. It is the beginning of a devolution that will fundamentally change the character of the United Kingdom, yet 55% of Scots would rather this than the alternative. For Catalonians, it has been estimated that nearly 1.8 million Catalonians participated in the “V” protest, wearing the estelada flag of the region, on the recent September 11th National Day demonstration. This could have huge implications for the success of a vote if a Spanish referendum can be legally obtained.

So the United Kingdom remains just that—united. But historical circumstances contribute to the psyche of the inhabitants of any state, and if struggle implicates psychological resistance, than surely Catalonia’s gruesome past has hardened the collective memory of its people. Catalonia is a prime example of “banal nationalism”—sociologist Michel Billig’s theoretical phenomenon that represents the daily, surface level manifestations of nationalism that are omnipresent and prepared for mobilization under any circumstance.

Of course, outstanding questions must be taken into consideration—will the EU accept a newly independent Catalonia? How will the Catalonians establish a globally integrated government given independence? How will national security, participation in international institutions, and multilateral relations with the U.S. and other powers proceed? And, perhaps most importantly, what will a potential Catalonian separation say about the expanding ripples of nationalism throughout the world?

We’re looking at you, Kurdistan.