Scottish and Catalonian independence movements are gaining momentum. Alfonso Martínez Arranz looks into their historical and political settings, which explain the different responses by the British and Spanish govenments, and why the latter fears a fragmentation of Spain.
After centuries of dynastic and legal union, both Spain and the United Kingdom (UK) face referendums on the independence of one of their regions in 2014. While there is political consensus in the UK that the British government should respect the results of the future Scottish referendum, the Spanish government, also with support from parties on the right and left, has steadfastly refused to allow a referendum in Catalonia to go ahead.
Numerous historical and socioeconomic issues may explain the differences in reception of the question of secession. For example, the 1716 Decrees that legally imposed the organisation and language of Castile on the administration of all regions of Spain were the result of a war of succession to the Spanish throne. Catalonia had supported the losing Habsburg side while Castile and other backed the winner Philip V.
In contrast, the 1707 Act (or Treaty) of Union between Scotland and England may have created a unitary British state, but the type of centralisation associated with Madrid and Versailles was not imposed by London. After the defeat of the final Jacobite challenge in 1745, Scotland very much ran itself, with the monarchy being the primary symbol of a British allegiance, built upon a common Protestantism and developed through the later shared experience of empire and war. The newly-enthroned Philip VI of Spain, a direct descendent of his namesake, does not possess the unifying power of the British monarch.
However, the most important reason for the different responses to the secessionist movements in Spain and the UK is the lack of a Castilian counterpart to the political integrity and economic might of today’s England. Without a clear counterweight to the secessionist challenge, many in Spain fear a Balkanisation of the country, leading to the disintegration of Spain into multiple regional states. To explain the different fates of Castile and England and thereby of Spain and the UK, one must look at both the different processes of nation building and approaches to the devolution of power that have shaped these regions.
Two versions of nation building
England acquired a hegemonic position in the British Isles with conquests of Wales and Ireland, while keeping Scotland at bay over the centuries. Defeat in the bid for the French Crown arguably allowed for consolidation of the British isles, reliant on naval supremacy and power-sharing with Parliament. After the Union, England was soon confused with the entire kingdom, to the point that not only do many “Continentals” still today carelessly refer to UK citizens as English, but for a while, many British nationals found the terms interchangeable, too. In 1805, just before the Battle of Trafalgar against the Franco-Spanish squadron, it was famously England that expected “every man to do his duty” – and that included of course the Irish, Welsh or Scottish sailors in Nelson’s fleet. Finally, although the entire UK shared in the profitable venture of a global capitalistic empire sustained by an early industrialisation during the 18th and 19th centuries, England only improved on its advantage, from the mills in the North to the global trading hub of London.
Castile in the 15th century had achieved a hegemonic position in the Iberian Peninsula, equivalent to England’s in the British Isles. However, Castile did not consolidate its rule over its side of the Pyrenees. In the 16th century, the Castilian Crown (along with many other European realms) converged on the head of Charles I, first king of all Spain, who would be known as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in the rest of Europe. Charles and his successors exacted most taxes in then wealthy Castile, which had recently laid claim to half the world after Columbus´s discoveries in the Americas.
A revolt of the incipient, tax-paying Castilian bourgeoisie ensued but it was put down. Thereafter, Castile’s manpower and its American precious metals flew steadily to defend the Catholic cause in a continent torn asunder by the Protestant reformation. This also included subduing Catalonia and (unsuccessfully) Portugal in 1640 when they tried to avoid being drawn into the same imperial expenditures as Castile. With its population growth checked by fruitless wars across Europe, a nobility-based promotion system, and a poorly managed economy, Castile progressively dissolved politically and culturally into the larger entity of Spain. A symbol of this is that the Castilian language became widely known as Spanish. The earlier industrialisation and faster development in peripheral regions such as the Basque Country and Catalonia later accentuated Castile’s diminished importance as a distinct entity.
While England strengthened economically and politically to the point of representing the whole of the UK, Castile was drained by the development of a Spanish nation and then lagged in its regional development. The upshot of these separate histories of the UK and Spain are reflected in the status of their capital cities. Whereas London, founded in Roman times and a prosperous capital since the Middle Ages, can generally present itself as the natural seat of political and economic power in the British Isles, Madrid, a hamlet without history chosen as capital partly because of its location at the very centre of now-barren Castile, can be suspected of reflecting nothing more than the outdated strategies of a 16th century king.
The history of Devolution
This early modern history has undoubtedly fed into the different treatment of independence aspirations in Scotland and Catalonia. However, the processes of power devolution to the regions have also added their own layers of complexity to the question of secession.
In the 1920s, nationalistic movements led to the independence of the Republic of Ireland and in the 1930s to the creation of autonomous institutions in Catalonia and the Basque Country. Scotland and Galicia also experienced similar movements but they failed to gain sufficient traction then. Francisco Franco’s long dictatorship froze any claims in Spain; the shocks of two World Wars and decolonisation achieved the same in the UK.
After Franco’s death allowed an end to his 1716-style centralisation, the 1978 Constitution opened the door to substantial devolution to so-called “historical nationalities”, such as the Basque Country and Catalonia but also Galicia and Navarre. These had either enjoyed autonomy in the 1930s, or had linguistic or other specificities. However, this asymmetric devolution led to a string of complaints from other Spanish regions. Eventually, devolution was generalised to all regions with a formula termed “coffee for everyone”. All seventeen “autonomous communities” thus created were entitled to a parliament with law-making prerogatives similar to Scotland’s.
This arrangement provided many politicians with their own “feudal estates” – a power not easily relinquished. Until recently, most of these autonomous communities had seen remarkably few changes in government. Only at the tender age of 77 was Manuel Fraga, a former Franco minister, succeeded in his role as the President of Galicia – by a member of his own party, which also won the most recent elections. Furthermore, the “coffee for all” compromise and its open-ended formula for the acquisition of new competences did not curb nationalist ambitions but rather engendered a sort of race for power.
In the early- to mid-2000s, the Community of Madrid argued for health competences and tried to obtain a separate police force like Catalonia’s, for its part, the Catalan Parliament overwhelmingly voted to increase its competences in taxation to the level enjoyed by the Basque Country, and, in turn, the Basque Parliament proposed a resolution to share sovereignty with Spain and be virtually independent. Most of these measures were rejected by the central government but the seeds of discord are apparent.
The UK devolution process also followed a political upheaval, even if not of the same proportions as in Spain. Nonetheless, it has proceeded in a far calmer manner. In the late 1990s, the newly-elected Labour government of Tony Blair sought to compensate its large constituencies in Scotland and Wales for the wrongs of the Thatcher years by agreeing to cede some of the powers of the UK parliament. This also opened a possible solution for the Northern Irish troubles. By comparison, the devolution was piecemeal and with strong assertions that the UK Parliament retained sovereignty with Members of Parliament drawn from each of the regions.
Interestingly, England did not receive any regional devolution. It remained a mere constituent country of the UK, ruled directly by the UK parliament. This situation gives rise to the thorny “West Lothian question”, which is named after the constituency of the MP that first put it to Parliament. This question goes roughly as follows: Why do Scottish and Welsh MPs sitting in London get to vote on some matters affecting only England when English MPs cannot generally vote on matters concerning only Scotland and Wales? It is perhaps a testament to the solidity of England as hegemonic constituent of the UK that this question has so far caused little trouble. Moreover, the difference in competences between the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly has not dominated the UK public debate as the “autonomic” issue has done in Spain.
The Balkanisation risk
It is the bitterness of this “autonomic” debate and the advanced level of division in the country that is worrying politicians in the Spanish parliament. The territories that officially belonged to the Castilian Crown are now divided into some ten autonomous communities. Its core heartlands were split into at least five, with wealthy Madrid also getting its own bespoke region. Even Catalan-speaking regions are divided into three autonomous communities: Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands.
Any future Catalan State would define itself against “Spain”, even though this would be like the Scots referring to the continuation of a UK without Scotland. But, what kind of “Spain” would be left if the secessionist logic were followed strictly?
To reinforce powerful but more vague identity-based discourses, nationalist parties in Catalonia have long complained that Catalonia contributes to Spain’s treasury much more than it receives. This is of course not unusual, the same happens to Germany’s Bavaria and many other regions throughout Europe. However, achieving fiscal independence has become a key supporting feature of the secessionist argument in the harsh economic climate that currently reigns in Spain. In recent years, it has become more common in Catalonia to state openly that other autonomous communities and the central government, respectively, waste and misappropriate hard-earned Catalan money. Incidentally, the Balearic Islands – and not Catalonia – are the top per capita contributor to Spain’s treasury. While Baleares have agitated little for independence, irredentist Catalans seem keen to do so on their behalf.
The question that nags Spanish parliament politicians is: if Catalonia attains its goal of independence and does so at a fiscal advantage, who would want to shoulder an ever-increasing welfare load? All existing autonomous communities have already “proved” their uniqueness to become such entities, so further steps towards differentiation are hard to deny. Either through outright independence or renegotiation of fiscal burdens, Spain’s autonomous communities could easily form a loose network of entities harbouring much bitterness about any common expenses and reproaches about “historical debts” to one another.
Politicians in London do not see the same threats. England would be more than capable of standing on its own if Scotland gains independence, even if Wales and Northern Ireland followed suit, which is again unlikely. In addition, England does not face serious threats of further division (even where some political movements do exist, say, in Yorkshire and Cornwall); a sign of this is that plans for devolution to the English regions were shelved in 2004 after conclusive rejections of this idea.
Spanish parties across the political spectrum are united in trying to prevent the unilateral secession of Catalonia (or the Basque country) because of the dangerous precedent it would set in an already divided state. Given the multiple existing divisions, overlapping claims and complex history, “Balkanisation” cannot be ruled out. This year, as the Catalan government geared up for its referendum, the prosperous autonomous community of Madrid floated a demand for a higher return on its contribution to the treasury. No doubt Spain’s capital region fears having to pick up the tab when everyone else has left the fiesta.
Cover image: Flickr:Marc Sardon (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)