Book Review - Scots and Catalans: Union and Disunion

Chris Bambery, author of A People’s History of Scotland co-author of Catalonia Rebornreviews J.H. Elliott’s Scots and Catalans: Union and Disunion, Yale University Press, 2018

THE movements for independence in Catalonia and Scotland have, in the last decade, grown together and identify with each other. Both threaten the unity of key European states, key NATO members and allies of the USA. What unites these two movements and what is different?

Sir J. H. Elliott is the pre-eminent British historian of 16th and 17th century Spain, its golden age under the Hapsburg kings, and someone who is clearly fluent in both Spanish and Catalan. We know that because he recounts that in 1955, while in Barcelona researching his book on the Catalan revolt of 1640-1652, he was told off by a policeman for speaking Catalan and not Spanish – the “language of Empire”. Catalan was banned from public use and from the media under the Franco dictatorship. 

Having read, cited and admired his books I hesitate to cross swords with him but his latest book while packaged as an academic text is clearly a polemic against supporters of Scottish and Catalan independence, though delivered with a stiletto rather than a claymore. There is much well delivered history of both nations here, although rather too focused on great men and women for my liking.

The central problem is the author’s inability to understand the rise of support for independence in the immediate past, both in Scotland and Catalonia.

For Elliott the “resurgence”of both nationalism and religion are a response to the “triumphant march of cosmopolitanism and secularisation” and the former is rooted in “a territorially grounded sense of collective identity inspired by kinship and ethnicity.”

Leaving aside his use of nationalism to describe both independence movements, this definition of nationhood is that of liberal 19th century thought, mirrored by the mechanical Marxism of Josef Stalin, who tried to provide a checklist to ascertain what a nation is (language, territory, culture etc.).

But in neither nation is support for independence couched in terms of “blood and race.” In 2014, the debates which covered Scotland during the independence referendum concerned issues such as making an environmentally friendly country, building a modern industrial base and creating a democracy which, unlike Westminster, encouraged popular participation. In both Catalonia and Scotland the stress was on democracy. In both it was stressed that all who lived in those nations were citizens of that nation, wherever their origins (and in the case of Catalonia those who embraced the language). In both cases it contrasts with the anti-migrant, anti-Islam nationalism so obvious across Europe.

“Having read, cited and admired his books I hesitate to cross swords with him but his latest book while packaged as an academic text is clearly a polemic against supporters of Scottish and Catalan independence, though delivered with a stiletto rather than a claymore.”

So I cannot accept that support for independence in both nations is based on, “nostalgia for a world that never was…narratives that prioritised certain sections of their past at the expense of others.” Wilfred the Hairy or even William Wallace were not key players in neither the 2017 Catalan referendum nor the 2014 Scottish one.

I would rather approach the right of self-determination as being a democratic demand which should be judged on the democratic impulse behind the call for independence.

That allows us to more easily understand support for Scottish and Catalan independence. In both cases independence is seen as an escape pod from the UK and Spanish states which are regarded as obstructing the democratic choice of the two peoples. In Scotland’s case it was the experience of Tory governments at Westminster which had no mandate north of the border and then of the Tony Blair New Labour administrations which ditched a social democratic agenda which still found favour with most Scots, and took us to war in Iraq against the wish of the majority. 

In the case of Catalonia the decisive moment was in 2010 when the Spanish Constitutional Court struck down key sections, including the definition of Catalonia as a nation, from a new Statute of Autonomy passed by both the Spanish and Catalan parliaments and by a referendum in Catalonia. That brought alive the contradiction in Spain between the centralist drive of the Spanish state and the aspirations of Catalans and Basques. That was at its most extreme under the Franco dictatorship when Catalonia suffered not only the full weight of fascist repression but a systematic attempt to destroy the Catalan language and culture. However, from Philip V onwards it has emerged time and time again. The most recent attempt to physically stop voting in the 2017 referendum, the subsequent imposition of direct rule and the trial of 12 Catalan leaders on charges of rebellion and sedition brought this vividly to life in Catalonia.

Elliott notes that between 1902 and the proclamation of the Second Republic in 1931 only 13 ministries out of 183 would be taken by Catalans. He contrasts this with the fact that between 1868 and 1935 six out of 11 British prime minsters were Scots “by birth or origin.” He might have added that except during the brief First Spanish Republic of 1873-1874, no Catalan has been prime minister of Spain. Given Catalonia’s position as an industrial and financial powerhouse during the 19th and early 20th centuries this is significant.

READ MORE: The National Question in the 21st Century

What is also not explained is that support for independence in both nations is driven not just by a subjective mood but the nature of both the Spanish and UK states, and unresolved crises at the heart of both; organic crises.

In the case of the UK, Elliott charts the long economic and imperial decline of Britain and how that has impacted on Scotland, which after 1918 saw the elimination of much indigenous capital and the collapse of much of the old staple industries with all the social consequences.

That eroded a Scottish identity secure in Empire, and which had been reinforced by the achievements of the 1945 Attlee government. Eventually under Thatcher, devolution was seen as a shield against the excesses of her free market agenda and under Blair it was easy to shift to seeing independence as the escape route.

In just a few decades a new Scottish identity has been forged based on the idea it is a more caring and open nation, ditching the militarism so central to the old. There is little evidence of the “kinship and ethnicity” cited by Elliott.

In the case of Catalonia there is a sense of exclusion from the Spanish state. At different points Spain might have moved towards a federal solution; in 1815 after the defeat of Napoleon, in 1873-1874 during the brief First Republic, under the Second Republic overthrown by Franco, and during the transition to democracy following Franco’s death. Yet the centralist urge of the Spanish elite always emerged and won the day.

READ MORE: Graveyard of Empire: Does national independence make sense after the fall of colonialism?

It might be argued that post-1975 Catalonia and the Basque Country won autonomy and Spain is, therefore, a federal state. But economic and financial power is very much centred on Madrid (the wealthiest region in Spain), Catalonia begrudges paying Madrid in taxes and receiving little back (few would begrudge paying to help the poverty ridden south where so many Catalans have family roots) and constant attempts to erode the rights Catalonia enjoys. The Spanish Government can suspend the Statute of Autonomy anytime and impose direct rule, which it did in October 2017.

The canard that children in Catalonia are not taught Spanish, so beloved of Spanish nationalists, is seen as preparing the ground for removing Catalan as the primary language of education, something the right wing parties championed in the April 2019 Spanish general election.

The flawed transition post-Franco left too much of the old in place; politically appointed judges and instutionalised corruption being two examples, and the Spanish state has failed to come to terms with the dreadful legacy of the Civil War and the subsequent repression.

One of the fall back positions of Spanish and British unionists is to attack the aspirations of Scots and Catalans as “nationalist.” While I judge myself pro-independence and not a nationalist, like so many others in both nations, this angers me because it rather ignores British and Spanish nationalism and their track records.

Scotland and Catalonia both have to deal with their involvement in the slave trade, for instance, but the legacy of British and Spanish colonialism is the elephant in the room. British and Spanish nationalism both look backwards to the glories of Empire, and in the British case we have the endless fixation with 1940, our “finest hour.”

READ MORE: Turkey, Spain and Britain: The radicalisation of hegemonic nationalisms

Spanish nationalism is virulently exclusionist of “others,” from Muslims and Jews to Catalans – anti-Catalanism was highly visible in the Spanish military long before 1936 and the granting of Catalan autonomy was a key factor in Franco’s uprising.

What Elliott does is to try and associate support for independence in both nations with the nationalist movements we see so much across Europe, targeting migrants and Muslims, or with Donald Trump and his call for “America First.” But in both nations the pro-independence movements have been keen to stress their inclusiveness towards migrant communities and ethnic groups (this is not to pretend racism does not exist in both nations) and that has met with some success. A majority of Scottish Muslims voted Yes in 2014 and the flourishing of the Catalan language rests on its success among migrants from elsewhere in Spain and more recently from Asia, Africa and South America (less so in the latter case).

Finally, Spanish nationalists are often keen to point out that an independent Catalonia has never existed, regarding this as a trump card. Elliott argues that Catalonia before its full incorporation into the Kingdom of Spain under Philip V was an "incomplete state," not a sovereign state. Scotland, he adds, had better claims to sovereignty.

If we are equating a sovereign state with a nation state it is difficult to see any such entity prior to 1789 and the French Revolution.

Under the Hapsburg's, Castile was part of a sprawling Empire. Charles V chose to base himself there but there was no Spanish sovereign state; the old Kingdom of Aragon, Navarre and the three Basque provinces were autonomous. Madrid became Philip 11's capital only in 1561 and before that was of far less consequence than Seville, Valencia or Barcelona.

READ MORE: What does sovereignty mean for Scotland and its people?

Even after the Nueva Planta decrees of Philip V abolishing Catalan autonomy, Navarre and the Basque provinces retained their autonomy, though they were far more economically connected to Castile than Catalonia and their elites found favour at the Court, unlike their Catalan counterparts. Spain was an "incomplete state”. But that is not surprising.

Interestingly, at an earlier point Elliott argued that from the monarchical union of Castile and Aragon until the late 18th century Spain was far from being a unitary state; rather he described it as a “composite state” (I would prefer “composite kingdom” because the component parts were only united under the crown).

Castile and Aragon were ruled by the same monarch but fiscally they were separate and successive kings could not impose conscription or taxation in Catalonia, so badly needed as they fought successive wars. 

The British state was created in 1707 with the Union of the Scots and English Parliaments. Elliott notes, almost in passing, that in 1747 Westminster passed the Heritable Jurisdictions Act “that abolished most of Scotland’s feudal jurisdictions.” He goes on to quote Walter Scott that the effect of the defeat of the 1745-1746 Jacobite Rebellion was that no European nation has undergone “so complete a change as the Kingdom of Scotland”.

What Elliott does not spell out is that from 1707 until the Hanoverian victory at Culloden, Scotland (not just in the Highlands) remained a feudal country while England was firmly capitalist. In other words Britain was an “incomplete state”. The British state was truly forged in successive wars with France, particularly in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars when it had to muster not only its naval and military power but its financial and industrial weight, plus it had to use the media to build up “king and country” patriotism to counter Jacobinism abroad and at home.

Scotland in the late 18th century went through a rapid transformation with an agricultural and industrial revolution. The Scottish upper classes rushed to grab positions across the expanding British Empire, no junior partners - they were so often in the lead. Highland regiments won glory and a new Scottish identity was forged within the context of British imperialism; celebrated through Quebec, Waterloo, and Balaclava all the way down to Aden in 1967.

Elliott gets this well, but does not explain so well why something similar did not happen to the Catalans in Spain. As I have tried to explain, Spanish centralism meant all too often the exclusion of the Catalans, including their exclusion from the Spanish Empire until the late 18th century. 

In the case of Britain, he passes over the archaic nature of the British parliament, the continued domination of a public schooled, Oxbridge educated elite and the revolving door between the Treasury, the Bank of England and the City of London. In the case of Spain, how much of the elite in Franco’s Spain retained their wealth and positions, passing it on to the present generation?

All of this might seem obscure, but nationalism is a fairly recent phenomenon.

As George Kerevan and I point out in our book “Catalonia Reborn”, it is simplistic to say nations are simply inventions. Of course the process of creating a nation involved creating myths, but these can become a force in their own right. Nations are forged by humans but not in circumstances of their choosing; objective and subjective factors shape outcomes.

Take the unification of Italy, which involved a struggle from below (the 1848-1849 Revolutions and Garibaldi’s conquest of Sicily and Naples) and from above (the intervention of France and the Kingdom of Piedmont, which essentially absorbed the rest of the peninsula). That created what Gramsci called a “bastard state,” falling far short of the French 1789 model to which the radicals had looked.

Unification was followed by the attempt of the new state “to make” Italians; just 14 percent of the population spoke the Tuscan dialect when it was selected as the “national” language. The hegemony of Liberal Italy was weak and after a revolutionary upheaval in 1918-1919 it gave way to fascism. It was defeated in large part by the anti-fascist resistance (all the great cities of Central and Northern Italy were liberated by the partisans) and the new Italian Republic based itself on the values of that resistance, but that was blighted by the onset of the Cold War. Even today, Italy remains an incomplete sovereign state; as in Spain the southern question has not been resolved.

My argument is that you cannot draw up a check list of what makes a nation and use it to tick off the answer when the demand for self-determination is raised. If one box to be ticked was whether the nation in question suffered national oppression the Scotland, given its imperial record, would fail, Catalonia would just pass because of its agony under Franco.

But such an abstraction does not tell us why today growing numbers of Catalans and Scots back independence. The answer is that support for Scottish and Catalan independence is fundamentally about democracy and the shortcomings of both the British and Spanish states. This in a world where much of the democracy people won in the 19th and 20th centuries has been eroded.

You might label this nostalgic but it is surely forward thinking – for instance in looking to advance further than the quaint ways of Westminster. Because it’s a democratic impulse it also tends towards support for social fairness and away from the dominant neo-liberal agenda. That was very apparent in 2014 during the Scottish referendum campaign and as I write the election results in Catalonia for the Spanish general election show a shift leftwards among pro-independence supporters.

I am not so foolish to portray either Scotland or Catalonia as utopias but in both nations support for independence is generally progressive and forward thinking leaving its opponents too often stuck in the past.

Picture courtesy of Byronv2

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