As different as chalk and cheese

The SNP has earned a reputation for effective management Control of the movement is more important than independence

In an interview with the BBC, Scotsman and former British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, warned that the conflict between the Scottish and UK governments cannot be resolved as in Catalonia. Although he did not specify it, we can assume he was referring both to Scotland avoiding a unilateral path towards independence, and to London applying a strategy of repression. It is one example of how the cases of the Scots and the Catalans are often cross-referenced. Meanwhile, in Catalonia, there have been voices citing Nicola Sturgeon’s strategy as an example of the way forward for the disoriented Catalan independence movement. However, despite the tendency to make comparisons, the two cases are very different.

Scotland and Catalonia both lost their sovereignty in the early 18th century due to dynastic disputes. They have both since kept their national identity while to some extent distancing themselves both emotionally and politically from the State in which they exist. Scotland and Catalonia have also both begun the 21st century with movements aiming at achieving independence. Armed struggle does not play a part in those aims in either Scotland or Catalonia. Today, the Catalan and Scottish independence movements both have similar majorities in their respective parliaments.

Thus far, the similarities, but from here things get trickier.


Over the last decade, what has most distinguished the two independence movements from one another is, on the one hand, cohesion around solid leadership in the Scottish case (despite the change of face at the top), and on the other, the inability of the Catalan sovereignty movement to rally around a figure with sufficient moral authority to represent the political spectrum. The Scottish National Party (SNP) is not the only pro-independence party, as there is also the Greens, the Scottish Socialist Party and the Scottish Republican Socialist Movement, as well as Alba, the failed new party of former SNP leader, Alex Salmond. Yet, under Nicola Sturgeon the SNP has managed to attain enough backing for the party to lead the charge politically. It has done so via a shrewd combination of, slightly left-leaning but without being dogmatic, ideological pragmatism and an ability to manage any internal dissent, as demonstrated by how it sidelined Salmond’s attempt to win parliamentary representation. And it has achieved a comfortable durability, earning a reputation for effective management with clear leadership.

In Catalonia, on the other hand, the advance of the sovereignty movement has continued alongside an ideological confrontation that is fundamentally rooted in the self-government framework, meaning that the partisan struggle for control of the movement is considered to be much more important than the common goal of independence among the leading cadres. The many years of political dominance by Jordi Pujol’s party has left three perverse legacies. The first is corruption, which makes any friend, acquaintance or favoured politician of Pujol come under suspicion of being a thief. The second is cross-resentments and hatreds that built up in two decades under Pujolism. The third is a consequence of the previous two, and that is the traumatic memory of 23 years of messianism, which has left voters with a chronic distrust of hyper-leaderships. This aversion to autocratic governance has led to a dispersion of leadership that makes the solid direction of the movement impossible.

Democracy and repression

The way the respective states approach the two national independence movements also sets them apart. Britain recognises multinationality, although it is not exactly a model of clean crisis management. The Irish case is the best example of this, not to mention the tortuous process of decolonisation. Yet, in the Scottish case in recent decades democratic forms have been respected, and despite foul play behind the scenes, there has been no repression, whether military, judicial, or economic. In Spain, with its secular tradition of repression against Catalonia, the reaction against the claims to sovereignty has continued to be virulent, especially among the judiciary, with the application of lawfare, or the strategy of judicial terror in order to inspire fear.

The monarchy

It may well be just a side issue, but the relationships of the Catalan and Scottish nations with the monarchies of the respective States also differ. In Scotland, the monarchy is not seen as an obstacle to sovereignty. In fact, the SNP says that in a hypothetical independent Scotland, the British crown would play a role in maintaining a certain supranational cohesion and good neighbourly relations. Only the Greens are officially republican in the Holyrood Parliament. In Catalonia, however, the Spanish monarchy has always been part of the problem. That is even more so in the case of Philip VI, who has shown himself to be in favour of repression. The independence of Catalonia is difficult. Reconciliation with the monarchy – and the relationship has never been very solid beyond the institutional level – is all but impossible.

Language and culture

Scotland could be said to have three and a half languages: English, Scottish English, Scots and Scottish Gaelic, although only two are official: English and an increasingly residual Gaelic. A language conflict is in practice non-existent. In the absence of a powerful language of its own, the distinctive features of Scottish culture are not only perfectly acceptable to the rest of the UK, but are part of the common culture. Religion could also be seen as a cultural manifestation. Unlike in Catalonia, where the Catholic Church is losing followers while – with the blessing of Rome – its hierarchy increasingly aligns itself with the most pungent Spanishness, the Church of Scotland is independent of the Anglican Church and has no real influence in the political sphere. Another seemingly insignificant issue is the national sports teams, which the Scots maintain in many sports and which act as an emotional valve for national rivalries. In Catalonia, sport has been another tool to try to impose Spanish nationalism.

Catalonia and Scotland, in short, share a similar political longing, but their parallel stories are like night and day. And for the Catalans, even if we have more sun, for the moment the outlook is darker.


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