How to Succeed at Seceding

As Scotland gears up for a second push for independence, Scottish nationalists should learn from Catalonia’s failures.

The Scottish Saltire and the flag of Catalonia are pictured as Scottish pro- independence supporters hold a rally in George Square in Glasgow, Scotland, on Sept. 19, 2015.
The Scottish Saltire and the flag of Catalonia are pictured as Scottish pro- independence supporters hold a rally in George Square in Glasgow, Scotland, on Sept. 19, 2015. Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images

In the British general election on Dec. 12, Conservative Party leader Boris Johnson won 43.6 percent of the national vote and increased his party’s seats in Parliament from 317 to 365. To put that in historical context, no party has won more emphatically since 1979, when Margaret Thatcher ousted Labour leader James Callaghan with 43.9 percent of the vote.

The pro-Brexit Johnson is now under renewed pressure from Nicola Sturgeon, head of the Scottish National Party (SNP), to grant Scotland a second referendum on splitting from the rest of the United Kingdom. (Sturgeon argues that circumstances have fundamentally changed since the independence referendum in 2014, when Scottish voters chose to remain in the U.K. by a 55 to 45 percent margin.) The SNP, which wants to see an independent Scotland as a member of the EU rather than be forced out of the EU against its will, also triumphed in December and is now the third-most powerful party in the U.K., occupying 48 of Scotland’s 59 seats in Westminster. 

Johnson is now in a similar position to Spain’s acting prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, who is facing demands from Catalan separatists to ratify a legal independence referendum in Catalonia—or at least discuss the possibility of one. Over the last few years, the Catalonia issue has become a constitutional crisis in Spain, with a sharp divide emerging between pro-union nationalists—in whose camp the central government is firmly established—and separatists, who argue that Madrid is acting undemocratically in refusing Catalans a legal vote on self-determination.

There have been two votes on independence in Catalonia, though—and both were declared illegal, in advance, by the Spanish judiciary. In November 2014, Catalonia’s then President Artur Mas held a “process of citizen participation,” ignoring a prior ruling from the Constitutional Court that such a vote was illegal, and of the approximately 40 percent who participated, 81 percent voted to split from the rest of Spain. Mas was banned from public office for two years and fined 36,500 euros (about $40,000) for disobeying the court—a punishment that did nothing to deter his successor Carles Puigdemont, who staged another independence referendum in October 2017 (again ignoring a prior warning from the Constitutional Court) in which 92 percent of a 43 percent turnout opted for secession, prompting the Catalan parliament to unilaterally declare independence later that month.

Led by conservative then Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, the central government’s response was swift and brutal. Rajoy invoked Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution on Catalonia, which allows Madrid to take control of a self-governing region if it behaves in a manner “seriously prejudicial to the general interest of Spain,” and Puigdemont fled to Belgium to avoid arrest, where he has remained ever since. National police forcibly ejected voters from booths, liberally using their batons in the process and thereby bolstering separatists’ portrayal of Madrid as mercilessly anti-democratic. In October 2019, after a lengthy trial, Spain’s Supreme Court sentenced nine leading separatists to between nine and 13 years in jail for their role in organizing the 2017 referendum—a decision which caused demonstrations all over Catalonia, some of them violent. 

It seems unlikely that the U.K.’s constitutional crisis could become so heated, mainly because Johnson has a tool at his disposal that Sánchez does not. In the U.K., unlike in Spain, there is the aforementioned precedent of a governmentally sanctioned referendum on independence, possible under the Scotland Act 1998. The 1978 Spanish Constitution, on the other hand, stresses the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards,” and forbids any action that threatens this fiercely protected cohesion. It’s for this reason that the Spanish government defended the Supreme Court’s sentences, which were seen as excessively harsh in other quarters.

Scots, though, have been allowed a legitimate vote on their future once, so why not again, especially given Johnson’s promise to “get Brexit done” (Scots don’t want it done at all) and the SNP’s strong showing in the election? Instead, the U.K.’s prime minister has stated that the results of the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence should be “respected.”

The 2014 Scottish independence referendum was at the time billed as a “once in a generation” opportunity by the SNP’s then leader Alex Salmond (who publicly congratulated Mas when he took the helm of a pro-independence Catalan government in late 2015). But since September 2014, another momentous vote has taken place, one which arguably justifies a return to the polls in Scotland. In the 2016 referendum on the U.K.’s continued membership of the EU, 62 percent of Scots voted to remain, even though 52 percent of the U.K. as a whole opted for Brexit. The SNP’s significant gains and Scotland’s crushing rejection of the Conservatives, who lost seven of their 13 Scottish seats on Dec. 12, now also have to be factored in.

Polls carried out since the 2014 referendum reveal that support for Scottish independence is still hovering around 45 percent, but it is distinctly possible that a majority of Scots might opt for independence this time around given Britain’s impending departure from the EU. Scotland’s Fraser of Allander Institute has stated that Brexit will present Scotland with “considerable challenges” and that the damage done to national output already amounts to 3 billion pounds ($4 billion). Might the country now vote differently to avoid being removed from the EU against its will, or ruled from London by a Conservative Party whose power in Scotland has been significantly eroded? As Sturgeon said after her party’s historic win on Dec. 12, “Boris Johnson may have a mandate to take England out of the EU—but he emphatically does not have a mandate to take Scotland out of the EU.”

Sturgeon’s separatist rhetoric is reminiscent of that favoured by pro-independence Catalan President Quim Torra, with whom the SNP leader met in Edinburgh in July 2018. “This isn’t about asking Boris Johnson or any other Westminster politician for permission. This is instead an assertion of the democratic right of the people of Scotland to determine our own future,” Sturgeon said in her victory speech.

It is precisely the right to exercise governmental autonomy, supposedly secured by splitting from central powers in Madrid, that Catalan separatists have been pushing for lately. Following the Supreme Court’s sentences in October, Torra said that “we have to continue defending the right of Catalonia to self-determination” and that a legalized referendum was the best way of solving Spain’s worsening constitutional crisis. But according to the latest survey by the region’s official research center, published in November, support for secession amongst Catalans is falling: The poll revealed 41.9 percent to be in favor of independence and 48.8 percent against. In the survey before that, carried out in July, those figures were 44 percent and 48.3 percent, respectively.  

Both Scotland and Catalonia already have considerable powers of self-determination. In June 2006, the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia was passed by referendum in the region and laid out its devolved powers as allowed under the Spanish Constitution, which “recognizes and guarantees the right to self-government of the nationalities and regions of which [Spain] is composed and the solidarity among them all,” and according to which Catalonia is a province “with a historic regional status.”

In 2010, Spain’s Constitutional Court rewrote 14 of the Statute’s articles, prompting criticism from pro-independence Catalan parties and more than a million separatist protesters to take to the streets of Barcelona. The poll cited above showed that 59 percent of Catalans think that their existing level of autonomy is insufficient.

Almost 10 years before the Catalonia statute was ratified, the U.K. government passed the Scotland Act 1998. This created a Scottish Parliament, known as Holyrood, with significant devolved powers which were augmented by the Scotland Act 2012. The country is now largely self-governing in areas such as agriculture, education, and local government, while so-called reserved matters are controlled from Westminster, including defense and foreign policy. Crucially, Section 30 of the 1998 Act allows for an “Order in Council,” which in turn permits a single-question referendum to be held: It was by this process that the 2014 vote was ratified, and which Sturgeon will try to deploy to secure a second. There’s just one hitch, though: Permission for this procedure to be triggered must come from Westminster, not Holyrood.

As it stands, neither Scotland nor Catalonia’s existing devolved powers are enough for die-hard separatists, who are making demands that their respective central governments deem unconstitutional. If Spain can teach Johnson one thing about how to deal with the SNP, though, it’s that ignoring its demands, or employing heavy-handed tactics in an attempt to suppress its project, simply won’t work.

Throughout the recent tumultuous events in Catalonia, Sánchez refused point-blank to negotiate with Torra, although he has recently held talks with the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), whose leader Oriol Junqueras is beginning a 13-year prison sentence for his involvement in the 2017 referendum, the toughest handed out by the Supreme Court. Yet this apparent reversal of policy on Sánchez’s part shouldn’t be misinterpreted: The ERC has said that unless Sánchez is prepared to discuss possible resolutions to the Catalonia problem, instead of trying to ignore it, the party will vote against the Socialist leader at the upcoming investiture sessions. The Socialist leader’s agreement to talk with the ERC, then, is motivated by political self-interest, and his underlying stance on Catalonia remains the same—namely, that he abides by the Spanish Constitution, which defends “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation.”

Other than a pro-independence government in Madrid (a virtual impossibility as things stand), Catalan separatists do have another scenario to hope for—equally remote as it seems: a central administration more flexible than Sánchez’s in its interpretation of the constitution and one that is prepared to grant permission for an independence referendum. It would be a huge gamble for Madrid, but it might well pay off, with a pro-union result bolstering the constitutionalists’ case for a generation.  

In the meantime, Catalan secessionists maintain they have a theoretical basis for their requests: If nationalists can cite the constitution’s commitment to Spain’s indissoluble unity,” separatists can point to its recognition of the regions’ right to self-governance and the “political pluralism” defended in Article 6, although the latter doesn’t imply a right to vote on self-determination.

The question of how to balance these two apparently contradictory principles is at the heart of Spain’s constitutional crisis—a crisis which remains far from resolution. A similar clash of powers may be replicated in the U.K. if Johnson refuses to acknowledge what Sturgeon describes as Scotland’s renewed mandate to decide on its future.

Mark Nayler is a freelance journalist based in Spain. He writes on Spanish politics and culture for southern Spain's English-language newspaper, Sur in English, and for The Spectator.