Not for the first time, I find myself thinking and writing about events of some significance in other countries, in this case Spain, through a peculiarly parochial Scottish lens. This may seem strange to non-Scots but they need to understand how Scottish nationalists use and abuse those events to pursue their own aim of separation from the United Kingdom.
Let me lay my cards on the table about Catalonia.
First, some background. Spain is a democracy, a fellow member (until we leave) of the EU, and an ally in NATO, all things incidentally which the SNP have said they want a separate Scotland to be. The country emerged, almost entirely peacefully, from the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco in the 1970s. Its politicians, of virtually every party, developed a democratic constitution that was approved in a national referendum in 1978. The constitution says it is:
based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards; it recognises and guarantees the right to selfgovernment of the nationalities and regions of which it is composed and the solidarity among them all (Section 2).
It also provides for a constitutional court (Part IX) to which:
the Government may appeal … against provisions and resolutions adopted by the bodies of the Self-governing Communities [the regions] … (Section 161).
The constitution was approved overwhelmingly in a referendum, including by 95% of those voting in Catalonia (the full results are here).
Fast forward to 2014, and the then Catalan separatist government attempted to hold a referendum on separation which the court ruled illegal and which the regional government converted into a ‘citizen participation process’ (sic) to get round the ban. Most opposition parties and non-nationalists boycotted the poll and although 81% of those voting opted for independence it was on a turnout of only about 40%. So of the total electorate only about 32% actually turned out and voted for separation.
This year’s ‘referendum’ was also declared illegal (strictly speaking, suspended) by the constitutional court but the current separatist government decided to go ahead anyhow. The Spanish government’s attempts to stop the process were all made in accordance with the rule of law, seeking court approval for all their actions. The only aspect I would disagree with was the heavy-handed actions of the national police forces (Guardia Civil and Policia Nacional) on and around polling day. Even then, evidence has emerged of how some separatists goaded the police and may have falsified or exaggerated injuries to make those heavy-handed actions look worse.
In this context, the electoral process was itself deeply flawed by normal standards, with voters able to print off ballot papers online and vote at any open polling station. For what it’s worth (maybe not much), the result claimed by the Catalan government was 90% in favour of independence on a 42.3% turnout. So of the total electorate only a claimed 38% actually turned out and voted for separation.
I give this lengthy preamble because, on the facts, you might expect the SNP (remember my point about all those things that Spain is they want a separate Scotland to be) to tread cautiously on the subject, even if some of the fringe elements of Scottish nationalism would feel less circumscribed.
Not a bit of it.
It began with a relatively muted statement by cabinet secretary Fiona Hyslop (i/c ‘external affairs’ although of course the Scottish parliament has no locus in the subject) urging the model of the Edinburgh agreement as a way to proceed. Even that mis-interpreted the right to self-determination in the ‘UN Charter’ (sic), something a government lawyer might have picked up.
In the run-up to the poll, Joanna Cherry, SNP MP and as she insists QC, had opined during a pro-Catalan separatist meeting at the Sheraton Grand Hotel in Edinburgh that the ‘referendum’ was legal, although in print at least she offered no proof and her opinion (presumably personal rather than legal since her practice was unrelated to constitutional law) runs counter to the facts above.
By the day of the poll there seemed to be a number of current and ex- SNP MPs and MSPs swanning around Catalonia spotting all sorts of positives for separation (‘I saw flags everywhere’ – Paul Monaghan) and negatives against Spain (‘Here’s a video clip of some police who told me to stop filming’ – Margaret Ferrier). A couple of them seemed to be part of an ‘official’ delegation. Plaid Cymru and Sinn Fein featured too if my memory’s correct. Bringing up the rear as ‘observers’ were five crowd-funded members of English Scots for Yes, led by an ex-SNP councillor (surname Campbell, so definitely English) who has featured in this blog before.
Many questions could be asked about the objectivity of this gaggle of partisan amateurs but I’ll confine myself to what you might ask of a properly-constituted international team of observers. Who invited you? Who are your team members and what expertise do they have? How were they chosen? How were they trained? How long were they there? What did they do? Where is their report of what they saw? Properly constituted international observation of elections and referendums has a long and honourable tradition – see this example on our own 2014 referendum. I doubt very much whether any of the SNP observers were members of groups that conformed to international standards.
Spurred no doubt by images of police behaviour before the poll and on the day, there was also a lot of inappropriate online comment from nationalists who may or may not have been SNP members. Spain was characterised as ‘totalitarian’, ‘Francoist’ and ‘fascist’ by people who either didn’t know or care what they were saying. I know Spain (see Footnote) and it is none of these things.
I see that The National newspaper today has a headline that reads:
Sturgeon: You can’t ignore 2m votes.
That’s ironic, given the numbers, the majority, who voted No in the referendum that she so wanted in 2014.
In fact, the whole SNP jumping-on-the-bandwagon of the Catalan poll looks as if it’s backfiring. Still at least notionally committed to EU membership, they have not only antagonised Spain but find themselves at odds with the EU, who have condemned the illegal Catalan referendum. The wilder fringe elements of Scottish nationalism baying ‘Hold our own poll regardless of Westminster’ or even ‘Declare UDI now’ may turn out to be the least of Ms Sturgeon’s problems.
Footnote. To any passing nationalists who interpret this post as a mere unionist taking advantage of a situation to criticise the SNP, I probably know and understand Spain better than most of you. I first visited the country when Franco was still alive, I sat and waited while a Spanish friend attended a clandestine political meeting (PSOE), left a literary competition with him rapidly when he couldn’t contain his anger at the sycophancy of the entries, feared for him and his family when there was an attempted military coup in 1981, marvelled when King Juan Carlos in army uniform refused to meet the mutineers and told them to go back to their barracks. For all its faults, I love the country very much. Spain is not what the SNP and other Scottish nationalists claim.