January 22, 2020 01:20
With Brexit already on track, Britain’s public debate has been dizzyingly reconfigured. Gone are the three years of purgatory in which the country was atoning for the sins of its indecision following the surprise result of the 2016 referendum. Politicians are now focusing their energy, attention and ingenuity on domestic affairs that had been relegated but urged reforms: unsustainable social security, decrepit infrastructure, regional and social inequalities, etc. However, one matter shines from his absence: Scotland.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) won a crushing triumph in the last British elections (48 out of Scotland’s 59 seats and 45% of the regional vote). It was a protest against Brexit and against Boris Johnson. So the SNP hopes to sweep the Scottish elections of May 2021 and, if not sooner, give the government a heart break with a second independence referendum which, this time, they hope to win by taking advantage of the majority rejection of Brexit by the Scots. This has been stated by its leader Nicola Sturgeon, who each year raises its defiant tone as the SNP comfortably extends its power through Scottish geography.
The outlook should raise alarmbells in the capital. Despite this, much of Britain’s political elite, that is, London, remains unbridled and indolent. With astonishing intellectual drowsiness they go through the subject, claiming that Scottish separatism is a residual risk that does not merit political sweat. It is appeased by a common recipe for tax transfers, public investment and decentralization. In addition, Boris Johnson argues that a second referendum is inappropriate and out of time, almost an insult: the previous one in 2014 settled the “for a generation” question.
The British press also joins the choir by displaying figures: a split Scotland would have no currency of its own and would be financially vulnerable; there would be a fiscal deficit of 8% of GDP; 60% of its exports, which flowed freely in the UNITED Kingdom, would face tariff barriers; its sovereign debt would soar above 100% of GDP; North Sea oil would be a tax burden rather than a source of income. A Scotland in such conditions of economic begging, if we consider it, would not be admitted to the EU and its citizens would lose British and Community citizenship.
The Scottish nationalism drinks from the Catalan ‘procés’: now insists on another referendum with the euphemism of ‘right to decide’
Not only that. The experts argue that the Scots would never accept tearing apart the plot of affections and complicity built during 400 years of shared history. Four centuries of economic ties, consanguinity and joint project would be stronger than a few decades of state-building and separatist nation-building. How hard it has been to divorce the EU after only 44 years would prove it. And finally, it is claimed that a unilateral referendum would be illegal and illegitimate, and that it is inappropriate for advanced nations to disobey the laws of the state and undermine national sovereignty.
Well, all of the above probably ring your bells. They are the same self-indulgent arguments that in Spain clouded the judgment of our political elite during the gestation period of the Catalan procés. The theses are exactly the same: independence would be economically unworkable, stay in the EU would not be assured, divorce would be traumatic, a referendum would not proceed and, if it were unilateral, it would be illegitimate and illegal. But this seemingly effective and definitive argument did not prevent the escalation of identity tension that took over Catalonia.
While in the end, with the crisis already unleashed after O-1, the warnings proved sadly true. The EU swept separatist hopes and economic leviathan prevailed: large companies resettled and wholesale deposits fled. The constitutionalists took to the streets in the historic demonstration of October 8, showing the condition of an urban and coastal Catalonia through Spain.
But in those agony days Spain came very close to losing the international battle as some of us saw in media and chancelleries abroad. The last springs worked, but the legacy has been an unstable, fractured Catalonia with a permanent state of subversion and openly hostile against the dissident.
That legacy, however, is the road plan that tempts the Scottish separatist movement. Especially contagious have been the links between the SNP and the separatist Generalitat, the result of sincere sympathies and mutual support for years. Hence Sturgeon’s strategy drinks from the Catalan procés: to stir feelings, generate outrage and create anxieties. Although she knows that London rejects it, she insists on holding a second referendum, although it now engulfs it in the euphemism of the “right to decide” – another loan from the processist discourse. She claims that Scotland cannot be held “prisoner in the UK against its will” and insists it is only following the “mandate” of the Scottish polls.
The Scottish unionism, like Catalan constitutionalism, feels abandoned to its fate
Resemblance to the rhetoric of Puigdemont, Junqueras and Mas are more than reasonable. And the strategy is paying off. The surveys indicate that the margin in favor of the union has been reduced to single digits, that’s clear. On January 11 Glasgow, Scotland’s economic capital, saw the largest independence event in its history: 100,000 attendees according to organiser All Under One Banner (AUOB), a scottish sort of Catalan ANC for similar purposes and strategy of streets mobilization.
It was an aperitif as they plan eight other demonstrations throughout the year. And it will be a crucial year: months of negotiation between the UK and the EU lie ahead. The Scottish nationalists know that it is their great window of opportunity just as the sovereign movement in Catalonia understood that the economic crisis, the assault on the Parliament of 2011 and the judicial encirclement of CiU corruption forced to bursting the seams of the “status quo” hastily.
For all this, London should take good note of the Spanish experience, with its successes and mistakes. This experience does not come down to the five years of Catalan procés but extends to 40 years of furtive disloyalty. The lesson, in retrospect, is clear: neither ignore the challenge nor placate it with concessions and consents.
We must hope to evict the Scottish nationalists from regional power and pour all support for Scottish unionism which, like Catalan constitutionalism, feels abandoned to its fate. Otherwise, it will be too late and the situation in Scotland will enter an irrational escalation phase for which there is no instruction manual and contingency plan as the Rajoy government has already proved.
If the United Kingdom wishes to undertake the great transformations that Brexit promised, what happened in Catalonia should serve as a warning that escalating tensions in Scotland may be the big brake on this project. If we continue to be soothed, the British government may have to end up choosing between Brexit or Union. That London elite should start taking seriously what’s happening north of Hadrian’s Wall. Despite having survived the purgatory of Brexit, they may now have to face the unexpected hell of the Scottish procés.
***Toni Timoner holds a master’s degree in International Relations from SAIS-Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC and a representative of Societat Civil Catalana in London.