Why Catalonia is not Scotland

Today saw Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond sign an agreement with David Cameron to hold a Yes/No referendum on Scottish independence.

The story has received extensive coverage in the Catalan media, and quotations by both Salmond and Cameron have been doing the rounds in the Catalan Twittersphere.

These facile comparisons of Catalonia and Scotland are somewhat frustrating because the two cases actually have very little in common.

The message in Catalonia, either explicit or implicit, is that Cameron is a model democrat for allowing Scotland a referendum, while the Spanish government in Madrid refuses to contemplate a similar consultation for its national minorities.

However, the fact is that Cameron and his Conservative party are committed unionists and have always stood against not only independence, but any devolution of powers to Scotland and other UK regions. They are the party that has been committed to keeping as much of Ireland under UK control as possible, creating the artificial region of ‘Northern Ireland’ to serve this purpose.

Cameron is allowing the referendum because support for independence in Scotland currently stands at 37% at most. By holding a vote soon, he can be almost sure of winning and kicking the question into the long grass for at least a generation.

But, if Scots don’t want independence, why did they vote for a nationalist party promising a referendum on the issue?

In general, Scotland is more left-wing than the rest of the UK, and the Labour Party’s shift to a more market-based policy agenda in recent years has lost it much of its traditional support in Scotland. The Scottish Nationalists have capitalized on this by putting forward popular policies such as free university tuition for Scottish students and free personal care for the elderly, along with their call for a referendum. Many people in Scotland voted for the Nationalists on the basis of their positions on health and education, knowing they would be able to vote against independence in a referendum at a later date.

The other key difference between Scotland and Catalonia is economic. While Catalonia is a net contributor to the Spanish treasury, Scotland is one of the poorest regions of the UK, and is subsidised by regions such as London. The consequences of a Scottish exit from the UK would be miniscule in comparison to the problems Spain would face trying to balance its books without Catalonia.

To grossly simplify: the UK is granting a referendum on independence to a country that doesn’t particularly want to leave the Union, and which, even if it did, it could afford to lose.

Catalonia may face a bigger battle in holding a plebiscite than Scotland, but that’s because there is a real chance of a Yes result, and genuine terror in Madrid about the consequences.

Catalonia is not Scotland, but those who want independence for Catalonia should be glad that it isn’t.