It’s not a good sign when you sit down to write a blog post and your heart is already sinking.
Alliterative reasons aside, not for nothing is my blog subtitled ‘from Caledonia to Catalonia’. But as a Scot who’s spent the last almost three and a half years living and working in Barcelona, I have to admit that I’ve tried my hardest to steer clear of the entire socio-political morass developing on both sides of the Channel.
Why? Because I can’t win. Catalans, on hearing that I hail from Scotland rather than England, invariably assume I’m on their side (i.e. a raging nationalist). Scots, meanwhile, on hearing that I forsook the homeland in pursuit of Spanish fluency, deny me a vote in a historic referendum on my own country’s future.
Not to mention the countless Catalans – in Barcelona’s bars and on Twitter – who assure me that “Scotland is not even a country – everybody knows that.”
But with less than two months till Scotland goes to the ballot box, I’ve run out of excuses to sidestep the minefield.
I have no idea which way Scotland will vote in September (have I mentioned I don’t even get a vote?!), but I do want to talk about my experience here in Catalonia in the run-up to the referendum. And why I think Catalans might be backing the wrong horse.
Two anecdotes to warm us up…
Around a year ago, I was heading home from work on the Barcelona metro and reading some research in English as I waited for the train. A fair-haired tourist walked up to me and, clocking the report, chirped, “Ah, are you English?” Without thinking, I smiled back “No, I’m Scottish”.
In a second, his demeanour changed. (He, apparently, was English.)
“You Scots” he sneered contemptuously, “you always have to make that point, don’t you?” And with that, he stormed off.
Left stunned on the metro platform, it occurred to me that if the situation had been reversed, and I had seen his appearance and fact he was reading an English report and said “Ah, so you’re Scottish?”, he would naturally have replied “No, I’m English”, without thinking any more of it. Yet as a Scot, I was not afforded the same courtesy.
More recently, I was talking to a Catalan friend on WhatsApp, and made some typically sarcastic joke about some nonsense or other. Failing to grasp the sense of humour (that’s a whole other blog post, believe me), my friend texted back “Exagerada”. “Of course I exaggerate”, I replied, “I’m British!”
His comeback was swift.
“You’re not British” he replied, in all seriousness. “You’re Scottish.”
The two scenarios have similarities. Firstly, the arrogance of someone presuming to correct what nationality you think you are. Just imagine the scenario in reverse – me saying to a local, “you’re not Catalan, you’re Spanish”. The fallout would not be pretty. Secondly, and this is where it gets fascinating – why is my nationality so important to both of these people from different countries?
Scotland – from touchpaper to touchstone?
On 18 September this year, around 4 million voters will head to the polls to have their say on whether Scotland, already a country in its own right, should opt for out-and-out independence from the United Kingdom.
As a Scot living abroad, I’m not entitled to a vote, as the Scottish government has decreed that only those people living in the country and registered to vote on Referendum Day can take part in the democratic decision.
(Bit unfair, eh? Yes and no. There are days it still rankles that I won’t get to cast a vote, as someone who was born and brought up in Scotland, is likely to move back one day and still owns property there. On the other hand, I can appreciate the administrative nightmare the Scottish authorities were presumably faced with. How do you decide who’s ‘Scottish’ enough to vote? What exactly are the criteria?)
Meanwhile, in the run-up to Referendum Day, my Catalan compatriots, most of whom have never set foot in Scotland, haven’t given me a minute’s peace. Say you’re Scottish (I try not to, but I fear the myriad mosquito punctures betray me) and their eyes light up.
Them: “So you’ll be voting for independence then?”
Me, patently trying to dodge the question: “Um, actually I don’t get to vote, because I live here.”
Them: “But if you did, I assume you’d be voting for independence, right?”
At this point, the smart answer would be to say aye of course, kick off my flip-flops and dance a Highland jig, but something in me resents the assumption that as a Scot I am automatically a nationalist.
Because nationalism is not a notion deserving of inherent trust. I’m Scottish, I’m British, and I’m most definitely European, but for the life of me I can’t see the sense in defining ourselves even more narrowly than we already do.
Agitating for autonomy
Support for secession has been on the up in Catalonia ever since the start of ‘La Crisis’; the dire state of economic affairs in which Spain has been floundering since 2008.
It’s no exaggeration to say the effects here have been devastating.
Every day in Barcelona I walk past people – of all ages and backgrounds – hunting around in public wheelie bins for something to eat, or to sell. The numbers who’ve lost their homes and jobs have all swelled the ranks of the vocal and visible supporters of Catalan nationalism, many of whom joined hands last September to form a 300-mile human chain in support of Catalan independence.
The recession has been that bit harder to bear in Catalonia because, and here’s the rub, many locals see themselves as contributing disproportionately to Spanish state coffers, receiving a paltry molt poc in return.
You can see their point. In fact, Catalonia contributes around a fifth of Spain’s GDP and accounts for roughly a quarter of its taxes. It has a rightful claim as the economic powerhouse of Spain (although scant few Catalans seem willing to chalk up any part of the Crisis blame to the spending decisions of their own regional government, the Generalitat).
Catalan president Artur Mas has announced a ‘consultation’ on Catalan independence to be held two months after the Scottish ballot, on the 9th of November. It’s a ‘consultation’ rather than a referendum as the Spanish government has avowedly refused to entertain the idea of a legally sanctioned vote, leaving campaigning Catalans somewhat in no man’s land in the interim.
The confusion even among Catalanists is palpable, with some pushing for outright sovereignty, others for greater devolutionary powers and still others for the ‘third way’; a negotiated solution that would bring about an end to the impasse.
Scotland and Catalonia: two very different situations
The Scottish bid for independence is often held up by Catalans as the great aspiration, but my experience of both locations is that the comparison is inappropriate.
Catalonia’s cultural identity is deeply pegged to its language, with most inhabitants of the region enthusiastically speaking Catalan alongside Spanish.
Not so in Scotland, where Gaelic is most definitely relegated to the ranks of a romantic linguistic relic. (Don’t be fooled by cheery signs of ‘Failte!’ in Edinburgh’s Waverley station. The tourists may love it but only 1% of the Scottish population actually recognise it as their native language.)
The Catalan language, in contrast, is thriving. Enter Barcelona’s metro system and you’ll be greeted by ticket-vending machines that talk to you exclusively in Catalan. Get admitted to Barcelona’s hospital system (as I was for over a fortnight), and you will be given medical paperwork exclusively in Catalan. Send your kids to school in Barcelona and they’ll be taught in Catalan, with a tiny percentage of time devoted to lessons in Spanish.
Many Catalans here are grudgingly admiring of Scotland’s ability to have negotiated its right to a referendum, but many fail to realise what a phenomenally long road it’s been to achieve it. It’s taken over 100 years to get a legally recognised referendum on Scottish independence, something which Catalan nationalists, keen to highlight the British government’s graciously accommodating stance towards the Scots in comparison to Spain’s absolutist intransigence, tend to overlook.
I remember a visit from SNP activists when I was in primary seven, aged 10, and one of my classmates took full advantage of the Q&A session to ask “Do you think Scotland will ever be independent in your lifetime?” This was the late 1980s, long before the days of devolution, and as the question reverberated around the room even a bunch of school kids knew that it was in all likelihood rhetorical.
Going from that to September’s referendum is not the result of an overnight negotiation.
Not to mention the absence of a written constitution in the UK, unlike in Spain, whose constitution specifically forbids autonomous regions from holding referenda on self-rule.
But perhaps the most obvious – and yet, inexplicably contentious – difference is in the current legal status of both territories. Scotland is a country, a constituent nation within a united kingdom of four countries – Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Get off the plane in Glasgow and you’ll be greeted proudly by signage welcoming you to “the best small country in the world”. You’re free to contest the adjectives, but the noun isn’t a matter of debate.
Catalonia’s status is rather different. Like it or not, vote for it or against it, Catalonia’s current legal situation is that of a region within a country. Which means that right from the get-go, the two situations are not on a level playing field.
So wha’s like us, then?
I have no idea which way Scotland is going to vote on the 18th of September, but despite not being able to participate, I am extremely happy that the referendum is going ahead. I sincerely hope Catalonia is afforded the same right, so that we can all just vote and move on.
If they are granted the right to a legally valid vote on independence, I expect to be allowed to take part in it, as a full-time citizen and taxpayer of Catalonia. At the moment, this is not on the cards. If not, the ridiculousness of the situation would be thrown into sharp relief – a Scot living in Catalonia who’s barred from voting in either referendum. Now there’s democracy.
Meanwhile, if it’s a no from Scottish voters in September, I suspect Catalans will be at best crestfallen and at worst completely crushed. Maybe they’d do well to remember the words of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet.
“Wha’s like us,
And they’re a’ deid”