Basques and Catalans: Spanish lessons for Westminster and Whitehall?


Commentary by Fraser Wallace

The Lendakari, or leader, of the Basque Government, Iñigo Urkullu, told the Spanish newspaper El Pais last week that ‘in a globalised world, independence is impossible.’

Fraser Wallace
Fraser Wallace

It is clear that Urkullu means there is no absolute sovereignty. Many issues must be addressed collegially by the countries they affect. Trade, conservation and resource management are but a few examples of issues that are often dealt with more effectively by trans-national, cross border entities.

The European Union (EU) represents such an ongoing conduit for inter-community dialogue, within which individual states frequently must make compromises. Brexit-bent Conservatives fail to acknowledge that Brexit reduces this communication between states. It is a move unlikely to engender good will from other European countries, convinced Brexit will damage their interests.

In similar fashion to the EU, Spain’s government must also balance the interests of several internal communities. The Basques are just one part of this discussion.


It is only six years since the militant group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) finally announced a definitive cessation of its armed struggle. Urkullu’s assertion that independence is impossible represents a sea-change from the bloody days before. The leader of the Basque Government has entirely disavowed complete independence, which Spanish unionists will no doubt welcome. For both the Basques and the Spanish state, moving toward discussion and away from conflict signifies a great success.

Catalonia however, represents an increasingly difficult conversation for the central Spanish Government. The Catalan Parliament (part of the entire Catalan governing body called the Generalitat) in October committed to holding a referendum on Catalan independence in 2017. The Spanish Government has continued to assert that no referendum can be held under the Spanish constitution.  The Constitutional Court has been called on to stop the poll. There is an impasse.

It seems however, that the ground is shifting. Urkullu rejected absolute independence because the road to reform giving the Basque community sufficient control over their own affairs is open. Stating that Basque representation in the Cortes (Spanish parliament) could pave the road to dialogue, he argued a bilateral conversation could benefit all of Spain, creating a new model of state Governance.


It seems that the central Spanish authorities may agree that communication is the appropriate way to engage with Catalonia too. The ruling Partido Popular (PP) , led by Mariano Rajoy, the Prime Minister of Spain, has opened a new office in Barcelona as part of a stated effort to initiate a ‘calm and deep’ dialogue between the central authorities in Madrid, and the independently minded Generalitat in Catalonia.

Some in the Catalan camp see this as a ruse, a poorly guised attempt to head off aspirations to independence. There are reasons, however, that the Spanish overtures to conversation should not be dismissed so lightly. These reasons also provide material for consideration by Scots seeking to ensure decisions affecting their community are taken at the appropriate level- principally, by the people directly affected by those decisions.

Because the PP are 40 seats short of a majority in the lower house, they must negotiate with other political actors in Spain. This is perhaps one reason that Urkullu, the Basque leader is so confident of increased autonomy and a better settlement within Spain. A further corollary of Rajoy’s weakness is that Catalan demands for independence. Perhaps the Catalan independentists believe they can secure a better deal, threatening Madrid with an unattractive alternative – losing part of the country forever.


The British Conservatives in London have no similar political challenges. With a small majority and the Labour Party providing no structured opposition or effective criticism of the British Government, Prime Minister Theresa May has rebuffed any notion of a differentiation in policy which would allow Scotland to retain close links to the EU. This is in spite of the United Kingdom’s northern member clearly expressing its desire to stay in the European Union. In response to this indifference to Scotland, May’s approval rating has plunged North of the Border.

The Conservative Party consider that there are no potential repercussions for disregarding Scottish interests; but they are wrong. It can do a Government no good to alienate a particular region, or any part of the electorate. This is precisely the reason that the Spanish Government is seeking to better engage with its own internal polities.

With regard to Britain, beyond Scottish rancour at heavy handiness from London, the EU referendum has reaffirmed the differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK. It would reflect poorly on the UK, which claims to be a bastion of democracy to ignore such a clearly marked will to remain within Europe. Respecting the mutual attraction between Scotland and Europe is a small concession. It could secure a measure of good will for London in forthcoming Brexit negotiations. The UK Government’s aspirations to ‘have cake and eat it’ will prove increasingly difficult without a more communicative and collaborative approach. Spain demonstrates that it is possible to secure an agreement suitable for differing, yet connected communities.


  1. Interesting article, Fraser, but hope you’re not offended if I say that it sounds a bit like the “official line”. Wish it was true, in fact, but seen from Catalonia it’s only a dream at best and at worst, what many Catalans are calling Operation Dialogue.

    The politician in charge of the new approach said yesterday, for example, that the Catalan president had to “listen to” dialogue. The PP Interior Minister said earlier this week: “We’re the majority and we’re going to impose dialogue”. He also referred to Catalan government
    attitudes as “blackmail” and appealed to the “spirit of 1978” at the time of the transition.

    And starting with the Basque country as a comparison is not really helpful – they already have full fiscal autonomy, are being courted to help prop up the existing minority PP government and anyway are famously ambivalent about Catalan issues.

    If you don’t read them already, I’d recommend Vilaweb and Col·lectiu Emma as reliable Catalan independentist titles to add to your own sources.

    Looking forward to reading more of your comments.

    • Marga, I entirely agree that the efforts of PP should be seen with some suspicion by those supporters of Junts pel Si. Remembering, however that the yes/no camps seem tightly tied, these representations of dialogue are aimed at the small contingent of undecideds. As such, I think that the Catalan yes campaigners need to take efforts at dialogue at face value, yet think of a clever response unacceptable to Madrid. If the Catalans look to engage, but force Madrid to back out through clever negotiations – Madrid’s efforts would backfire.

      • Interesting explanation, Fraser – it’s a bit complicated though – as I see it the only way dialogue can begin with the PP as things stand is if the Cat government agrees to take the independence referendum off the table. I just don’t see how they can do that, but as you say, ingenuity in these situations can produce results where tugs of war fail.

  2. My knowledge of the situation in Catalonia and Spain is shamefully limited but if I can comment on the uk situation: Westminster’s arrogance and ignorance towards Scotland is so ingrained that it would never countenance any flexibility in Scotland’s relationship with the EU. And that, amongst many other differences, is why the end of the union between Scotland and England is assured. By the way I’d love to see Westminster opening an office in Edinburgh in an attempt to “initiate a calm and deep dialogue”. It would be laughed out of town.

    Would it be too flippant of me to say Catalonia stands a better chance of independence if it riles Madrid into making rash decisions?

    • Dan,they already have an office in Edinburgh.
      It is known as the Scottish Office whose purpose is to maintain Westminster rule of our affairs.
      I believe they employ a large number of PR staff to further that aim.

  3. Fail to see the relevance of this to the quest for Scottish independence, or for that of Catalunya either. There has been too much political speculation and temporising on the matter since indyref 1, too many concessions to the established order. It is getting rather tedious. We need indyref 2 backed by a dynamic assault on the monstrous collection of lies sustaining the status quo. Rocket science it aint!

    • Oh well, I’ll just get a dig in here and say that in general, the UK’s solidarity gene seems to be on the way out, I just thought Scotland might be a bit different…

      • Scotland does have a certain reputation as a home for lost or futile causes, Jacobitism springs to mind. Unionism, romantic Unionism, unless politically neutralised and deracinated, might run and run here. The spectre of Ireland lurks.

  4. Thank you for this very interesting and engaging article. I must admit that there are a couple of bits in the article that caught my attention a bit more than the rest:

    “The Conservative Party consider that there are no potential repercussions for disregarding Scottish interests; but they are wrong. It can do a Government no good to alienate a particular region, or any part of the electorate”

    I hate to be pedantic, but Scotland is not a region. A country and one of the two kingdoms within the United Kingdom yes. A region or an English colony it is not. If we keep putting ourselves down, how can we demand from others not to?

    “It would reflect poorly on the UK, which claims to be a bastion of democracy to ignore such a clearly marked will to remain within Europe”
    The UK government can claim what it wants, but the truth is that in terms of democracy, if 2015/2016 have shown something to the people of Scotland is that type of democracy the Uk is currently offering to Scotland is nothing more than fallacy.

    The renewal of Trident against the will of Scotland, dragging us to bombings of Iraq or Syria against the vote of the majority of the Scottish MPs, the voting down of every single motion brought forward by the legal parliament representatives of the people of Scotland in Westminster and the outrageous undermining of democracy by the BBC and MSM of indiref1 that is now coming to light, under the watch of the Unionist parties, clearly states that for me.

    The equal democratic treatment for the two kingdoms within the UK, two equal partners and the leading from the front nonsense spouted during indiref1 campaign, is more fictional than Utopia. Last week, we had the legal brains representing the government telling us that our devolution, and all those promises of devo max and quasi federalism made during the indiref1 campaign for some rather-long-in-the-political-teeth labour party big wig on behalf of the establishment turned out to be the biggest deception in 300 years of Union.

    The disregard that the Tory, Labour and LibDem parties have for Scotland is going to come back and bite the three of them in the backside. Actually, it may well be doing that already, because too many of the people of Scotland are waking up to their deception.

    The undeniable truth is that Scotland did not vote to leave the EU and attempting to silence that is antidemocratic. But I would go even beyond that. It is also undeniable that only a mere 15% – if that – of the electorate in Scotland voted for the tory party in 2015. This means that the people of Scotland did not give the Tory party a mandate for any EU referendum, and yet, they went ahead anyway against Scotland’s will and the referendum happened.

    This lack of support for the Tory party in Scotland is corroborated in June 2016 when an overwhelming 62% of the electorate voting did so to remain in the EU: far more support for the EU than the support for the UK in 2014 and signficantly more than the support of the Kingdom of England for the EU. This result in Scotland means simply that the people of Scotland has not given the UK government a mandate to being dragged out of the EU and yet, the Tory party is adamant to do so.

    Another undeniable truth is that the people of Scotland did not give the Tory party a mandate to negotiate anything on their behalf. Only one Tory MP has the backing of a constituency of Scotland and he is not in the cabinet 1/59 doesn’t sound like a mandate, does it?. Yet, the Tory party is fighting hard to stop the Scottish Government to have a say in the negotiations.

    Now the legal representatives of this Tory government are fighting throughout the courts because basically they want to override parliament and do the negotiations they like by means of some royal ‘prerogative’. As we learnt from the lord Advocate from Scotland, the people of the Kingdom of Scotland did not give 300 years ago their soveregnity to the crown. So if I understood the whole shebang correctly, Tories attempting to use that prerogative means that they not only the are not acting on behalf of Scotland because the prerogative does not give them power to do so, but in fact if they attempt to use it to drag Scotland out of the EU they are in breach of the Act of Union, aren’t they?

    Now, where does that leave us? Where does that leave the Union? If the Tories are granted power to use that prerogative by the Supreme Court, should we assume then that the Act of Union is finished?

    • Actually, ‘the people of Scotland’ didn’t give their approval to the Act of Union. The parliament of the time was not democratically representative. The Union Act is now truly done, dusted, washed up and finished, totally irrelevant to the current situation. The ball is in Scotland’s court but have we and our political leaders the guts to play?

  5. “Actually, ‘the people of Scotland’ didn’t give their approval to the Act of Union”

    Very true, but sadly that didn’t stop the political representatives of Kingdom of England and their lap dogs in Scotland to take advantage of Scotland for over 300 years and counting.

    Neither did the people of Scotland give approval to a Tory Government rejected by an 85% of those voting in Scotland during the 2015 GE, or give approval Trident renewal and storing in Scotland, bombing of Iraq and Syria, or allow the infamous Blair go scott free and yet, we are forced to endure every bit of it.

    And the sadness of it all is that the unionist political class are not blaming themselves for the wrongdoing. Oh no! Instead, they are deflecting their own blame onto the 55% of the people of Scotland who voted NO in 2014: Scotland shut up, you cannot longer complain because you voted NO.

    The Union may be done and dusted Abulhaq, but until that day when the UK map is teared irreversibly into two, Scotland will be dragged like a rag doll, gagged, bombarded daily on the ‘national’ broadcaster with unionist propaganda, unfairly served with outrageously biased MSM, diminished and insulted by being refused to be recognised by its value and riches, ‘democratically’ abused because the difference in population size with the Kingdom of England means that Scotland does not have a voice anymore, selfishly bled dry of its resources – the oil and the 6000 miles of Scottish waters are just an example. And all of this, they say, will be done in the name of the NO voters of 2014.

    Actually, just out of curiosity: if Scotland becomes independent, do you think we are going to get back those 6000 miles of territorial marine waters stolen from Scotland in 1999 by the mostly English UK parliament?

    Actually, who were the UK lapdogs in Scotland that let the people of Scotland down big time by allowing this abuse to happen? Wasn’t it Labour and LibDems in coalition government in Scotland at the time? Well then, forget federalism, what do Ms Dugdale and Mr Rennie have to say about this take over of Scotland’s waters under their parties’ watch?

  6. Instead of walking out of Westminster and re-establishing the Scottish State, as they are legally and democratically entitled to do, the 56 “roaring lons” (well Mike Weir at least) choose to ask the UK Government meaningless questions about ‘Arbroath Smokies’. Or perhaps I missed something and it was really a new Declaration of Arbroath? Nevertheless, the UK union can be ended as it began, by a majority of Scots MP’s.

    • ‘ new Declaration of Arbroath? Nevertheless, the UK union can be ended as it began, by a majority of Scots MP’s’

      Please elaborate!

      • Scotland’s sovereignty lies with Scotland’s Members of (UK) Parliament. It is they who hold the power and authority over Scotland.

        • The uk government executive hold sovereignty, power and authority in Scotland, much as as I would wish our MP’s to do so. The executive is supported by the uk government and uk parliament.

          A few years back and pre referendum it was assumed that gaining a majority of MP’s, say 37 out of the then 72 at a uk general election would start the process. But this was an assumption that was never validated and it was pre SNP surge and labour’s collapse and never likely to gain any support by uk parties.

          Whilst we remain part of this corrupt, damaging and undemocratic Union, best course forwards to freedom is to support the party that is best placed to achieve independence. The SNP, Scots and Scotland will never be perfect, but we all know that unless we pull together, unionistwill and in your case, pull us apart.

          Criticism from within a movement is constructive and helpful, parading a mocking and disrespectful attitude is not!

          • “The uk government executive hold sovereignty, power and authority in Scotland” only so long as a majority of Scotland’s MP’s allow them to do so. Ultimate power in Scotland, including the power to end the Union of Parliaments (Act) in precisely the same way it was enacted, lies with Scotland’s MP’s, representing as they do the sovereignty of the Scottish people and nation. Scotland’s sovereignty or independence does not depend on “any support by uk parties”; the MP’s of other nation’s/regions in the UK Parliament would be obliged to accept the decision of the majority of Scotland’s MP’s to end the Union of Parliaments (at least insofar as Scotland is concerned).

            With respect, it is the SNP leadership and SNP MP’s who are “parading a mocking and disrespectful attitude” and indeed constitutional ignorance as far as the sovereignty of Scotland’s people and the Scottish nation is concerned.

          • Alf Baird
            “Ultimate power in Scotland, including the power to end the Union of Parliaments (Act) in precisely the same way it was enacted, lies with Scotland’s MP’s, representing as they do the sovereignty of the Scottish people and nation”

            Alf, I find what you say really interesting and clearly indicates that I know next to nothing about Scotland’s sovereignty. So I am trying to educate myself on these matters and on the real power of the Scottish MPs. Would you be so kind as to point me in the direction of some good books or material I could read about this?

            Thank you

          • Maria, you could equally search for texts arguing the contrary to what I suggest and there is much available on constitutional law. I primarily depend on the process whereby the Act of Union was enacted and the fundamental role of Scots MP’s in that as representatives of the Scottish people, and that what was done by them can equally be undone by the present representatives of the Scottish people. Some reassurance (if it is needed) as to where sovereignty lies and behind the power of Scotland’s representatives was offered by the 1988 Claim of Right: “We, gathered as the Scottish Constitutional Convention, do hereby acknowledge the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs”


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