“We almost no longer existed”

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  By Mark McNaught

Last September 12, I had the honour of attending a reception at the Catalonian Delegation office in Paris, where I heard a talk by the former President of the Generalitat de Catalunya Jordi Puyol.  On la Diada Nacional one day before, 1.6 million people formed a human chain stretching the length of Catalonia in anticipation of the referendum to be held in 2014.  A region of 7.5 million people just held one of the largest, if not the largest peaceful demonstration in human history.

Among Catalans I have spoken to, they are truly envious of Scotland having a legally binding independence referendum, whereas they are fighting tooth and nail with the Spanish government for the right to decide their destiny.  There is genuine bewilderment as to why more Scots are not yet supporting independence, if certain polls are to be believed.  Polls in Catalonia show that at least 60% would vote ‘yes’.  Catalans wonder how could Scots be hesitant to break their feudal chains and chart their own course in the world.

The answer may lie in the circumstances under which each peoples were incorporated into a broader national identity. 

The Act of Union of 1707 largely came about as a result of the disastrous Darien scheme, Scotland’s ill-fated attempt to set up a colony in what is now Panama.  The Company of Scotland lasted 2 years, and fell to the Spanish in 1700.  This imperial project, financially backed by the Scottish treasury, ended up bankrupting it and ruining many Scottish nobles and landowners who had invested. 

The Act of Union abolished the Scottish parliament, paid off much of their debts, and sent Scottish representatives to Westminster.  Scots were not consulted in any referendum, but were recognised as a distinct people and country. 

Since the Union, Scotland was considerably enriched through being a major cog in the British imperial machine.  Industry and trade throughout the empire brought about a development of Scotland that could not have been attained on its own, for better or worse.  Shipbuilding brought about an envied industrial prowess, and created thousands of jobs.  Joint participation in colonial and world wars helped cement Britishness, even while Scottishness remained distinct and thriving.

Catalonia was conquered by the Spanish army under the Bourbon Monarch Philip V, and Barcelona fell on September 11, 1714.  It is interesting to note that their national day mourns the loss of an independent Catalonia, rather than achieving independence.  It also marks the beginning of the attempt to systematically eliminate Catalan identity, and deny their existence as a people. 

In the centuries since, the Catalan language has been banned, and Catalan identity has been forcibly subsumed to Spanish.  Franco referred to Catalans as his ‘Poles’, comparing his relations towards them to Hitler’s relationship towards Poland.  The physical and cultural brutality suffered by Catalans is seared into the collective memory, which helps explain the overwhelming support for independence.

As Mr Puyol said, ‘We almost no longer existed’.  Catalan as an identity and language nearly became extinct, and was maintained in part by parents passing on the language to their children, often at great personal risk.  Scots underwent repression of Gaelic, but at the very least Scots were recognised as a distinct people within the UK, rather than forcibly converted to English.

Independence for Scotland and Catalonia could well mark the spread of national fragmentation into Western Europe.  Flanders will likely hold a referendum in the coming years to separate from Wallonia, thus creating a new state. 

While each of these potentially independent nations has its own circumstances and history, what they hold in common is that the states of which they are part were constituted when the monarchical / aristocratic / imperial / papal systems dominated Europe.  Many of the present European states were formed through the conquest and repression of regions, peoples, and languages, with no hint of democratic legitimacy. 

We find ourselves at a juncture in history where the legitimacy of governments should be increasingly determined by how effectively they represent and serve their citizen, rather than what monarch-backed militia won what battle centuries ago. 

Catalonia, Scotland, and Flanders can found modern, democratic, secular, and egalitarian states whose legitimacy is based solely on popular sovereignty.  The feudal anachronisms of monarchy, aristocracy, and clerical rule can be definitively laid to rest. 

Ultimately Catalonia, Scotland, and Flanders will be able to exist in their own right as independent, self-governing states.