Monday, September 22, 2014

The Accidental Independentists

At the same time as Scotland was raising cheers or weeping tears and as Alex Salmond was falling on his dirk of honour, the Catalonian parliament overwhelmingly approved its law to permit a referendum which isn't a referendum on independence; they've given it a different title. The national government will refer the consultation to the Constitutional Court in anticipation of the Catalonian law being deemed illegal.

Comparisons between Scotland and Catalonia are both relevant and irrelevant. An act of secession (or not) is the simple comparison, but the sets of baggage are too dissimilar to validate a direct comparison. Just one item in this baggage is the historical notion of nationhood. Scotland was once a country in its own right. Catalonia never has been, despite what some nationalists would contest to the contrary. The competing legalities of asking the people to decide are indicative of these two sets of baggage. One, Scotland, was predicated on the principle that union is not inviolate. Where the Rajoy administration is concerned, union is inviolate.

Comparisons are more meaningful in that both Scotland and Catalonia have involved miscalculations and misjudgments and that both have subscribed to an adaptation of Denis Healey's first law of holes. "If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging." This is a well-enough understood principle - the deeper you find yourself, the more difficult it is to get out.

Did Salmond ever really want an independence vote? Or did he only really want greater autonomy? When the suggestion of an arrangement akin to that which the Basque Country enjoys in Spain was rejected, he found his options to be limited. His independence gambit might now be deemed to have been a miscalculation, but David Cameron's gambit certainly was. Cameron appeared to believe that the referendum would resoundingly and once and for all kick the notion of independence into grass longer than that to be found in the rough on a Scottish links golf course. He very nearly paid for this miscalculation.

Though Salmond's desire for independence may all along have been equivocal, his head and his heart came to rule. It was independence or nothing, albeit that he may have been placed deeper in the hole through Cameron's bluff.

Artur Mas, unlike Salmond, has faced no such bluff. He has plunged into a hole entirely of his own making and has discovered that a force over which he has no control has rewired a calculating head not untypical of a technocrat and has defrosted a heart of independentist frigidity. Salmond outed himself as an independentist because his public political image demanded nothing less and because he had several years ago placed a train on the tracks that was impossible to derail. Mas, a closet independentist at most, has arrived at the point of sanctioning an act of illegality - the consultation - because of a miscalculation which outed his reluctance and because of his inability to get out of the hole that he has dug.

Almost two years ago, Mas called an election in Catalonia. At that time he was experiencing a decline in popularity because of austerity measures that his government had introduced. In September 2012, there had been a massive pro-independence rally on Catalonia Day. Mas took this as a signal to attempt to boost his flagging popularity with an implication of playing an independence card that he didn't believe in. This was his miscalculation. He hadn't expected the result of the election. His party, the CiU, lost seats and lost its overall majority. Mas had been rumbled by the electorate. It was impossible for him to renege on independence, because he was forced to make a pact with the pro-independence left-wing in order to form a government. Ever since, he has been cast in a role of populist that does not fit him in the way that it fitted Salmond very well.

What Mas really wanted was a better financial deal for Catalonia. Like Salmond, he eyed up the arrangement that the Basques have. Through the peculiarities of history, the Basques have tax-raising powers that nowhere else in Spain does, with the exception of Navarre. Rajoy wouldn't agree to such an arrangement, just as Cameron wouldn't. The roads to independence referenda were thus paved in a similar fashion - with the gold of prospective tax revenues.

Rajoy will continue to do all that he can to prevent a Catalonian independence vote, but though he will cite the law and the Constitution, he has to be aware of a dynamic which Cameron is only now appreciating. Centralised government - and Rajoy is a centraliser both by act and by instinct - is increasingly being rejected and not just in the UK or in Spain. Catalonia will not get its independence, but, and like Scotland, it has to be given greater control of its own affairs. And that, ultimately, is what both Mas and Salmond have wanted.

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