Thoughts on Catalonia

by Elias Blum

I’ve stayed out of the Catalan issue. It’s ‘not my circus, not my monkeys’. I have always been suspicious of attempts to link the Catalan and Scottish situations too closely, because their constitutional situations are so different. My tendency has been to frame Scottish independence in ‘British-imperial’ terms, to see Scotland’s move from direct rule, through devolution, to independence as a Commonwealth Realm as simply the unfinished business of the transformation of the British Empire into the Commonwealth. I’ve sought to compare Scotland to places like Canada and Australia, Jamaica and Malta, in achieving a negotiated and mutually recognised constitutional independence.

In doing so, I have drawn some criticism from the radical left of the Scottish independence movement, who have accused me of opportunism, cowardice or lukewarmness. But my intention has always been to avoid situations that can make things worse. Independence can be difficult. Transitions often are. By pointing to the already independent nations of the Commonwealth, rather than to the other independence-seeking nations of Europe, I have tried to show that Scotland can achieve independence peacefully, democratically, and on a sound democratic constitutional basis. No one – least of all those in favour of independence – want blockades, embargoes, border-patrols, capital flight, or any of that nonsense. We are trying to be grown up and sensible about it. And we do that on the basis that the UK has a good(-ish) track record of granting countries independence when they really show they want it. All we had to do was show that we wanted it enough, and the peaceful, lawful way would be made.

Catalonia is not in that position. The Spanish state has refused all attempts at parley. It has been intransigent and uncompromising. The referendum of 1 October might have been unrecognised according to Spanish law, but the use of state force to disrupt a peaceful exercise of popular sovereignty was a sign that the Spanish government has complete disregard not only for the constitution it claims to be defending (which, after all, is supposed to defend freedom of expression and freedom of assembly), but for the principles of democracy that stand behind, above, and prior to, that constitution.

The Catalan situation reminds us that the cause of national self-determination is inextricably linked to the cause of democracy. That’s not to say every nation must necessarily be independent, but it must have the democratic right to determine its own status. In the words of the Scottish Claim of Right, I defend ‘the sovereign right of the people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs’.

This principle of popular sovereignty is at the foundation of constitutionalism and the origin of all legitimate government. If the state tries to crush that, it has already lost its legitimacy.

So, I’m not Catalan (but I have plenty of relatives by marriage who are). Whether Catalonia decides to become an independent state is up to them. But their right to decide is a right which all democrats everywhere must defend.