Scotland and Catalonia: similarities and differences

Stephen Castle, New York Times correspondent in Scotland, has written an article about the evolution of electoral behavior in Scotland ("The chasm tilting Scots toward independence", 17/8/14) that paints a very different picture of the political situation in that country from what appears in the main Catalan and Spanish media. According to Castle, the rising tide in favor of independence in Scotland has less to do with an increase in Scottish nationalism than with a shift to the right in English political culture. This growing conservatism in England has been increasingly rejected by the Scottish population, which is --according to Castle-- more to the political left than their counterparts in England.

The data that Castle uses to support his hypothesis are very interesting. He points out that, in the 1950s, the Conservative Party won almost half of the Scottish seats in the British Parliament. Today, however, the Conservative Party has only one Scottish member in the British Parliament. In Scotland there is a joke that says that it is easier to find a giant panda in that country than a Scottish Conservative Party member in the British Parliament. In the Scottish Zoo there are two giant pandas. In the British Parliament there is only one Scottish Conservative.

The Conservative Party's move to the right, highlighted by the victory of Mrs. Thatcher, has meant the end of the Conservative Party's presence in Scotland. From 1979 to 1992, two years after Mrs. Thatcher's resignation, the beneficiary of this rejection was the Labour Party. But the Blair government, with its version of the free-market policies initiated by Mrs. Thatcher, continued to lose supporters to the Scottish National Party, which had positioned itself further to the left. In reality, the conservative shift by the big parties-- Conservative and Labor, denounced by a leader of the Scottish National Party for its "enormous complacence" regarding the Scottish economic and social situation-- has been widely rejected in Scotland, a fact that has created a polarization of the dominant political cultures on both sides of the border. In the south is the English culture, conservative and free-market, and in the north the Scottish, social democratic. Today, under the Scottish nationalist government, public services in Scotland are more complete and generous than in England: for example, the public home care services are broader, have more coverage, and require a lower payment from users than in England. The same applies to pharmaceutical prescriptions, university tuition, and the price of public transport for pensioners. The Scottish National Party (SNP) has also proposed eliminating nuclear weapons, raising the minimum wage and tying it to inflation, and a wide expansion of nursery schools for the entire population throughout the territory.

The SNP is such a clearly social-democratic party that its members are referred to disdainfully as "traditional social-democrats" (a nice way of saying "old-fashioned") by the Blairite wing of the Labour Party. Nevertheless, the SNP has won election after election while the "modernized" Labour Party is still trying to recover. The SNP's great strength is that it understands that the goal of Scottish nationalism is not only about Scottish identity, but also about augmenting the well-being and quality of life of the popular classes, an objective that is difficult -- if not impossible-- to achieve via conservative and free-market policies (such as those that are being implemented in Catalonia, by the way). Today the SNP is the only party that unblushingly puts the working class front and center in the popular movement, representing the British establishment as being as insensitive to Scottish identity as it is to the needs of the popular classes. In reality, the SNP accentuates the latter point in its speeches more than the former.

A week from now the referendum will be held. According to the New York Times correspondent, it is probable that the secessionists will lose, in part due to the fear and insecurity generated by the many uncertainties that would come with Scottish independence, which the Conservative and Labour parties have portrayed throughout the campaign, via insinuation and through constant promotion, as a disaster. Now, as pointed out by a life-long Labour voter who will vote for secession, the rejection of the English state will continue because the British establishment will not change, and sooner or later secession will be a reality.

Similarities and differences with Catalonia and Spain. It goes without saying that each country is different, and the differences between Scotland and Catalonia are enormous. Their respective histories and culture are very different. But there are similarities, one of which is the outright rejection of the central government, the Spanish state, that is due not only to identity motives (which exist and are important) but also increasingly to the conservative and free-market orientation of the Spanish state, which is seen as an instrument of the financial and economic interests of big-money, both European and Spanish (and even Catalan). In reality, to the 20% of independence supporters that existed in Catalonia, 20% more have been added who are Catalans who feel Spanish but do not believe that the Spanish state will end up combining a plurinational sensitivity with a profound change toward a commitment to a truly democratic state with solidarity and social justice. It's surprising that the establishments on both sides of the Ebre River still fail to understand this reality.