Reaction to the Catalan crisis has ranged from opportunistic exhibitionism to ignorant dismissal. Writer and journalist Sean Bell explains why national liberation is an issue the Scottish left should take eminently seriously...
In 2014, a year that could only be considered normal compared to every year that followed, the Scottish independence referendum saw many weird and now largely forgotten diversions.
Writing in the Daily Record in June of that year, Gordon Brown broke the habit of a lifetime and asked an interesting question. Considering the possible consequences of Scottish independence, he darkly wondered: “Could this historic nation of just five million people make history again – leading a new wave of secessionist movements that strike at the heart of the advanced industrial world? Could it be the pacemaker for nationalist breakaways in Spain, Belgium and eastern Europe and for a thousand liberation movements in the developing world?
Writing in Bella Caledonia shortly afterwards, Jamie Maxwell articulated the obvious response better than most. Say Scotland were to become such a geopolitical 'pacemaker': "In what sense, exactly, would that be a bad thing and why should progressives oppose it?" Maxwell posed a question that, if there was any justice, should have expanded the scope of the referendum discourse considerably. Within Scottish nationalism, there have historically been elements of comparison with certain complimentary foreign struggles, as well as questions of how they might affect each other. Those plotting strategies for Scottish independence have always borne in mind that which they wish to replicate, and those pitfalls they seek to avoid.
For some decades, the orthodox line within the SNP was to offer carefully qualified sympathy with fellow secessionists only when it was useful. In his contribution to the 1975 socialist anthology The Red Paper on Scotland (edited, oddly enough, by that Gordon Brown fellow), the historian Owen Dudley Edwards wrote of an SNP conference at which their then-press officer Douglas Crawford was asked: “What is your party’s policy on Northern Ireland?”
His response? “Jesus Christ!”
Unlike the Irish and Basque struggles, Catalonia lacks uncomfortable baggage, and has thus become a popular parallel for the SNP in recent years, and even more so for the wider Scottish independence movement. By contrast, giddy Corbynites found Catalonia – and particularly, its resolute, national liberation-espousing republican Left – a subject to be carefully ignored, lest it disturb ham-fisted emulations of the fashionable Podemos, or pose further questions about unevenly arranged multi-national states they were ill-equipped to answer.
The historic injustices surrounding Catalonia’s October 1st plebiscite have been revealed for all the world to see – a campaign of calculated violence and mass suppression by the Spanish state, followed with obscene haste by the frantic rationalisations of apologists desperate to explain how this was not quite fascism, merely a regrettable and unnecessary spasm of authoritarianism which should never have happened, but which the Catalan people must nevertheless live with, or even accept responsibility for.
Meanwhile, back in the UK, the undeniable solidarity with Catalan democracy exhibited by the Scottish independence movement has faced accusations of opportunism – that they are using the crisis to facilitate their own domestic goals, or even to vicariously work through post-2014 frustrations.
One could argue there are worse examples of base opportunism than standing up for democracy and human rights – the UK Government could give lessons. Yet if the Scottish independence movement has viewed the situation in Catalonia through the prism of their own experience and ideology, it’s tawdry dishonesty at best to pretend others have not done the same.
The lunatic fringe of the United States’ #Resistance, for example, who now filter every geopolitical development through resurgent Cold War paranoia and the trauma of Donald Trump’s murky election ‘victory’, detect the hand of the Muscovite at work. They view Catalan independence as yet another nefarious plot by the Putin regime to sow discord in Europe despite lacking any credible evidence for this fantasy.
Meanwhile, British unionists have perhaps been the most astonishingly clumsy of the lot. Where they could have drawn self-aggrandising contrasts between the British democracy that permitted 2014’s independence referendum and the brutality of the Spanish state – an interpretation practically gifted to them by the SNP’s fulsome praise of the Edinburgh Agreement – they instead reverted to type: after some moaning about why any of this was being discussed at all, the defenders of one inherently unstable neo-colonialist superstructure grudgingly threw in their lot with another, if only to spite those in Scotland exhibiting unauthorised signs of hope. It was a small mercy no one tried to call this ‘solidarity’.
Reacting to the Scottish independence movement’s fellow-feeling with Catalan comrades, some argued derisively they were only harming themselves, that Spanish reprisals will forever frustrate Scotland’s independence, particularly any hope it has of EU membership. To such critics, the lack of cowardly pragmatism within Scottish-Catalan solidarity must seem both naïve and baffling. Who goes looking for a fight they could avoid?
One could argue that solidarity not only can be must be motivated by more than quid quo pro; that it is an expression of principle, not an exchange for services rendered. However, for the pro-independence left in Scotland and Catalonia, the larger lesson should be that international solidarity between left-wing independence movements will forever be more desirable, more defensible and more essential than any pragmatic calculation, no matter how advantageous.
During the 2014 referendum, the mainstream Yes campaign did curiously little to unpack the right to self-determination enshrined in the UN charter and much discussed by SNP politicians in recent weeks. Similarly, Scotland’s radical pro-independence left, built on the intellectual legacies of Stephen Maxwell, Tom Nairn and John Maclean, didn’t spend much time addressing traditional socialist talking points such as ‘national liberation’.
Catalonia has triggered a subtle but undeniable adjustment within the SNP on these issues. While Nicola Sturgeon plays it comparatively safe, calling for dialogue and condemning violence (a feat still beyond her opposite number in Downing Street), many of her colleagues have gone further, and now talk of national self-determination in terms of political philosophy, rather than individual circumstance.
Nevertheless, what comes after the open letters and bold speeches is open to question. A chief cause of the SNP’s recent setbacks has been the clash between their moderate policy agenda and their constitutional radicalism. To embark upon radical solidarity with Catalonia would be a step beyond their comfort zone; it’d be an articulation of the foreign policy of a stateless nation.
The Marxist writer Tariq Ali, who made no secret of his support for Scottish independence, once wrote that “a high-voltage foreign policy can only be sustained by mass support and that this requires an equally radical domestic policy." If the SNP has no appetite for radicalism at home, it may not have the stomach to embody it abroad.
In the Break-Up of Britain, Tom Nairn spoke of the future we and so many other nations now inhabit – of states turned brutal and bitter by “capitalist uneven development”, and rendered unstable not just by secessionist insurgencies, but by their own internal illogic. Considering those movements for national liberation that might try to escape these regimes, Nairn asked: “Who, in that case, can deny them effective self-determination, not as a moral piety but as an urgently necessary, practical step?”
Nairn issued the challenge. Today, Catalonia demands we answer.
For Scottish nationalists, failing to support fellow independence movements in word and deed would render their own movement fragile, removing its internationalist philosophical universalism. For the Scottish left, failing to support comrades in Catalonia against repression would reveal it as weak and blinkered. The past few weeks have shown little danger of that, and demonstrated that the radicalism of the Scottish grassroots continues to outstrip the mainstream political class.
This is the world we are a part of and yet denied a place within. Geopolitically, we are only the ghost of a nation, observing international developments unseen, capable only of haunting ideas instead of enacting them. The times require we do more.