PRO-INDEPENDENCE PARTIES have increased their majority in the Catalan regional elections. With 99 percent of votes counted, the result, slightly against predictions in the Scottish press, sees a tie in seats between two centre-left parties, unionists and nationalists, both on 33 seats. The centre-right, pro-independence Together for Catalonia party, which came third with 32 seats and 20% of the vote. CUP, a radical leftist and pro-independence party, also increased its stake to nine seats.
Interestingly, this marks the first election where pro-independence groups have won an absolute majority of votes. Most are thus reporting a resounding victory for secessionist forces. However, technically the unionist PSC-PSOE achieved a narrow plurality, allowing Spain’s prime minister to claim victory, albeit with little conviction. “Socialism has won the election,” he wrote. Leaving aside whether his government deserves the label “socialist”, a bigger challenge remains for the pro-independence majority. In polls, public opinion remains (narrowly) unconvinced of independence.
Events in Catalonia have a more than incidental relevance to Scotland’s national question. Indeed, they should function as a salutary reminder that the crisis of the state form in Britain is not a local struggle. Both Scottish and Catalan movements encounter the same problem: they belong to advanced, developed multinational states, where there are slim historical precedents for their project of self-determination.
Conversely, a victory for either movement could electrify movements across Europe and beyond. States could be subject to all manner of new claims of popular sovereignty. These are the international stakes of Scotland’s movement, which we must struggle to remember as the SNP risks collapsing into local factional warfare.
Catalonia may thus illustrate how internationalism can inform Scotland’s struggle for independence. Equally, it illustrates how dependence on multinational trading blocs – “internationalism” of the ruling elite variety – can go disastrously wrong. The Catalan referendum of 2017 infamously ended in an opposition boycott and brutal repression by the Spanish state. Of their many miscalculations, the referendum’s organisers were overly optimistic about support from the European Union (EU). It never arrived.
Instead, Brussels stood by the Spanish state at its most brutal. This illustrates a crucial distinction about what European power means. Both critics and supporters making the mistake of seeing the EU as a superstate authority transcending old nation states. Yet as scholars like Chris Bickerton have argued, the EU does not disempower domestic elites, nor does it merely “pool” the sovereignty of nation states. Instead, it strengthens the hand of national executives against all democratising forces. This explains its behaviour in Catalonia. Brussels does not want to see “chaos” in the European state form: the EU exists for the purposes of consensus and stasis.
To gradualists, Catalonia’s failed referendum illustrates the dangers of a headlong rush without putting in place the groundwork. They also also cite the case of Quebec, where a failed second referendum in 1995 led to decades of political drift.
However, Scotland is beginning to illustrate an opposite risk: a war of position with no end manoeuvre. The independence movement remains in a state of perpetual mobilisation, the lure of a referendum tantalisingly close. Yet the energies are ultimately directed to re-electing parliamentary cliques, who have been in power (albeit with factional and personnel changes) for decades. As we are now seeing, this mixture of agitation and stasis could easily rot the movement from within.
Catalonia’s election – and ours in May – could begin a new conversation. For decades, Western states have suffered from democratic malaise (Britain is merely an extreme case). Recently, that problem has been accelerated by the breakdown of capitalism. Challenges for popular control of state power thus assume critical importance. These twin movements might assume great power in determining the future appearance of state power in Europe, although both movements have yet to articulate the meaning of their struggle.