Scots for Catalonia: how Holyrood is reacting to Spain’s referendum crackdown

Unease about the situation goes beyond the indyref faithful.

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Over the last few days – as Catalonia attempts to hold an unapproved referendum to leave Spain – the region's flag has been appearing in Scotland, on car dashboards, on computer backgrounds, or slapped over Saltire flags.

Pro-independence newspaper the National is peppered with headlines such as “Catalonia proves Labour need to work out where they stand on statehood”, and letters bemoaning the Spanish state. A hashtag, #ScotsforCatalonia, has emerged on Twitter. A group of MSPs from different parties have signed a letter criticising the heavy handed approach of the Spanish government.

Clearly, the fate of the Catalans resonates with a section of Scottish society. But what does it say about Scotland’s own relationship with the UK?

Scottish indyreffers have long seen Catalonia as a common cause. Catalan independence activists turned up to campaign in the 2014 referendum, and Scottish independence activists fly the Catalan flag at demos. There are certainly parallels. Both espouse a pro-EU, civic nationalism. Both movements have a long history. Both take place in the context of a larger, former imperial state.

It is no surprise, then, that Scottish National Party figures, from Nicola Sturgeon down, have backed Catalonia’s right to hold a poll. The Scottish Greens, also pro-independence, have been equally vocal.

The Scottish Tories, by contrast, are staying schtum. A spokesman told me: “The SNP spent years being distracted by constitutional matters here – now the party is obsessing about the same issues hundreds of miles away.” But distance hasn’t stopped Tory MSPs hammering their opponents on supposed support for Venezuela. Rather, the Scottish Tories’ comeback has been defined by pro-unionism and opposition to a second independence referendum. Catalonia serves as a reminder that they are nothing if not consistent.

The other pro-union parties, though, have a more ambiguous relationship with the Catalan cause. Willie Rennie, the leader of the Scottish Lib Dems, signed the cross-party letter, which called for a democratic resolution to the stand-off and declared a “collective neutrality” on the question of Catalan independence itself. A party spokesman told me there was a “moral duty” to criticise the actions of Spain (which have included arresting Catalan officials and confiscating ballot papers).

Labour, which suffered a near death in Scotland after the 2014 referendum, has been more muted. Neither of the leadership candidates, Anas Sarwar or Richard Leonard, signed the letter.

Those who have taken a public stance have done so on the basis of finding a democratic resolution. One of the Labour MSPs who signed, Pauline McNeill, told me: “It is not the same. Scotland is a nation, not a region of the UK.”

She argued the Spanish government could learn from the UK. “The British government took the view that it was better to have an agreement to hold a referendum than to get into the business of withholding and perhaps making people vote a particular way because of anger at the British state.” She said it was “the role of both sides to enter into a dialogue”.

Claudia Beamish, another Labour signatory, said: “When the Scottish government held the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, I campaigned against it and I was pleased that the outcome was in favour of Scotland staying part of the UK. 

“However, I acknowledge that it was the right of the Scottish people to make that decision. I believe Spain is faced with a similar situation.”

The fact the crisis in Catalonia has caught the attention of more than just the indy faithful is a reminder that, for all the opposition to a second independence referendum, Scottish unionism has many shades. From the re-opening of the Scottish parliament in 1999 to Gordon Brown’s pledge on the eve of the referendum, Labour has been a broker, not an opponent of devolution. And unease about an overbearing, centralised state is just as pertinent among Lib Dems as Scottish Greens.

Where agreement over Catalonia is strongest is on the importance of the democratic process – and here pro-independence politicians can be as nuanced as pro-unionists. Kate Forbes, a Scottish National Party MSP who signed the cross-party letter, told the New Statesman: “We are neutral on the question being posed – and I have long thought that other national leaders should not interfere or seek to persuade the people who face decisions on their constitutional future.

“However this is different because it concerns the democratic process, not the outcome.

“Surely, too many national decisions have been based on bloody battles, and so we should defend peaceful elections with all we’ve got.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.