Catalan referendum: mono-nationalism vs pluri-nationalism in Spain and UK

Yesterday a selection of residents in Catalonia voted in an emblematic referendum on independence for this region of Spain. “Selection” is the operative word, because the vote was held in towns and villages that represented 15% of the region’s 7 million inhabitants; Barcelona, the area’s capital, was not invited to participate.

The vote was held in areas of strong support for separation. Outside observers included like-minded separatists, including the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, and our own Sinn Fein.

Predictably, the result was 94% in favour of independence.

But it should be remembered that secessionist political parties have only ever got as much as 16% in official elections.

Instead, the motivation for this vote has more to do with timing. Spain’s constitutional court is about to rule on a charter of autonomy that gave Catalonia greater powers in 2006. Spain’s right People’s Party lodged an appeal against this charter.

This is about the two vital dimensions of Spanish politics: Left-Right as well as mono-national vs pluri-national statehood.

Ever so briefly: Post-Franco, when designing the Spanish constitution, a fudge was made by describing the Kingdom of Spain as “a nation formed by nationalities and regions”, and Catalonia is defined as a “nationality”. Catalonians would describe themselves as a “nation”.

Spaniards of the mono-national perspective make comparisons to mono-national and centralised France. Pluri-nationalists prefer the Swiss canton model.

I can only make reference to the Irish/British/American experience (and I’ll cheat by including Canadian).

The American comparison is pretty straightforward: its nationalism is based on a civic code, with reference to divine exceptionalism. America’s experiences of immigration, territorial expansion (and the massacre of native Indians), civil war and civil rights finally consolidated a more unitary definition of American nationalism. (I argue it was pretty diffuse up until the 1960s, hiterto states’ rights and regional cultural variations.) So, no real comparison then!

In so many ways, Canada resembles what American would have looked like if the Yanks didn’t win it War of Independence and/or had no cause to go to war in the first place. If America was a melting pot in a new experiment on civic nationalism, then Canada embarked on a patchwork blanket of at least attempting to reconcile competing nationalisms. If less mono-national than America, it’s certainly more than Britain’s.

Ah, Britain. Or more accurately on this topic, the United Kingdom and its multi-national, multi-country state, formerly of “Great Britain and Ireland”, now “Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. Indeed, if you consider the four original nations of the English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish, you can today observe four types of national development (with split Irish/British national identity in Northern Ireland arguably making a fifth type).

My induction to Spanish nationalist politics came from a Catalan presidential campaign in 2006, from an invitation by Convergencia (where its candidate, Artur Mas, received near 50% of the vote).

Talking about the unofficial referendum vote, Artur Mas said that an official referendum on independence would show that “Catalonia wants to remain Spanish”. I understand his meaning, in as much as he explained to us how he easily reconciles strong national identity with cosmopolitanism, internationalism, and European belonging. This was refreshing, in that many national/secessionist movements more commonly have the argument of, “We’re better off alone/without them”, followed with protectionist measures.

Artur Mas is clearly a more moderate nationalist, but a proud and patriotic one. I would consider him a dedicated pluri-nationalist of Spain.

Bringing this closer to home, I suspect that many Ulster unionists could sincerely sympathise with this perspective, in that they are ready to defend what makes the land and culture of Ulster, as distinct from the Scottish/Welsh/Irish, yet within a constitution of the United Kingdom.

Thus my intrigue on letting the Irish secessionist parties — Sinn Fein and the SDLP — have all the say on these matters abroad.

For the Ulster Unionists, the pact with mono-nationalist (“one nation”) Tories beguiles me. It suits Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, very well that a regional nationalist political party is inside his party’s tent, as it were. But I suspect that there is a happy majority of unionist people in Northern Ireland who will continue to prefer an uncompromised nationalist party.

I’m not passing judgement, honest! I’m pointing this out because of a lesson someone recently taught me about Spanish regional nationalist parties: a nationalist-minded electorate will punish you if you are deemed to be not bringing sufficient benefits from your pact with non-nationalist parties.

What I’m suggesting is that Unionist parties in Northern Ireland dialogue more with regional nationalist parties in Europe, if only to learn some potential useful lessons from their experiences.

As for Catalonia, I say that if the People’s Party has its way vis-a-vis Spain’s constitutional court, Spanish regional integration will be more difficult, not less.

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