Saltires and senyeras

The drive for Scottish and Catalan independence from the UK and Spain has increased in recent weeks

The time is coming. The British Prime Minister David Cameron and the Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond have signed an historic agreement and the road to a referendum on whether Scotland will leave the United Kingdom is now clear. It take place in autumn 2014, in the form of a straightforward ‘Yes/No’ question and 16 and 17-year-olds will be allowed to vote (unlike other elections across the UK at the moment, where 18 is the minimum age). But while the details may be sorted and the construction of the plebiscite under way, the polls still show that the current feeling among Scots is that staying in the UK is the preferred option.

The debates around Scottish independence have been closely followed in another European country in a similar situation to the UK. In Spain, the discussions on Catalonia’s constitutional situation are growing in force. The central government wants the excitable and successful region to stay. Many Catalans want out; none more so than Artur Mas, the president of Catalonia’s devolved administration. He has pledged to hold a referendum on independence in the next four years, whether or not it is sanctioned by Madrid.

The debates are in different stages in the two countries. In the UK, the politicians and supporters of each argument have moved from negative campaigns through to trying to elucidate the positive aspects of the union or of independence. The Spaniards are very much still in the mud-slinging phase. Recently, the backbiting has been stepped up, after the culture minister highlighted his belief in a need to “hispanicise Catalan schoolchildren” to try to battle what he sees as a pro-Catalonia bias in the region’s schools. The CiU, the largest party in the Catalan parliament, retorted “maybe what Spain needs is to be Catalanised a bit”. The Church has even weighed in on the debate, saying that it will be “on the side of the Catalan people if they opt for independence from Spain”.

Catalonia is proud of its national identity. Its language is maybe the most famous marker of its nationhood, with millions of speakers and a vibrant press and literature in the Catalan tongue. The red-and-yellow striped flag, the senyera, is flown across the province where the thicker, Spanish banner, with its royal seal on one side, would normally be planted. There is a feeling that an enterprising, commercial spirit, with its roots in the port trade flowing through Barcelona, has allowed it to become one of the richer regions in Spain – wealth, it is claimed, that has helped prop up the Spanish state for many years.

Even the football clubs underline a cultural difference from a centralised Spain. The Real Madrid-Barcelona rivalry goes beyond the beautiful game into the realms of two linguistic and cultural identities. The motto of the Catalan team is ‘mes que un club’ (more than a club), a slogan hinting that it is there not just for the sport but also as a pillar of Catalan national pride to stand firm against overarching Madrid influences.

The economic arguments surrounding Scottish and Catalan independence come to the fore regularly. Alex Salmond, the Scottish National Party leader and current First Minister, beams whenever he discusses getting his hands on the North Sea oilfields lying off the eastern Scottish coast. Tourism, the whisky trade and fishing would help the small economy but could it deal with the share of the national debt which London would lump it with (and to which it has contributed, like all four nations)?

The SNP says it would keep the British pound and that the Bank of England (founded by a Scot) would still set its interest rates. Scotland would want to join the European Union but appetite for using the euro is low in the UK, to put it mildly. Catalonia would surely opt for the single currency, as other small nations such as Cyprus and Malta have done recently, but the Spanish region has admitted that it would be asking for a slice of the European bailout that Spain could well request.

There is certainly more fervour in favour of secession in Catalonia at the moment and Artur Mas has added more theatre to the Spanish debate this week, calling to mind the national culture in his region, saying that independence is “the only possible road to ensure the survival of Catalonia as a people”. The referendum will be opposed by Madrid but it is still likely to be held further down the road. But before that comes Scotland and the question of whether the blue-and-white flag, known as the saltire, can officially replace the Union flag as the one true national banner. Scotland will take on the issue of independence or union first, and the race is certainly heating up. Today, on Saturday 20 October, Alex Salmond said that Scotland’s “home rule journey is coming to its conclusion”.

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