In Scotland and Catalonia, there are “separatists”
Although they remain in charge of regional governments in Edinburgh and Barcelona, the pro-independence parties that govern these two European rebels – Scotland and Catalonia – are experiencing a slump and strategic disarray after a decade filled with strong emotions.
All of this against a backdrop of internal strife and uncertainty about how to carry on the fight after referendum attempts failed.
Nicola Sturgeon: the resignation shock
In addition to being a politician, I am a human being. Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish Prime Minister, explained her unexpected decision to retire from politics in these words on February 15.
Ms Sturgeon, a 52-year-old patriot who has led the Scottish National Party (SNP) and regional government from Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh since 2014, will step down without achieving her goal of establishing Scotland as a country. My successor, whoever he may be, will lead Scotland to independence, and I will be by his side every step. But his expression was one of exhaustion and sadness.
A poor pass
Even if they are always in power in a non-sovereign context, Catalonia and Scotland’s separatist parties must be in better shape. Simultaneously, the adventures accompanying them have faded from international headlines.
In both cases, they have faced effective counter-offensives in recent years, whether from London against the Scottish government or Madrid against the Catalan government following the referendum. They were terminated on October 1, 2017.
Madrid declared the attempt by then-regional president Carles Puigdemont’s government illegal, resulting in a day of chaos and police repression. With an inconclusive outcome, non-independentists have massively boycotted the Barcelona-launched process (92% of oui43% stake).
There is now apparent fatigue with these movements and the public opinion that supports them. Separatism remains important and established in the two regions, with 40% and 45% popular support, respectively. However, there is a setback in the vote, the mobilization of the parties, and their political space.
The indefinite strategic horizon widens divisions in both regions, though the specifics and intensity of these divisions vary.
Scotland is experiencing a governance crisis.
In addition to the factors mentioned in Scotland, a regional governance crisis has recently occurred, causing Ms Sturgeon some headaches and hastening her departure.
The Edinburgh government (Holyrood) was disputed by the central government… on a major bill concerning sex reassignment.
In addition to being independentist, the autonomous government is heavily influenced by the left (via the greens and various identity movements) on such societal issues.
This gender recognition (and sex change) law, passed by Holyrood in October 2022, is intended to simplify procedures for people who want to make this change while lowering the legal age to 16 years.
A progressive initiative that irritated many people, including members of the SNP’s base and staff (seven pro-independence deputies dissented at the time of the vote). On January 17, 2023, the Conservative government in London, led by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, used its disallowance power to overturn this law.
A central government committed a genuine coup against a regional government that had pushed the boundaries of its prerogatives in this operation. But, as seen from the right in power in London, it was also a Conservative response to a law that many felt went too far.
So, another setback for Mrs Sturgeon’s government, which already faced several challenges from London.
A second referendum is not necessary.
Because there had also been the crucial decision of the Supreme Court of London two months earlier on whether or not Edinburgh had the right to organize a referendum without prior agreement with the central government.
The Supreme Court ruled against the SNP’s plan to hold a second independence referendum on November 23. (The government already set the date: as October 19, 2023). The judges denied the autonomous Parliament the right to convene this new consultation, putting Ms Sturgeon on the defensive.
Is this politician’s reaction predicated on legality? Rather than rush into a unilateral referendum (as the Catalans did in 2017 and as a radical but minority base demanded), it chose a referendum election strategy.
He plans to turn the next general election (in the United Kingdom in 2024) into a de facto referendum. The elections to the Commons for the 59 Scottish deputies (out of 650) take place in London, not the elections to the Parliament of Edinburgh.
This may appear to be an odd choice, especially since there has been precedent for a legal referendum in Scotland (unlike Catalonia). In September 2014 (the first time the London agreement was used): a consultation was lost by a vote of 55% to 45%.
Mrs Sturgeon, taken aback by the Supreme Court’s decision (she had hoped, perhaps naively, for a different decision), also knew that the populace would not follow her on a Catalan-style adventure.
The erosion of support for independence
According to a recent Sunday Times poll, such a unilateral strategy is opposed by many Scottish voters, including a majority of pro-independence SNP voters (48% oppose the move, 44% support it).
According to the same poll, only 21% of the general public supports a unilateral strategy. The SNP’s executives and MPs are divided on the issue.
On the merits of being or not being a country, the most recent polls show a decline in Scottish independence: 53% of citizens would vote no today, compared to 47% who would vote out. In recent years, mainly after Brexit was imposed on pro-European Scots, the oui had risen to 55%, if not 57%, support. We wanted to break away from the UK and return to Europe.
But none of these lovely plans is working. Given all this, we can understand Mrs Sturgeon’s desire to hand over.
Catalonia has acrimonious divisions.
On the Catalan side of the movement, the divisions are even more sharp and cruel than on the Scottish side, and the strategic horizon is completely blurred. The knockout blow from the cancelled referendum in October 2017 devastated Barcelona.
The central government in Madrid was completely intransigent in 2017 and 2018, with the right-wing government of Mariano Rajoy working hand in hand with courts that issued numerous warnings and bans.
The police brutally repressed a quasi-insurrectionary referendum in Barcelona in the fall of 2017, followed by a suspension of regional autonomy, mass arrests, and trials of pro-independence leaders.
We’ve come a long way from London, where we were able to consult the Scots on their political status at least once (in 2014): something unthinkable, a mortal sin in Madrid’s eyes in the face of Catalans. Furthermore, Madrid has long been resentful of London for granting the Scots the precedent of a legal referendum.
Today, following the failure of the unilateral attempt in Barcelona in October 2017, Madrid has repressed with violence. The movement was shaken and divided, resulting in the imprisonment of many Catalan leaders.
The Republican Left’s pragmatism
There are two significant clans among the separatists. There’s Pere Aragonès, the regional president (of the venerable Left Republican party, independent for almost a century, well before the fever of the 2010s).
Aragonès, similar to René Lévesque’s excellent risk against Ottawa in 1984… now agrees to govern within a regional framework, and above all, in a spirit of cooperation with the authorities in Madrid, without guerrilla warfare on an ongoing basis.
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s left has replaced Rajoy’s centralizing right in Madrid. According to former President Puigdemont, Mariano Rajoy needed to recognize the truncheon and the courts to confront the separatists.
Aragonès wrote in a January column for the daily The World that remaining Catalan, separatist, and European is for negotiation, not confrontation.
Frontal and heroic resistance
The other tendency, on the other hand, advocates heroic and frontal resistance to Madrid. In the face of Spain’s refusal to recognize Catalans’ right to self-determination, this tendency maintains that it is necessary to replay 2017 with an insurrectional mobilization, if necessary until it finally passes.
This trend is exemplified by Mr Puigdemont, who is still in exile in Europe, split between Belgium, Germany, and Italy, and condemns the choice of patience and cooperation. Today, there is a choice between former Vice President Oriol Junqueras (who has been released from prison) and President Aragonès.
These divisions were evident, even cruel, during the most recent Diada, the great Catalan national holiday on September 11, when attendance (150,000) was much lower than in previous years, with peaks of more than one million people during protests in Barcelona in 2015, 2016, and 2017.
Last September, President Aragonès (absent) and his associates were labelled as traitors.
This is what Catalan separatists are saying today.
In Edinburgh, as in Barcelona, we sense the end of a cycle and, for many, the need to take a breather and look ahead. Support for independence in Catalonia has dropped from around 50% to 40-42%.
To paraphrase a Chinese proverb, the road is long, and the mountain is steep.
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