Monthly Archives: April 2013

SCOTLAND AND CATALONIA

Catalan_2409385bThere’s a little church and it’s in one of Barcelona’s many pretty little squares. Like many historic building in central Barcelona the walls are pock-marked with the many bullets that were discharged during the Spanish Civil War. On inspection you can see the bomb damage inflicted by one of the first ever air raids carried out by the Italian Air Force in support of Franco’s Nationalist forces.

History is important and complex in Catalonia and it runs through every aspect of current political life. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the debate about Catalan independence. The debate about independence can perhaps be best characterised as a commentary on the uneasy historic relationship between Catalonia and Spanish Castile. The many disputes and grievances between these two parts of the Iberian Peninsula are deeply felt and encompass culture, language, national identity and an almost unbelievable volley of national insults.

It is now reckoned that 1.6 million people took to the streets to demand independence, this from a nation that has just over seven million of a population. The preparation to celebrate the tri-centenary of the defeat in the Spanish Wars of Succession (when Catalan independence was effectively lost and which remains Catalonia’s national day) is likely to see millions link in a human chain the length of the Catalan coast. It is reckoned that this may be the biggest ever protest for national independence seen anywhere in the world in modern times.

Opinion polling on independence isn’t particularly scientific but what exists shows some 55% or so for independence with only just over 20% for remaining in the Spanish state. Buildings now proudly display the flag of an independent Catalonia and it is about the only source of conversation amongst the commentariat and civic society.

So what is fuelling Catalan independence and why is it demonstrating such passion, enthusiasm and commitment? Yes, grievance certainly, but it is also the view that as the economic engine of Spain, Catalonia contributes so much more to the Spanish economy than it secures in return. What has stoked it up to max, though, is Madrid’s refusal to even countenance the prospect of further significant constitutional change.

Catalonian independence remains a total no-go area for Madrid with their very real fear that independence could mean the end of what would be left of the Spanish state. Their refusal to even talk about constitutional change is pretty much about what they see as Spain’s very survival.

So what exists is an unbridgeable stand-off and the future remains almost dangerously uncertain. This uncertainty even seems to be infecting the curious state of the Catalan Parliament. In Barcelona we have the almost bizarre sight of the independence movement being split along ideological lines with competing left, right and centre independence parties. Politicians in Catalonia find it almost impossible to agree on a way forward. So step forward civic society and it is here that we find the leadership in the independence movement. One of the most unkind distinctions you hear about Scotland in Barcelona is that the Catalan independence movement is led from the bottom up whilst in Scotland it is from the top down.

What are the other comparisons and lessons for Scotland? Well, not many really. The two independence experiences are very different. When you ask the Catalans how they respond when unionists ask them, for example, what sort of defence forces an independent state will have they just look at you blankly and chastise you for asking such a stupid, irrelevant question. Indeed, the team preparing the equivalent of our white paper is only sixteen strong and is only getting ready to write the first paragraph. Where the Catalans feel oppressed by every utterance of the Spanish state, we can only feel oppressed by the very reasonableness of the UK Government and their co-operation over the Edinburgh Agreement.

It’s what happens next that is really interesting. It does look likely that there will be enough Catalan political unity to proceed with a consultative referendum next year. This is a referendum that is likely to be overwhelmingly won. What Madrid does following that will be the key event. Right now, though, there seems little scope for any discussions, far less agreement, between Barcelona and Madrid.

So where there may be two independence referenda in Europe next year, they really couldn’t be any more different, with entirely different contexts and backgrounds.

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THE FABLE OF THE FEEBLE FIFTY

“Never was so little achieved by so many in defence of so few” – the motto of the fabled “Feeble Fifty”. The fearless cadre of Labour MPs who back in the 80s were the last line of defence in the protection of Scotland from the excesses of the Thatcher Government.

In those dire times Labour dominated all Scottish political institutions and the “Feeble” took their name from their number at Westminster. As we examine the legacy of Margaret Thatcher let’s salute the bravery of the “heroes” on the other side of the Tory wars in Scotland. Ladies and Gentlemen – The Feeble Fifty.

No-one will forget the day the forces of Thatcherism came to Scotland. At first it was just a few skirmishes, testing the strength, eyeing up the defences.  Then came the sustained attacks. The shipyards, the coal mines, the factories. Heavy industry was to be obliterated and no mercy was to be shown.

The Scottish people dazed and battered called as one; “send for the Fifty”. And Scottish Labour responded. They debated, they huffed and they puffed, and then they debated some more. As their large majorities were deployed, an expectant Scottish people held their breath secure in the knowledge that Labour always defends Scotland from the Tories.

But it was a slaughter! Ill-equipped and lacking in intelligence, the “Fifty” compliantly succumbed to the greater forces. They simply did not have the tools for the fight and it was over before it began.

When the “Feeble Fifty” were totally subjugated there was one more indignity to endure. Tory high command punished the Scottish people for their insubordination with the introduction of their new poll tax a year early. Scottish Labour, with their front line troops in tatters, bravely fought this tax by ensuring that it was efficiently administered. The defeat was total.

The parable of the Feeble Fifty is one that has to be clearly understood. Under this Tory Government Scotland is better defended. Lessons have been learned and there is better leadership. Scotland will never trust Labour to defend Scotland from the Tories again.

But let’s raise a glass to the memory, lest we forget. The Feeble Fifty. May we never see their likes again.

ME AND MARGARET THATCHER

Last week has been almost exclusively about Margaret Thatcher, and the world quite rightly has paid tribute to The UK’s first female Prime Minister and longest serving PM of the last century. Condolences have also been expressed to family and friends and I too would like to express my regret at her passing.

Her death has also meant that we look at her legacy, and what a legacy she has left our nation. Margaret Thatcher more than anyone defined a generation and the mark she left will never be forgotten and in the case of most of Scotland, forgiven. My early political development was very much defined by opposition to practically everything she believed to be politically true. I was several months too young to vote in the 1979 general election and I remember my frustration at not being able to register my opposition in the election that swept her to power.

It’s not that Margaret Thatcher was a divisive figure, that goes without saying. It was the way that she pursued her distinct view. If you were not on side you became the “enemy within” and in Scotland that “enemy” in the course of the 80’s, became an absolute majority. The introduction of the poll tax a year early consolidated Scotland’s antipathy towards the Thatcher Government and from then Scotland reduced the Conservatives to little more than a political rump. Was Margaret Thatcher useful in helping to forge the Scottish Parliament and usher in the rise of the SNP? Well quite possibly. All the energy that opposition to her generated had to go somewhere and the creation of our own parliamentary institutions is the something good that may have come out of all the political pain.

Scotland suffered disproportionally from her singular world view that we be brutally de-industrialised. Communities destroyed, a generation introduced to mass unemployment and a Scottish Parliament held back for 20 years. “There is no such thing as society” is what she proclaimed in what became the sermon on the mound, and nothing could be further from the truth of communal Scotland. We just didn’t see ourselves in the way that she did.

Scotland will now be partially protected from a right wing Conservative government and thank goodness we now have a Scottish Parliament to administer our devolved services. We can’t though do anything about reserved issues that are under the control of the heirs of Margaret Thatcher. We do though have the opportunity to put that right and vote yes to never having ideologues we don’t believe in, or vote for, running our country ever again.