Poverty in Scotland’s oil capital

Before the discovery of North Sea oil in the 1970s, Aberdeen was a regional town and nationalism a marginal concern. With weeks to go until Scotland’s historic vote on independence, Aberdeen is a city transformed. It’s Scotland’s oil capital and the city’s resulting wealth is apparent. But not everyone has benefitted from those riches. As Peter Geoghegan reports, life for some is a daily struggle.

Scotland’s Two Referendums

Last Tuesday night, I watched, along with most of Scotland, two besuited, middle-aged men argue with each other on national television for the best part of two hours. In the main it was pretty unedifying stuff.

Alastair Darling refused to accept that Scotland could function as an independent country; Alex Salmond made the frankly bizarre decision to waste valuable minutes asking facile questions about ‘Project Fear’ scare stories. The crowd booed and cheered on cue. All in all there was little – if anything – to differentiate this from the ‘Punch and Judy’ politics that nationalists have, rightly, chastised Westminster for.

The most depressing aspect of Tuesday’s debate was the message, not the medium. Gone was the rich discussion, the subtle ambiguities that have characterised a goodly portion of the independence debate beyond the podium and the dispatch box.

Referendums are, by their nature, notoriously Manichean things. Only two choices: yes or no; stick or twist; black or white.

But Tuesday’s debate played into another independence referendum binary: that the whole business is a waste of time, a distraction that has siphoned valuable time and money away from dealing with ‘real issues’. (In Britain, sadly, constitutional change has seldom been treated as a ‘real issue’ until far too late.)

This dystopian take on democratic politics has infused much of the media coverage of the Scottish debate over the past two years, and has been made explicit by political parties on both sides of the border. Watching Salmond and Darling slug it out in front of a live studio audience, such cynicism felt all too justified.

Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling at the end of the Scottish independence debateBut there is another referendum happening in Scotland right now.

A few hours before the STV debate, this other referendum was alive and well and trundling up and down the streets of Govan on what looked like a cross between a milk cart and an ice cream van. Standing atop the ‘Margo Mobile’, Jim Sillars declared to anyone that would listen that ‘we can make a better country than this’. A fleet of volunteers handed out badges and stickers.

Over the next five weeks or so, the Margo Mobile is due to call at housing estates and towns across the Central Belt. The whole enterprise was funded by donations. The conversations that take place won’t be beamed live into the houses of millions – but they matter just the same.

Many of these discussions – the kind I have heard everywhere from Coatbridge to Cowdenbeath in recent months – will not have definite answers or end-points. ‘How can Scotland become a better place to live in?’ ‘How can we make the best of the resources we have?’ ‘What constitutional set-up is best for a small nation in the 21st century?’ None of these are questions that invite easy responses.

Undecideds, we are are constantly told, want facts. That’s simply not true. We all know that there is only one certainty about the future. (It’s called ‘life assurance’ for a reason.) The rest is guesswork, supported by various degrees of evidence and assumption.

What undecided voters – and everybody else – want is to believe what they are being told. When Alex Salmond tells them that there will be no hiccups on the road to statehood – that the EU, Westminster, and everyone else will simply fall into line after ‘Yes’ vote – they don’t believe it. Most Yes voters I know don’t believe really it, either.

If it is a ‘no’, the deciding factor could well have been the decision to assume that the referendum is about what took place on Tuesday night in the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow, not on Tuesday morning on the streets of Govan. That the electorate wants easy answers and soundbites, not a vision of the future ballasted by a recognition of the realities of the present.

Yes Scotland, implicitly or explicitly, decided two years ago that voters would reject nuance and complexity, that they would baulk at the first sign that independence was anything other than the merest of pin pricks. Hence the decision to keep the Queen, Nato, Sterling, etc.

As a political move in a post-New Labour era of triangulation this ‘don’t scare the horses’ approach is understandable. But polls – and simple observation – suggest this strategy has not worked. Nobody really believes dismantling the union would be painless – but many could have been convinced that the discomfort would have been worthwhile.

The referendum campaign should make us more hopeful about democracy in Scotland. The people – ‘ordinary voters’ – can handle nuance and complexity. They could have accepted being told, ‘independence is a big project. There will be bumps on the road but in ten year’s time, 20 year’s time, there will be a better future for you, for your children.’ Some would have decided the risk was not worth other it; others would have the opposition calculation.

This referendum has engaged people politically in a way I have never seen before in my lifetime. The danger, though, is that this energy might be lost – or reduced to stale set pieces like we saw on Tuesday night. Whatever the result on September 18, if this is allowed to happen, Scotland will have lost.


Could Scottish independence realign Ireland, North and South?

imagesnpWhat a difference a century makes. In 1912 Ireland’s constitutional future seemed irrevocably bound up with that of Scotland. That year the Government of Ireland Bill was introduced by Liberal prime minister HH Asquith, shortly to be followed by a similar home rule measure for the Scots.

The rest, of course, is history. The first World War put paid to Irish and Scottish hopes of self-government within the United Kingdom. By the time the conflict was over, Ireland was fighting a war of independence. Scotland was only granted devolution in 1997.

Today, Scottish nationalists frequently adduce Ireland in their arguments for a Yes vote. On everything from sovereignty and citizenship to currency and border controls, Ireland is often held up as a model of how to sever a British union.

If the SNP view of Irish self-determination tends towards the Panglossian, official Ireland’s take on what is fast becoming “the Scottish Question” appears rather myopic. Recently Irish Government Ministers were told to be “very careful about expressing views” on Scottish independence. Hopefully this public reticence does not extend to the backrooms of Leinster House. Because regardless of which way Scotland votes, constitutional change looks increasingly inevitable.

In the North, nationalists have been similarly muted about the possibility of what Tom Nairn termed “the break-up of Britain”. Some excitable unionists have warned that a Yes in Edinburgh could spark a return to violence in Belfast.

Surely the prospect of a country roughly the same size as Ireland – one that is only 12 miles away at the shortest point – becoming an independent state could elicit a bit more than this curious mix of silence and shrillness? Scotland and Ireland share a long – and at times difficult – history; might they share a closer, more productive future, too?

The idea of an informal “Celtic alliance” encompassing Scotland and Ireland, North and South, is hardly revolutionary. The 6th century Gaelic kingdom of Dalriada, which stretched from Argyll to Antrim, was settled, according to myth, by Irish king Fergus Mór mac Erc.

Creative centre

The origin legend’s veracity aside, Dalriada was unquestionably a lively, creative centre that flourished across the Sea of Moyle. It was, as Neal Ascherson writes, “a Gaelic-speaking Atlantic world connected rather than divided by the sea”.

These connections did not end with the demise of Dalriada. During the Middle Ages, the almost independent Lordship of the Isles exerted power and influence on both sides of the Irish channel.

The Lordship of the Isles effectively ended when the clan Macdonald forfeited their estates and titles to James IV of Scotland in 1493. But three centuries later, United Irishman Henry Joy McCracken could still write gushingly that: “The Scotch and Irish friendly are/Their wishes are the same.” Our relations with Scotland, however, have not always been so amiable. The Ulster Plantations were a disproportionately Scottish affair: between 1650 and 1700, anywhere between 60,000 and 100,000 Scots left for the north of Ireland. The hundreds of thousands of Catholic Irish migrants to Scotland from the mid-18th century were often met with bigotry and discrimination. In 1923, a report entitled Menace of the Irish Race to our Scottish Nationality was presented to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. But Scotland is a very different place from the 1920s. Orangeism has long faded as a political force. In 2002, the Church of Scotland apologised for “any part” it played in sectarianism.

Scotland’s Irish Catholic community has changed, too – not least when it comes to politics. At the 1974 general election the SNP won 30 per cent, but less than one in 10 Catholics voted for the nationalists. Historian Tom Devine believes Catholics are now more pro-independence than any other group in Scottish society.

Scottish nationalists

Northern Ireland, with its strong links to Scotland, has provided inspiration for Scottish nationalists, too. The Belfast Agreement demonstrated to many in the SNP’s upper echelons that moderation and pragmatism could produce seismic change.

Raasay-born poet Sorley MacLean envisaged Gaelic Scotland and Ireland as part of a single cultural continuity. The twin Gaelic cultures drifted apart for many years, but are arguably closer now than at any time since the 1940s. Perhaps the time has come for Dublin and Edinburgh to learn from this rapprochement.

Even a Scottish No vote in September is unlikely to signal the end of the constitutional story. Former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy and Scottish Tory Murdo Fraser are among those who have recently taken to uttering the dirtiest F-word in British politics – federalism – in polite society.

A new settlement for Scotland would pose practical questions for Ireland. Edinburgh could look to compete on corporation tax, and to usurp us as the cuddly Celts on the edge of Europe.

But political change in Scotland could also be a unique opportunity for Ireland – North and South – to forge a stronger relationship with its closest neighbour. A new Dalriada anyone?

This piece originally appeared in the Irish Times.

What Scotland Can Learn from ‘Balkanisation’

The longer any online discussion goes on, the greater the probability
that someone will make a comparison involving Hitler or the Nazis.
This maxim – known as ‘Godwin’s Law’ – is so widely accepted that it
has even made it into the Oxford English Dictionary. So today I would
like to propose an #indyref equivalent (but please don’t call it
‘Geoghegan’s Law’!): the longer any discussion about Scottish
independence goes on, the greater the likelihood of someone adducing
the Balkans.

‘Balkanisation’. It is a word that, rightly, strikes fear into anyone
with a decent memory or a cursory knowledge of late 20th century
European history. A phrase borne of the Ottoman Empire’s collapse and
redolent of the crackle of gunfire and the heavy thud of mortar

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen many snipers on Sauchiehall
Street, or armed militias on training exercises at the Rest and Be
Thankful. But that hasn’t stopped some senior figures evoking the ‘B’
word recently.

‘Balkanisation’. That is what George Robertson warned will happen if
Scots vote Yes on September 18. “The fragmentation of Europe starting
on the centenary of the first world war would be both an irony and a
tragedy with incalculable consequences,’ the former NATO secretary
general and Labour Defence minister said in a speech at the Brookings
Institution in Washington in April.

Lord Robertson has previous when it comes to making wayward
predications. It was he, after all, who in 1995 prophesied that
‘Devolution will kill Nationalism stone dead’.

But Robertson is also a Labour politician so his hyperbolic
intervention is at least understandable in those terms. Unlike Carl
Bildt’s. Earlier this month Sweden’s foreign minister, and former UN
special envoy to the Balkans, warned in an interview with the
Financial Times that Scottish independence would lead to the
“Balkanisation of the British Isles” and would set off “unforeseen
chain reactions” in both Europe and the UK.

‘Balkanisation’, in the referendum debate, is a dog whistle. A shrill
sounding off to a particular audience, largely international, that
believes that behind every nationalist movement lies chauvinism.
Scottish nationalists have hidden their true nature thus far, even
perhaps from themselves, but a descent into the ethnic abyss is an
ever-present danger.

What we talk about when we talk about the Balkans is the likelihood of
violence and terror ripping previously placid polities apart.

But what if we actually looked at whether the Balkan experience might
be able to better inform the independence debate? Might we be able to
learn something the practices and procedures of forming new
nation-states on the edge of Europe, all roughly the same size as

One such area is the vexed question of who would be the legal
successor state if Scotland votes yes. Nationalists say both Scotland
and the rest of the UK; unionists maintain that only the UK could
rightfully claim to be the successor. Here a glance in the direction
of the Balkans is instructive. In their brief union in the 1990s, both
Serbia and Montenegro claimed they were the successor state to
Yugoslavia. Neither won the argument. All six ex-Yugoslav republics
were deemed successor states.

The recent political and economic experiences of the Balkan states are
worth considering, too. The Yugoslav system was already crumbling by
the early 1980s, well before Slobodan Milosevic had whipped Serbs into
a nationalist frenzy. But for much of the previous two decades,
Yugoslavia enjoyed a high standard of living, broadly on a par with
much of Mediterranean Europe.

This is no longer the case. Serbia ranks 64 in the 2013 Human
Development Index; Macedonia is 78; Bosnia and Herzegovina comes 81st.
(The UK by comparison is 26th). The Balkan states are among the most
unequal in Europe.

The reason Balkan states fare so poorly is not because they are
separate rather than united in a Federation. It is not even, directly,
because of the war. It is because they have been ruled for two decades
by varying combinations of disinterested international representatives
and nakedly self-interested politicians that took advantage of the
power vacuum since the late 1980s. Kleptocracy, not clichéd nonsense
about ‘ancient hatreds’, has been the biggest blight on the Balkans.

There are lessons for Scotland in all this: like the Balkans before
the 1990s, Scotland has never been independent in the modern sense of
the world. The travails of the Balkan states are a stark warning about
how poor governance and corruption can become hardwired into nascent
institutions, the importance of democratic checks and balances and the
problems of nepotism in small countries.

But this, of course, is not what George Robertson and Carl Bildt mean
when they unwittingly evoke ‘Geoghegan’s law’ (Ok, maybe we can call
it that). They mean that Scotland, and Europe, will collapse in an
orgy of violence. That only the strong-arm of the status quo – like
that of Marshall Tito – can save us from the worst of ourselves.

The Balkans has plenty to teach Scotland in the run-up to September
and afterwards. ‘Balkanisation’, however, does not.

Scots rally ahead of independence referendum

Scotland’s Alex Salmond (L) and Alistair Darling (R) engage in a TV debate over independence [Getty Images]
Coatbridge, Scotland – “Independence is forever. You can’t take it back if you don’t like it,” the lean, wiry-framed Jim Murphy proclaims on Main Street.

About 60 people are congregated in a semi-circle in front of the Labour MP, who stands perched on a pair of upturned crates of Irn Bru, Scotland’s favourite fizzy drink. A man wearing a bright blue “No Thanks” badge claps loudly; towards the back of the crowd, a couple of teenagers shout “Vote Yes”.

A once prosperous industrial town on the outskirts of Glasgow, Coatbridge is destination 51 of Murphy’s whistle-stop, 100-date tour of Scotland ahead of the referendum on independence next month.

“My message is that Scotland can be stronger, more prosperous, more influential if we stay part of the United Kingdom. We can have the best of both worlds,” says Murphy, MP for nearby East Renfrewshire and former secretary of state for Scotland.

So far, Scots appear to be heeding “No” campaigners’ warnings. Amid uncertainties about what currency an independent Scotland would use and whether the new state would automatically become a member of the European Union, most polls have registered a significant lead for those wishing to keep the 300-year-old union between Scotland and England.

There are no guarantees that we are going to end up with a fairer Scotland with independence, but there is a better chance of it.

– Feargal Dalton, Scottish National Party councillor


But the Yes campaign’s message that Scotland would be better off in control of its own affairs has caught the imagination of many, particularly in places such as Coatbridge, where incomes are low and job opportunities scarce in the low-rise 1960s-era Main Street. Polls suggest Scots in working class communities are far more likely to support independence than their more affluent compatriots.

“I was a no originally but the more I’ve heard, it’s yes,” says Brian Boyle, a 22-year-old who had come to listen to Jim Murphy’s entreaty. “I’ve not been persuaded at all by the no campaign, they’ve just been too negative.”

Ready to vote

With less than a month to go, the battle for the future for Scotland is increasingly being played out on the street. Not with bricks or guns, but with clipboards and pens. Both campaigns have thousands of volunteers and paid staff knocking on doors and holding rallies across the country, hoping to convince voters of the power of their arguments before polling day on September 18.

Both sides of the independence debate are fluttering in the breeze on Alderman Road, northwest Glasgow. A red, white and blue union flag flies in the garden of a semi-detached house. Across the street, the words “Saor Alba Gu Brath”  (Free Scotland Forever) are emblazoned across a huge Scottish saltire. Solid grey tower blocks dominate the skyline.

“Something needs to change in this society and independence offers the opportunity for that,” says Margaret Malcolm, convener of the local branch of the Scottish National Party (SNP), which has a majority in Scotland’s devolved parliament, during an evening canvas of undecided voters. It is cold and windy, and only two of the six houses called on have anyone at home. And neither is backing independence.

Malcolm, a petite, retired psychiatrist who joined the SNP five years, is undeterred. “If we vote no it won’t be because I haven’t done my level best to make it happen.” A little further along the street, a pebble-dashed house has Vote No posters in Labour red in the front window. “They weren’t there last week,” says Malcolm.

Nearby, postman Darren Brander, 32, says he is voting yes for his two young children. “The way things are now, there’s no chance of them getting a house, no chance of getting a job.”

‘No guarantees’

A sign urges voters to give a Yes vote for a separate nation for Scotland [Getty Images]

For local SNP councillor Feargal Dalton independence is about giving Scotland the power to tackle social exclusion and injustice.

“There are no guarantees that we are going to end up with a fairer Scotland with independence, but there is a better chance of it,” says Dalton. “A small democracy and a more democratic system is more responsive to the needs of citizens, particularly those who are more vulnerable.”

One of the main arguments advanced by nationalists is that Scotland consistently votes for centre-left parties but often – as currently – is ruled by the Conservatives in Westminster, who draw much of their support from southern England.

On Sauchiehall Street, in the centre of Glasgow, shoppers are not so sure about the prospects of independence. “I’m for a no, a definite no. There’s enough trouble in the world without creating more division,” says James Lawn, a Glaswegian pensioner.

Everyone on either side now accepts that Scotland is a viable country and could survive on its own. That certainly wasn’t the case 20 years ago.

– David Torrance, political commentator


Outside a department store, a large group of anti-independence campaigners have gathered for a photo-call. Most carry blue No Thanks balloons and miniature saltire flags. Two big blue letters “N” and “O” are silhouetted against a banner for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games that ended last month.

Among the flag-wavers is 18-year-old Paddy O’Duffin. “I don’t think we face a certain future if there is a yes vote. I don’t want my mum called a foreigner if there is a yes vote,” says O’Duffin, who is due to begin studying international relations in Edinburgh next month. At the recent European elections in May he voted for the independence party UKIP. “I believe that power should be returned to us from Brussels.”

Polls suggest no campaigners are likely to be the ones celebrating on September 19, but with four weeks to go there is still room for an upset. “We are in the key period now. In the next few weeks is when people actually make up their minds,” says journalist and political commentator David Torrance.

Viable country

On Monday, SNP leader Alex Salmond will face off against former UK chancellor Alistair Darling in the second, and final, televised debate.

Even if it is a no vote, nationalists have won the argument about whether Scotland could be an independent state. “Everyone on either side now accepts that Scotland is a viable country and could survive on its own. That certainly wasn’t the case 20 years ago,” says Torrance.

Independence has divided Scotland. But whether Scots say “aye” or “naw”, the constitutional battle will be won by words and arguments alone. In a world where states are often borne out of violence and chauvinism, such civility should be heralded as a victory for everyone.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

State of the Union: Artists and Scottish independence

In 2014, Scotland will hold a referendum on whether or not to end the union with England. Artists have always played a role in national movements, so will they vote yes or no?

Mark Hogarth (left), Stuart Braithwaite, and Ken McCluskey at a debate over Scottish independence.
(Photo: Andrew Grindlay, for DW)

The Centre of Contemporary Arts is among Glasgow’s most popular venues. Earlier this week, a fashionable crowd of artists and “creatives” gathered at the center not to watch a band or to see the latest exhibition. They came instead to listen to a debate about what is fast becoming this season’s hottest topic among Scottish artists: independence.

In September 2014, Scotland will go to the polls in a referendum on whether or not to leave the United Kingdom. The Scottish National Party, which control the devolved parliament in Edinburgh, have spearheaded the drive for an independence vote and the country’s artists have been a vocal presence at the heart of the national conversation about whether Scotland should go it alone.

Going it alone

Polls suggest that around a third of Scots are in favor of independence currently, but support seems higher among Scotland’s creative community. Famous writers, poets and visual artists such as Liz Lochead, James Kelman and James Robertson have all come out in support of a ‘yes’ vote.

“I think there are a lot of people in the arts who are pro-independence,” Stuart Braithwaite, founder of Scottish post-rock group Mogwai told the audience at the CCA debate, which was organized and facilitated by Scottish social media platform Kiltr.

A picture of the panel at the debate
(Photo: Andrew Grindlay, for DW)Artists often play a role in national movements but will independence lead to less money?

Why independence?

Mr Braithwaite has been a prominent voice in favor of independence, particularly on Twitter where he goes by the handle @plasmatron. During the hour-long discussion he explained why so many artists are backing the independence cause.

“I’ve a theory about why that is. When you make art you are willing to go into the unknown. Independence is going to be a leap of faith,” the musician said.

“The unknown frightens people. Scottish people are quite cautious but not in the arts. You are willing to take a leap of faith, to imagine a better Scotland and a better future, take a blank canvas and imagine something wonderful on it.”

Politicising the artistic movement is ‘stupid’

At the debate though, speaking in favour of a “no” vote next year, Mark Hogarth, creative director at the clothing brand Harris Tweed Hebrides, said it would be “stupid” for anyone to try to politicise the artistic movement in Scotland.

“I work in branding. There’s nothing that strikes a greater chord than something that is new and nostalgic,” he said. “Independence is both of those things. Of course it’s going to strike a chord. It’s easier to get behind than the status quo.”

Mr Hogarth criticised the assumption that Scotland’s creative community is united behind independence. “There are artists and other individuals out there who have maybe not come to a conclusion yet. Perhaps the fact they have not been quite as voluminous as the independence campaign is no representation of how the artistic community actually lies,” he said.

‘Politically neutral’

The role of the arts in the independence debate has already caused controversy in Scotland. During the summer, Sir Jonathan Mills, director of the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF), said material related to independence would not appear at next year’s festival

“We would not wish our festival to be anything other than it has always been, which is a politically neutral space for artists. It is important that it remains that,” Mills said in an interview with a Scottish newspaper at the time.

The reaction to the director’s comments about next year’s program was quick, with many in Scotland’s artistic community questioning the idea that the arts can ever be “politically neutral.”

“I don’t think the EIF is going to be able to keep this issue out. We’ve got a year to make use of this opportunity to start a proper discussion,” novelist Denise Mina said at the time.

‘Settlers and Colonists’

“The arts are one of the places where we can discuss the more abstract notions. It’s a real missed opportunity by Jonathan Mills. It’s fearful and it’s shameful.”

Audience at debate in Glasgow on the issue of Scottish independence(Photo: Andrew Grindlay, for DW)Judging by the crowd’s response, there were more cheers for the ‘Yes’ camp

The four-person panel at the CCA debate in Glasgow featured another person whose views on Scotland’s constitutional destiny have grabbed headlines: writer and illustrator Alasdair Gray. In an essay entitled “Settlers and Colonists” published late last year, Mr Gray suggested that since the 1970s, English men and women have been over-represented in the upper echelons of Scottish life, in “electricity, water supply, property development, universities, local civil services” and in the arts.

The avuncular, white-haired Gray was a firm favorite with the audience in Glasgow, even if not everyone agreed with his suggestion that culturally Scotland punches below its weight compared with similar sized countries such as Ireland.

Expressing some doubts about the push for independence, designer Emlyn Firth told DW “I don’t think everyone has completely thought through the ramifications of what might happen to the eco-system of contemporary art or design if we do go independent.”

‘The Glasgow miracle’

That eco-system is well represented in Glasgow. The city’s recent cultural regeneration has been so successful that renowned art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist has dubbed it “The Glasgow Miracle.” Some in the “No” camp have warned that a vote for independence could jeopardize Scotland’s artistic achievements thus far; perhaps fearing that there would not be as much money around to achieve these kinds of “miracles” in an independent Scotland.

Alasdair Gray and Pauline McNeil
(Photo: Andrew Grindlay, for DW) Agreeing to disagree, Pauline McNeil feels independence will bring nothing to the arts

“Independence will bring nothing to the arts,” says Pauline McNeil former shadow minister for culture in the devolved Scottish parliament and an advocate of retaining the status quo at the CCA debate.

“Scotland and the arts community would flourish better by sticking with what we have now.”

All in all, judging by the reaction at the close of the debate – the two ‘yes’ voices received the biggest cheers of the night – many in Scotland’s artistic community are still backing independence. But there is a long way to go between now and polling day on 18 September 2014.

This piece originally appeared on Deutsche Welle.

Spanish eyes are on Catalan independence

While opposing factions argue over attendance figures at the Yes rally, Catalonia musters 1.6 million for the cause , writes Peter Geoghegan

EARLIER this month, I spent an afternoon outside the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. I didn’t go to admire the haunting spires of Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece – impressive though they are – but to look at a rather different spectacle: the crowds of waving Catalan independence supporters that peaceably surrounded the cathedral as part of a massive “human chain” to mark Catalan national day on 11 September.

At 17:14, the year Barcelona fell to Bourbon forces spelling the end of Catalan autonomy, what sounded like a starter’s pistol fired. Outside the Sagrada, thousands linked arms amid chants of “In, inde, independencia”. A middle-aged man’s T-shirt carried a blunt message: “Catalonia is not Spain”. Posters, in Catalan, called for “Independence to Change Everything”. Drones flew overhead, employed not by the Spanish government but by independenistas, to photograph the “Via Catalana” as it stretched, arm-in-arm, for 250 miles from the France border to the neighbouring region of Valencia. It was a remarkable feat of logistics, organisation and political mobilisation.

How Yes Scotland must envy their Catalan cousins. A reported 1.6 million turned out in this show of separatist strength. Some flew Catalonia’s regional flag, but more waved the esteldada, the starry standard favoured by independence supporters.

Polls lend weight to the suggestion that if anywhere in Western Europe is likely to declare independence in the coming years it is Catalonia. Support for independence has risen from barely a fifth in 2007, to more than half now. Possibly more importantly, Catalan’s sense of identity seems to be shifting, too. In 2009, less than 20 per cent said they felt “Catalan only”. Now that figure is 31 per cent, according to research published by the Catalan government. The number feeling “more Spanish than Catalan” has fallen in consort.120912020406-spain-catalonia-protest-story-top

And yet Catalans can seem like reluctant independenistas. Among the throng on 11 September, and at a nationalist-led, torch-lit procession the previous evening, I met plenty who said they would settle for increased autonomy for their regional parliament. But there seems little optimism that power brokers in Madrid will acquiesce.

“If Madrid wanted to diffuse or confuse this independence movement they would immediately offer a federal package to Catalonia,” says British-born writer Matthew Tree. “But they can’t do it because they have been whipping up anti-Catalan sentiment and making political capital from it.”

Certainly the government in Madrid has given little indication that they are willing to offer a serious autonomy package to Catalonia. In May, Catalan nationalist leader Artur Mas, whose CiU party is the main player in the governing coalition in Barcelona, wrote to Spanish premier Mariano Rajoy asking for permission to hold a referendum on independence. Rajoy, who has had his hands full with a flat lining economy, a moribund banking sector and a series of corruption scandals, replied last week.

“The ties that bind us together cannot be undone without enormous cost,” he wrote, rejecting Mas’ request. “We need to work together to strengthen these ties and move away from confrontation.”

The two leaders met in secret for talks in August, but there still seems to be little sign of a deal emerging. Meanwhile, the momentum towards full independence seems to build.

Spain’s ongoing financial crisis has added fuel to the Catalan independence fire. Nationalists argue that the region, one of the country’s most economically productive, is being asked to shoulder too large a burden. Unlike the Basques, Catalonia has no real fiscal autonomy. In 2012, Catalonia’s fiscal deficit – the difference between what it pays to Madrid and, after taking some funds to pay state costs, the money it gets back – was €16bn (around 8 per cent of the region’s GDP), according to the Catalan government.

Madrid’s clumsy meddling with the language system in Catalonia’s schools has acerbated an already tense situation. Since the fall of dictator Franco more than 35 years ago, Catalan has been given priority in the region’s education system. However, last year, Jose Ignacio Wert, Spain’s education minister, unveiled proposals that all coursework in Catalan schools must be offered in Spanish and Catalan “in balanced proportions”. For many Catalans, even those with little interest in constitutional change, these pronouncements evoked divisive memories of the Spanish Civil War and their language’s suppression under Franco.

It is by no means guaranteed that Catalonia will get a vote on independence – or, even if a referendum did take place, that Catalans would say Yes – but pressure for a vote is growing. A referendum is unlikely, but a non-binding “consultation” is possible.

Some Catalan nationalists believe that holding a vote – even a non-binding one – so close to the referendum here would be a boon for them. “It would be useful for us if the world could see both referendums at the same time – one conducted in a peaceful, legal way in the UK, the other opposed by the Spanish government. That [contrast of] attitudes would be really benefit us,” Alfred Bosch, leader of the Catalan left-wing ERC party in the Spanish congress, said recently.

How Scottish nationalists, particularly the SNP, would react to a Catalan vote so close to the referendum is unclear. Formal relations between the Scottish and Catalan administrations have cooled, with the SNP reluctant to upset Madrid and Catalan independenistas wary of being closely associated with a No vote in Scotland.

One thing does seem certain: the longer Catalan calls for greater autonomy are ignored, the louder the rumble for full independence will grow. As Matthew Tree said: “If this isn’t sorted out now, it will just go on and on and on. The cat is out of the bag now”.

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman.

Scots rally for independence from UK

Edinburgh, Scotland – In 1992, on the same evening the Conservatives won a fourth successive UK general election, a small group of campaigners started a vigil for a Scottish Parliament at Calton Hill in Edinburgh.

Their constant watch lasted five and half years, until Scots had a chance to vote “yes” to devolution in 1997.

Thousands returned to Calton Hill last Saturday. This time, however, they came not to demand more powers for Scotland, but to call for full independence from the rest of the United Kingdom.

What unites these people is that all their lives they’ve watched Westminster fail to deliver on the things they care about, whether it’s social justice or the environment or proper democracy.

-James Mackenzie, Scottish Green Party


“I’m here because I want Scotland to have the same rights, responsibilities and privileges as any other country in Europe or the world,” one demonstrator, Alan Farquhar, told Al Jazeera, as a colourful crowd of independence supporters, estimated by organisers at 20,000, made its way through Edinburgh’s historic Old Town towards Calton Hill.

Farquhar has been a member of the Scottish National Party for “22, 23 years”. “When I joined the SNP, we were at 9, 10, 11 percent in the polls. There has been a great progression since then: winning a minority election [in the Scottish Parliament in 2007], then a majority election [in 2011]. As far as I see it, independence is a natural progression,” Farquhar said.

Whether or not Scotland does decide to go it alone depends on the outcome of next September’s independence referendum. “A yes vote is for self-government, not remote government – good government with independence, not bad government from Westminster,” Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond – leader of the Scottish National Party and very much the architect of next year’s historic vote – told supporters on Calton Hill.

“A yes vote next September will not be a victory for the SNP, or the ‘Yes’ campaign, or even the huge coalition of interests and enthusiasm gathered here today,” he said during the three-hour rally.

“It will be the people’s victory. ‘Yes’ will be an act of self-confidence and self-assertion, which will mean that decisions about what happens in Scotland are always taken by the people who live and work here.”

Colourful rally

Saturday’s rally, which was not organised by the official “Yes” campaign, was a decidedly ecumenical affair.

Alongside SNP banners and standards were men in kilts and William Wallace T-shirts, and there were placards for everyone, from “Farmers for Yes” to “Aussies for Independence”. Supporters of both the Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party, both backers of independence, were out in force, too.

“What unites these people is that all their lives they’ve watched Westminster fail to deliver on the things they care about, whether it’s social justice or the environment or proper democracy,” said James Mackenzie, a member of the Scottish Green Party, who recently started a small business in Edinburgh.

Independence referendum will be held in September 2014 [Peter Geoghegan/Al Jazeera]

“Independent Scotland would be run closer to the people, even simply on a geographical basis. The idea that Westminster is ever going to deliver social justice, sustainability, proper democracy, I just don’t believe it. I’m not saying it’s guaranteed in an independent Scotland, but at least we’d have a chance.”

As the marchers gathered at midday in Edinburgh, a busker played a cover version of Dougie McLean’s Scottish folk ballad “Caledonia”. A little further up the cobbled High Street, a woman with a microphone led a group behind a “Radical Independence Campaign” banner in a call-and-response: “What do we want?” “Independence.” “When do we want it?” “Now”.

“People don’t want more of the same, they want radical change,” Cath Boyd from the left-wing Radical Independence Campaign told Al Jazeera. “We need an economic change and a social change. Internationally, what Britain has come to represent is abhorrent. There is a place for a progressive Scotland with no nuclear weapons, which doesn’t participate in illegal wars,” she said.

Opinion polls suggest many Scots remain to be convinced about the virtues of independence. One poll at the beginning of September gave the “No” side a 30-percent lead, prompting claims from unionists that the battle was all but over. But then the SNP hailed a survey that showed support for a “Yes” vote had taken the lead for the first time since 2011.

Large-scale rallies could help galvanise independence supporters ahead of a crucial 12 months of campaigning, said Peter Lynch, a lecturer in Stirling University and author of SNP: A History of the Scottish National Party.

“Showing to each other how many ‘yes’ supporters there are is good for morale,” he said.

“If you are a ‘yes’ supporter seeing endless polls saying ‘you’re only 30 percent’, oh, ‘you’re only 35 percent’, ‘now you’re down to 25 percent’, you feel like a beleaguered minority that is never going to win. These are the kind of events that make [‘yes’ supporters] see that there are actually a lot of ‘yes’ supporters, and if they can mobilise and grow then they are in with a chance of winning in September next year.”

Reaching out

Not everyone agrees. Tom Gallagher, emeritus professor at Bradford University, said nationalists are not doing enough to reach out to the undecided voters who are likely to decide next year’s referendum.

For the Nationalists, the misery of the people isn’t a wrong to be corrected – it is a chance to be exploited. For them, grievance is not to be addressed – it is to be nurtured.

-Johann Lamont , Scottish Labour Party


“The big challenge for ‘Yes’ campaigners is they need to stop dialoguing with themselves. They need to engage with the fears and anxieties that a lot of people have, instead of just brushing them away and saying ‘it’ll be alright on the night,'” the author of Scotland Divided: Ethnic Friction and Christian Crisis said.

Among the Scottish saltires on Saturday were flags from Catalonia, Corsica, Flanders, Sicily, Wales and other nationalist movements across Europe.

Franco Rocchetta, twice a member of the Italian Parliament, was among a group of about 50 supporters of Venetian independence that made the journey from northern Italy to the Scottish capital.

“For us coming here is like swimming in the fountain of youth,” he said. “We are also fighting to get a referendum for independence.”

While Scotland’s independence campaign has garnered foreign admirers, so far it has struggled to attract supporters of the Labour party, once the dominant force in Scottish politics and still the second-largest constituency in the devolved parliament.

Scottish Labour, strongly opposed to independence, is part of Better Together, a cross-party unionist campaign calling for a “No” vote in 2014.

At the weekend, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont told attendees at the Labour Party’s annual conference in Brighton that next year’s referendum was a chance to defeat the “virus” of nationalism.

“For the Nationalists, the misery of the people isn’t a wrong to be corrected – it is a chance to be exploited. For them, grievance is not to be addressed – it is to be nurtured,” Lamont told the group.

“And that cynicism, that calculation which leaves families suffering now is a price worth paying if it translates into votes next September. It’s a cynicism which corrodes our politics. It should create in us a revulsion.”

Unsurprisingly, Lamont’s assessment of Scottish nationalism did not resonate with the marchers in Edinburgh. “I feel it’s all inclusive,” said Tarlika Elisabeth Schmitz, who moved to Scotland from Germany 17 years ago.

Schmitz travelled from Lochaber in the Highlands to the capital for the rally. “It’s great to be here,” she said as she walked towards Calton Hill, accompanied by her Scottish terrier, Nechtain, in a blue “Yes” shawl.

“I think we will do it. I am pretty confident we will win.”

This piece originally appeared on Al-Jazeera. 

Catalans form human chain for independence

BARCELONA, Spain — People in Catalonia formed a 250-mile human chain across this Spanish region in the latest push to create an independent state.

At least 400,000 people took part in the event on part in Catalonia’s national day.

On Tuesday evening, a crowd walked slowly through the narrow streets around Sants, a neighborhood west of Barcelona, singing, “In, inde, independencia.” Many waved torches or carried the starry esteldada, the flag favored by supporters of Catalan independence.

“We don’t feel respected about our language and our way of life,” said Jemina Albesa, a housewife who was among the pro-independence marchers.

She says she didn’t always support Catalonia’s leaving Spain, but recently changed her mind. “In the past I thought it was possible to make a compromise with the rest of Spain,” she said, “but I think that’s impossible now.’

Such views are becoming increasingly common in Catalonia, a region of around seven and a half million in the country’s northeast. Last year, on September 11, an estimated 1.5 million people took to the streets of the regional capital, Barcelona, in a huge rally for independence.catalonia_human_chain_spain_4_09_11_13

Today’s demonstration started at 5:14 pm to reflect the year 1714, when Barcelona fell to Bourbon forces. All symbols of Catalan autonomy were destroyed after the defeat. The university was closed and all writing and teaching in the Catalan language forbidden.

Almost 300 hundred years later, Catalonia is one of the country’s most developed regions with a large amount of autonomy.

Still, around 80 percent of Catalans favor holding a referendum on independence. Carles Boix, professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, believes 60 to 65 percent would vote yes and another 35 percent would vote no or abstain.

“For 100 or more years, Catalans have tried to have autonomy within Spain, but these autonomy demands have never been fully satisfied and because of that people have become progressively tired and now they are in favor of doing something bigger,” he said.

The latest clamor for independence can be attributed to a number of factors: Spain’s on-going financial travails, growing anger at cash transfers from prosperous Catalonia to poorer regions, and widespread frustration with the central government’s reluctance to grant more powers to the Catalan parliament, which was re-established in 1980.

“Catalan people have realized over the last 15 years that Spain doesn’t really want to reform itself, doesn’t want to change itself,” says Roger Albinyana, secretary for foreign and EU affairs in the Catalan government. “Therefore their aspirations cannot be met within Spain.”

More from GlobalPost: Planet Pic: Catalonia’s human chain

Others argue that independence would be the wrong choice for a region with strong economic and social links to the rest of Spain.

“For many, independence has become a magic option that will solve all economic problems,” says Murici Lucena, speaker for the Catalan Socialist Party in the regional parliament. “I think it’s a huge fallacy.”

In the aftermath of last year’s successful September 11 demonstration in Barcelona, Catalan premier Arthur Mas called a snap election in a bid to copper-fasten support for independence. But while a majority of pro-succession parties were returned, Mas’s right-of-centre CiU party saw its representation fall. The nationalists have since struggled to govern a divided Catalan parliament.

A referendum without Madrid’s blessing is unlikely — for now, at least. But by taking to the streets today, Catalans will be hoping to keep the issue of Catalonia’s constitutional future firmly on the national, and international, political agenda.

This piece originally appeared on the Global Post.