When the world focused its collective eyes last week on the unofficial independence ballot being conducted in Catalonia, a region of northeast Spain denied a full referendum by the central government, amongst the red and yellow striped banners of the Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya, quite a few saltires were furiously waved by cheering Catalan separatists. During the earlier, and rather more legitimate, Scottish IndyRef, Artur Mas, the secessionist leader of the Catalan region, seemed to be popping up every now and then to offer a mild vote of support – with the prescient warning that negative vote would have no effect on Catalan efforts for independence. This inter-secessionist dialogue has been a theme of 2014, with vague and unofficial support, whether reciprocated or not, being bandied around between separatists from Kiev to Kirkcaldy. What difference has the No vote in the IndyRef made on parallel struggles in other countries?
Not very much, in practice. Each of the 50-plus official secessionist movements in Europe has very different motivations for breaking off from their parent country, whether it be economic struggles (for example the people of the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan) or relative economic success (such as in the wealthy Catalonia); countries where there is rampant inequality will always provide a fertile breeding ground for movements who propose a way out for their chosen group. While all these different movements suggest wildly different means for achieving their collective end (even the voices spearing ex-First Minister Salmond’s dictatorial leadership style wouldn’t compare him to the actual secessionist dictators in the Eastern Ukraine), they share a common passion that nonetheless remains unique to each country.
If anything, the IndyRef result will bolster these movements. The Yes vote was decisively beaten, but in the latter days of the campaign, it brought Westminster parliamentary authority to its knees. Remember that this is in the UK, where for all the acrimony between the Home Nations, the Union has stood the test of time for 300 years. Many of the countries in which separatist movements are thriving are still reeling from the withering economic blows dealt by the financial crash of 2008. For all the questionable conduct of the UK government during the IndyRef – from the evident abandonment of Purdah (an arrangement with the Westminster government whereby after a particular point it was technically not allowed to provide new evidence about the implications on the referendum) during the final days of the vote, to the rather baseless assertion from some “45 per cent”ers that there was mass exploitation of the BBC, The Daily Record and The Duchess of Cambridge’s womb – they did allow the Referendum to happen. The refusal of Spain’s government to allow a vote on Independence is a democratic aberration, and is purely motivated by that country’s utterly dire financial position.
Ultimately, while the travails of the SNP during the Referendum – and arguably their soaring party membership proves the point that losing a Referendum does not mean losing the constitutional war – will be an encouragement to the secessionists of the world, a far greater motivator will be the economic and social situations in which separatist minorities find themselves. As the Unionist parties may be about to find out if the Smith Commission fails to deliver “Modern Home Rule” or “devo-giga” as the SNP has demanded, the only way to finally stamp out secessionist plans is to give a democratic voice where it is needed. Or perhaps, as the Parti Quebecois, the secessionists du jour of Canada, have found out through their collapsing vote in recent times, maybe holding poor Nationalist governance up to the light is the sure-fire method to snuff out impulses of independence.