“Now I am not so convinced that we need the permission of three minority Unionist parties to hold an independence referendum in Scotland. If civic society chooses, Scotland could have its referendum next year on its own terms.”
Grant Thoms writes on the Catalan inspiration .
It is Sunday 13 December 2009. History is being made and I am bearing witness as an international observer for the SNP at the Catalan independence referendums – the largest citizen initiative in Europe by far. Thousands of volunteers, the vast majority of no political persuasion, have organised a referendum in over 160 villages, towns and cities across Catalonia. Over 700,000 people are eligible to vote, including many non-Spanish nationals who are debarred from parliamentary voting but are included in this plebiscite to determine whether Catalonia should be independent within the European Union.
My participation actually started the night before at a seminar on ‘Self Determiniation in Europe’, organised by the left-wing independence party, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC). Representatives from Plaid Cymru – the Party of Wales, ARALAR (Basque non-violence independence party) and Corsican National Party, joined with the ERC leader, Joan Puigcercos at the College of Advocates in Girona. The debate highlighted the common cause that the independence movements of stateless nations within Europe have, despite their differing aspirations as to what self-determination means. See more here and Catalonia blog here.
The Catalan independence referendums has been organised by civic society under an umbrella organisation called 13D. By far the activists of 13D are ordinary people with democracy in their hearts and minds. The mantra of 13D is that it is the right of the people to choose, not for politicians to decide. The similarities to the Yes campaign of 1997 in Scotland is strong, but the difference is that 13D does not advocate a YES, NO or DONT KNOW vote, it merely believes that the people have a right to decide.
The Spanish Government refused to let the Catalan Parliament or local government in Catalonia to organise it. There are no electoral administrators, just volunteers with a simple internet-based computer system to verify that each voter has not used their identity card to vote anywhere else in their municipality.
Personally, I have never seen the sovereign will of the people demonstrated in such an effective manner. From a visit to Ripoll, the town which is the cradle of the Catalan nation (and resting place of Guifre, Count of Barcelona and a comparative Robert the Bruce if ever there was), to the end of the day in the city of Vic, it has been an eye-opener. Catalan and Spanish media commentators are fascinated by the minority SNP government in Edinburgh and its plans for a referendum, but the reality is Catalonia is beating us to it by discarding the state apparatus which, until this moment, is assumed as essential for any referendum to have credence.
Now I am not so convinced that we need the permission of three minority Unionist parties to hold an independence referendum in Scotland. If civic society chooses, Scotland could have its referendum next year on its own terms. No wonder the British media’s reporting of this has been so woeful. Could you imagine these ideas catching on in Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Northern Ireland or even the Falkland Islands.
I asked one volunteer polling station administrator why she was giving her day over to helping 13D and she put it simply: “I want to feel part of democracy. I do not trust the [political] parties. This way we can tell politicians what we want.”
Our international party, under the political banner of the European Free Alliance, comprised of Jill Evans, Plaid Cymru’s MEP, Frieda Brepoels, an MEP representing the New-Flemish Alliance, Francois Alfonsi, MEP for the Corsican National Party, and Inaki Irazabalbeitia of the Basque independence party – ARALAR.
The renowned Catalan historian and the current MEP on a shared party list between ERC, ARALAR and the Galician Nationalist Bloc, Oriol Junqueras i Vries, was our host ably assisted by ERC’s international politics secretary, Marta Rovira i Verges. Senor Junqueras is a congenial host but could have stopped short at his story of a retreating French army (having failed to take Girona castle), being caught by the Catalan army in the Pyrenees and having each soldier gouge their eyes out with a spoon. I suspect there are other medieval atrocities in history but this was one I didn’t need to hear about on a full stomach.
The day ended as it had begun in a biting cold civic square, this time in Vic, the capital of the Osana region. The backdrop to the local results was a huge Catalan flag flying electronically against the wall of the Cathedral. The chair of Osana Co-ordinating Committee, Alfons Lopez Tena, proudly read out the results. A resounding 97.2% said ‘SI’ to Independence on a turnout of 41%.
As more results piled in from the 160 municipalities, it was clear average turnout was around 30% of registered municipal residents and that the Yes vote was a clear 95%.
The turnout figure was immediately jumped on by referendum opponents including the Spanish Socialists and Popular Partido. However, if the immigrant and non-nationals vote of 17% is stripped out, the actual turnout by electors eligible to vote in a state-organised referendum would climb closer to 40%. In embracing new Catalans to have a say in the constitutional future, it actually diluted the impact of the parliamentary electoral roll which had voted. The real ‘No’ vote discouraged participation: stay at home is saying ‘No’. Echoes of the Scottish Assembly referendum of 1979 come to mind.
Finally, does this have a bearing on events in Scotland? One analogy might be that should the Unionist parties unite to reject the Scottish Referendum Bill in 2010, civic society could take up the cudgels and organise its own referendum a la Catalonia. It’s not as if Scotland hasn’t taken on a large-scale citizens’ initiative before. The National Covenant of the 1940s and early 50s was years ahead of its time in expressing popular sentiment on the National question.
Alfons Lopez Tena concluded his results declaration, stating “Catalonia will be independent or it will not be.” What say Caledonia?
See also Joan MacAlpine here: Go Lassie Go.