Margo MacDonald: Spainful lesson Scots can learn

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IF your knowledge of Catalunya stretches to Barcelona’s latest signing, you have to do a bit of catching up. If you’re up on your history, you’ll know that Spain is an amalgam of earlier countries and distinctive regions.

The two most powerful were the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, and Catalunya, their power centres being Madrid and Barcelona.

Catalunya never quite capitulated to losing the power struggle with the Castilians, particularly during and since the dictatorship of General Franco. From his HQ in Madrid, he waged war against Catalans and Basques among others with a bitterness and cruelty that shocked the men from all over Europe who fought Franco as the International Brigade.

But in spite of Franco’s attacks on their culture, including their languages, the people who looked to Barcelona and Bilbao for leadership flourished, and Barcelona became the capital of the most successful regional economy in Spain.

When I visited Barcelona as a representative of the nationalist movement in 1978, Scotland was seen to be in the forefront of the European movements pursuing some sort of home rule. Basques, Flemings, Catalans, Corsicans, Welsh and Jutlanders were actively campaigning for the best they could get at that time for their people. The Basques and the SNP were the only parties to campaign for full sovereignty, although in Scotland we knew that we’d have to settle for a devolved assembly meantime.

The reason why the Basques and the SNP ran ahead of the pack? The economy, stupid. Scotland was being de-industrialised, and the jobs that replaced skilled roles in the shipyards and countless small engineering shops alongside huge outfits such as 
Clydebridge Engineering or Ferranti weren’t as skilled or as plentiful. Scottish firms were bought over and their HQs, research and development, and boards went south.

The Basque Country had been laid to waste during the civil war, with Mussolini’s war planes mercilessly bombing civilians at Franco’s behest. In the ruins of Bilbao, a nationalist movement was forged by hatred and hunger. Like the Scots, its young turks wanted independence.

But unlike the Scots, their experience was of being punished violently by Madrid, during and after the war. By way of contrast, the Government moves against Scotland, as we now know from the Cabinet papers of the time, were sophisticated and secrets were known only to the Cabinet and the security spooks.

Although the Catalans, under Jordi Pujol, who had been jailed by Franco, appeared ready to settle for less sovereignty than the Basques, Scots tended to identify more with the Catalans – the SNP being firmly opposed to violent opposition to Westminster. But for me, the interesting factor in all of this was the common thread that bound all three to their raisons d’etre and core values. It was not cultural, or sentimental, according to Unionists, it was a determination to be free to make our own policies and mistakes, in an effort to improve our economic performance so as to provide good jobs and the best of health, welfare and education services for our people.

In 1978, though, as Catalans prepared to reopen their “generalitat”, Scots prioritised getting shot of a very unpopular government above the need for a new structure of parliamentary rule. But after the 1979 election, when the Scots voted overwhelmingly for parties in favour of home rule, English voters preferred an arch-opponent of devolution.

The Iron Lady despised softies who pointed out the good sense of Scots having more powers over affairs with “Scotland only” printed on them. Opposition built in all the Scottish parties, and Labour was no different. Factory closures – and there were plenty – were opposed by all-party action groups, usually with the SNP leading the charge, trying to persuade trade union members and succeeding to a certain degree, that Scotland must take the opportunity provided by the oil industry and the tax revenues it produced to take control of policy making that suited the Scots economy first and foremost.

In the 1980s, political pressure – and the SNP win in a Glasgow by-election – ensured that the Blair government tabled a Bill to devolve the management of several public services to a Scottish parliament. This was to be paid for by a block grant from Westminster, but did not allow a Scottish parliament to take the economic decisions needed when the EU expanded.

Catalunya is now in the same position as Scotland – in the EU but represented by another power with different priorities. This changes if people vote for independence. I personally think the jury’s still out on whether Scotland would be best served by the EU or EFTA. Selective free trade, like Norway has with the EU, is more appealing than joining the eurozone.

Lawyers can argue theoretically about Scotland’s membership, politics will rule.