Similar Problems, Different Solutions

Similar Problems, Different Solutions: The Policies of the Spanish and British Governments in Response to Calls for Independence in Catalonia and Scotland. 

STV2360, Autumn 2015

Grade: A


During the past few years, independence movements have grown in strength in the United Kingdom and Spain. These developments have caused substantial difficulties for the British and Spanish governments, and each has exerted considerable energy and resources in trying to halt the tides towards independence. Regional governments in Scotland and Catalonia, both of which have been devolved a considerable amount of power by the central governments, have increased calls for full independence in recent years.

While this issue has long represented a source of conflict, it has lately come to dominate Catalan and Scottish politics. Though there are differences in how the two independence struggles have unfolded, there are also notable similarities. That makes the topic well suited for a comparative study, and this paper will analyze how the Spanish government and the British Government have handled the independence debate in their respective countries since 2011. Both countries have been governed by the centre-right for the past few years: in Britain, the Conservative Party gained power in May 2010 (as the “senior partner” in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats until May 2015), and in Spain, the Popular Party assumed office in December 2011. The essay is largely focused on their views towards proposed independence referendums, as this has been the most important point of departure between them. How have the two governments differed and coincided in their handling of the independence struggles? What factors can help explain their contrasting approaches? When dealing with these questions, much of the analysis will be confined to a discussion of how institutional and historical factors have influenced the attitudes of the two central governments. 


A full description of the origins and developments of the independence issue in Scotland and Catalonia is well outside the scope of this essay, and there will be little discussion of the motivations and aspirations of the independence movements as such. However, some backdrop is still necessary in order to shed light upon the context in which the independence debates have emerged during the past few years.

While Scotland has had a long history as an independent state, it has been an integral part of the United Kingdom for over three centuries, ever since the Union of 1707. For most of this period, there was little to no discussion of independence, and the Scottish people have generally been relatively content with the status quo (Marr 1992: 2). While a strong national identity has always existed in Scotland, it tended to be harmonious with a sense of Britishness. However, this appears to have changed, and nowadays most Scots seemingly regard the two identities as mutually exclusive (McCrone 2002: 28). Increases in such beliefs have overlapped with greater calls for devolved self-government or outright independence, issues which started to gain serious attention on the British political scene from the 1960s and onwards (Marr 1992).

The primary exponent of separatist views in Scotland has for long been the Scottish National Party (SNP). Founded in 1934, the party was very heterogeneous ideologically, with Scottish independence being it primary focus and Raison d'être (Lynch 2007: 619). During the first three decades of its existence, it remained largely irrelevant, and its breakthrough came in 1970 when the SNP won its first seat in the British parliament. The issue of independence remained paramount in the party’s programme, and this policy gained increasing traction in Scotland during the 1970s (Lynch 2007: 619-621, 625, 633).

While the notion of independence was firmly rejected by the entire British political establishment, many leading politicians in the Labour Party1 and the Liberal Party started to support the idea of devolved powers for Scotland. Even though Scotland had always differed from England in many respects – retaining its own legal system, educational system and other distinguishing features even after the Union of 1707 – this would represent a significant change of its status within the United Kingdom. A primary argument was that appeasing independence sentiment in this manner would serve as a bulwark against further separatism. This idea was well summarized by Labour MP George Robertson, who claimed that “devolution would kill [Scottish] nationalism stone dead” (Arnott & Ozga 2010: 91).

Others, however, were of the view that devolution would put them on a slippery slope, serving only to bolster separatist sentiment further and maneuvering Britain onto a path that would eventually lead to the break-up of the UK. While the latter view was chiefly supported by the strongly anti-devolutionist Conservative party, several Labour politicians were also skeptical. Some of them felt it would represent “a motorway to independence”, as stated by Tam Dalyell, a Scottish MP (Luckhurst 2007).2 Despite these arguments, the Labour Government of James Callaghan unsuccessfully attempted to implement devolution in 1979, in its last few months before losing power. After regaining power in the 1997 election, the Labour Party devolved substantial powers to Scotland, setting up a Scottish parliament for the first time since 1707. This was implemented after the Scottish people had backed devolution in a referendum (Jeffery & Wincott 2006: 3-6; Gallagher et al. 2011: 404).

This would eventually rejuvenate the SNP, which wished to use the momentum of devolution to put the country on a path towards independence. Under the leadership of Alec Salmond, it finally gained power in Scotland in 2007, soon promising an independence referendum (Arnott & Ozga 2010: 91-92). The party won a landslide victory in 2011, and the British government suddenly had its hands full in dealing with the issue of Scottish independence.

Just as in Scotland, support for independence has also increased in Catalonia during recent years. The idea of a Catalan nation has also existed for centuries, although in greatly varying degrees. Unlike in the Scottish case, however, the idea of a separate Catalan identity has been very much contested, and there is no period in history where Catalonia indisputably existed as an independent state (the idea of a Catalan national identity also remains contentious. See Gallagher et al. 2011: 107). A part of the Spanish Kingdom for centuries, Catalonia was further integrated into Spain in the early 1700s, and Catalan self-rule was stifled by the central state (Crameri 2014: 74, 70).

Despite this, a Catalan identity persisted. This identity, however, did not necessarily stand in contrast to the idea of being Spanish, and centuries would go by until the notion of full independence became a major topic. Still, ideas of a devolved form of government in Catalonia are nothing new: After 1931, the government of the newly formed Spanish republic would grant the region a great degree of self-rule (Nymark 2015: 104-106). However, after Francisco Franco’s victory in the Spanish civil war this would change dramatically, as Spain yet again became a firmly centralized state under his rule (Gallagher et al. 2011: 178, 189). Under the rule of the Francoist dictatorship, lasting from 1939-1975, the Catalan language and Catalan nationalism suffered greatly, though a strong regional identity persisted (Nymark 2015: 114, 118-119). After the democratization of Spain, Catalan nationalism flourished, and the Spanish constitution of 1978 would yet again grant the region a significant amount of devolved rule (Gallagher et al. 2011: 189).

In the following years, there were often calls for full independence from parts of the Catalan public, and by some parties in the regional parliament - an idea firmly opposed by all Spanish Governments, both socialist and conservative ones. Recently, the issue arose to the forefront of the political agenda, having become easily the dominant issue in Catalan politics by 2014. The vast economic difficulties in Spain following the financial crisis of 2008 likely bolstered separatist sentiment (Bourne 2014: 95). Most significantly, the largest party in Catalonia, the centre-right CiU (Convergence and Union), has changed its longtime policy of supporting autonomy within the Spanish state into one of calling for outright independence. After regaining power in Catalonia in 2010, its party leader Artur Mas, the regional premier, eventually started calling for a referendum to settle the issue (Crameri 2014: 15, 48-50). Like its British counterpart, the Spanish Government soon faced a major problem. 

The Responses of the British and Spanish Governments, 2011-2015

While the Spanish and British government were both unequivocal in their opposition to the independence movements, they have handled this threat very differently. Essentially, the Cameron ministry has been rather cooperative towards the Scottish Government, whereas the Rajoy government has chosen a stance of confrontation towards the regional government of Catalonia. The most central difference has concerned attitudes towards calls for a referendum.

When describing the nature of the situation in Britain, it is imperative to note that the idea of an independence referendum is not a necessary consequence of the significant amount of devolved powers to Scotland. After all, while these powers have been substantial, the United Kingdom remains a unitary state. As such, any referendum needs to be recognized by an Act of Parliament in Westminster, and the Cameron Government would have had every legal right to ignore the calls from the Scottish National Party (Gallagher et al. 2011: 181; McLean et al. 2014: 6-7). Despite this, the former soon agreed that the Scottish people had the right to settle this issue in a referendum. On 15 October 2012, David Cameron and Scottish First Minister Alec Salmond signed an agreement that in effect ensured that a referendum would take place, setting the ground rules for this poll (McLean et al 2014: ibid). 

Why would the British government, consisting of two firmly unionist parties, agree to this and thus endanger the existence of the United Kingdom? More on this will follow, but first of all, the Cameron Government apparently felt that the SNP had gained a mandate for an independence referendum, following its landslide victory in 2011 (McLean et al. 2014: 10). In light of this, it may well have felt that ignoring the issue would only have increased separatist sentiment – better to confront the issue now, as the polls still indicated a clear unionist majority in Scotland (Marr 2013: introduction). This theory is supported by the Cameron’s government calls for the Scottish government to set a polling date as soon as possible, and by its rejection of including more than two alternatives in the referendum. A widely discussed third option, popularly referred to as “Devo-Max”, would have granted nearly full “home rule” for a Scotland that would remain part of the union, but London rejected this: only a yes/no vote on full independence was offered. Clearly, this was a risky strategy, but the Cameron government appears to have hoped to put the issue to rest following a decisive referendum victory (McLean et al. 2014: 9-12; Johnson & Kirkup 2012).

In September 2014, the Scottish people decided whether Scotland would become an independent state. During a dramatic campaign, whose outcome became increasingly in doubt in the weeks before the poll, the British government strongly emphasized the problems that an independent Scotland would allegedly face. It was argued that there would be great economic instability, as Scotland could not automatically keep its currency or remain under the Bank of England, and that it would lose its status as a member of the European Union (all of which was contested by the SNP) (McLean et al. 2014: x-xi, 27-30; Chapman et al. 2014). The British government also put forth positive arguments for remaining in the union, emphasizing a shared national history, a common culture, and that the peoples of the United Kingdom would be stronger when standing together than if divided. All of the mainstream nationwide political parties put their energy into keeping Scotland in the union, and the Scottish people ended up rejecting independence by a margin of 55-45% (Chapman et al. 2014).

However, the question of independence remained at the forefront of Scottish politics, and the SNP soon starting hinting that it would eventually call for another referendum. While the British government firmly rejected this, considering it a settled issue, the SNP’s support has only grown since the referendum and there is no indication that the issue will go away anytime soon (Brooks & Wintour 2015)

Likewise, the issue of Catalan independence is currently causing headaches for the Spanish government, which has chosen a stance of confrontation against the regional government of Catalonia. Any discussion of independence was declared off the table, and it has strongly criticized attempts by the Catalan government to hold a referendum on independence. Such attempts have been called “illegal” and “anti-democratic” by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. His government has emphasized that the Spanish Constitution declares the country’s indivisibility, and that this is not a matter that can be decided by Catalans alone. In the words of Rajoy: “It’s false that the right to vote can be assigned unilaterally to one region about a matter that affects all Spaniards” (Govan 2014). In this respect, the attitude of the Spanish government stands in stark contrast to that of the Cameron government, as the latter felt that Scottish independence was a matter for Scots to settle by themselves.

While rejecting discussing the notion of Catalan independence, the Spanish government has clearly worried over increased separatist sentiment in the region (Crameri 2014: 52), and has tried to weaken popular support for this idea. Madrid has strongly emphasized its view that any hypothetical Catalan state would suffer greatly, economically and politically. Perhaps most vitally, Spain would use its influence to block any Catalan bid for membership of the European Union (Nymark 2015: 210). Furthermore, the Rajoy government has appealed for national unity, emphasizing that the Catalans share an identity with the rest of the Spanish population, and reiterating that any move towards independence would constitute an illegal act (Deutsche Welle 2015).

However, the Spanish government’s firm stance has not dampened the enthusiasm for independence amongst Catalonia’s separatist leaders, and its regional government has taken several steps that have provoked Madrid. It has organized an informal plebiscite on independence, and conducted new elections for the Catalan parliament, claiming that the latter would effectively function as a referendum. Most recently, in November 2015, the regional parliament passed legislation that declared the beginning of a Catalan secession process (Piñol & Rios 2015). In response to the latter act, the Spanish Government has threatened to prosecute Catalan premier Artur Mas and other separatist leaders. Mas has already been in court to defend his government’s informal plebiscite on independence, which was declared illegal by the Spanish Constitutional Court (Minder 2015).

While there has been much discussion in Spain over the central government’s handling of the Catalan independence issue, the idea of the country’s indivisibility is also strongly backed by most of the opposition, including the Spanish Socialist Party and the centrist Ciudadanos (Citizens). The only major nationwide party even willing to discuss the issue of independence with Catalan leaders is the leftist Podemos (Deutsche Welle 2015). As such, the Catalan government cannot expect more sympathy from any Spanish government that could emerge from the December 2015 general election. The dispute between the central government and Catalan separatists is thus likely to continue for the near future. 

Historical Explanations for Contrasting Attitudes

As demonstrated by the above, the British and Spanish governments have in many ways held similar views regarding the threat posed by independence movements in their respective countries. Both have emphasized the importance of national unity and the dangers of separatism, politically and economically. Yet their handling of the most central question, namely that of a referendum on independence, has been dramatically different.

What factors might help explain this? The answer is clearly multifaceted, and there are many ways in which this issue could be approached. Certainly, historical factors are of relevance, which has already been touched upon. As indicated by Rajoy’s rejection of the idea that Catalans have a right to self-determination, and his argument that this was a matter for the Spanish nation as a whole, there are historical issues of nationality that likely influenced this divergence. While it would be hard to dispute the existence of a Scottish national character, which no British politician would do, there is much more controversy concerning the idea of a Catalan nation. Madrid has been very skeptical of the latter idea – even as far as a Catalan nation within the Spanish state is concerned. As will be discussed further, attempts by the Catalan regional government to proclaim Catalonia a nation have been struck down by the Spanish Constitutional Court (Gallagher et al. 2011: 107). Scotland’s centuries of existence as an independence state before 1707, and the fact that no similar claim can be made for Catalonia, is clearly of relevance here. Whereas the United Kingdom has often been described as a family of nations, a term even used by Prime Minister David Cameron (Chapman et al. 2014), the Spanish Government would never describe its own country in this manner.

In this regard, it may be reiterated that the Spanish state for long strongly suppressed regionalism and regionalist sentiment, and that the democratization process which would yield devolved powers to Catalonia occurred less than forty years ago. Does the legacy of centralism and Francoist dictatorship affect the central government’s views on this issue? As an argument in favor of this, it may be noted that the governing Popular Party (PP) was founded by a former minister in Franco’s government (Share 2015). Could its history make it more disposed towards authoritarianism than the Conservative Party, seeing as the latter has a longer history of supporting democratic values? While the PP certainly has some lingering connections to the Franco regime, it does not appear to be of great importance here. First of all, the PP is entirely democratic in nature these days (Share 2015). Secondly, and more importantly, its view on the idea of a referendum is totally in accordance with that of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), its primary opponent on the national scene (Deutsche Welle 2015). Similarly, the British coalition government’s view regarding a referendum on Scottish independence was backed by the largest opposition party, Labour.

Furthermore, while the PP has always been nationalist and committed to the unity of the state, the same is largely true of the Tories (Gallagher et al. 2011: 197). Illustrative of this is the fact that its official name used to be the Conservative and Unionist Party (McLean et al. 2014: 14). Its strong unionist nature explains why it was historically opposed to the idea of devolution, as noted. Clearly, the ideological characters of the governing parties are of less importance here than the historical characteristics of their respective countries. By the same reasoning, it seems likely that there would be limited value in looking at how personal factors have contributed to shaping the approaches of the two governments. 

Institutional factors

Just as the history of the two countries has contributed to shaping their institutions, so have their institutional character played a great part in shaping their recent history. One way they have done so is by setting somewhat of a framework for the recent independence debates.

Of course, some would question to what extent institutional factors can explain anything at all, not only as far as this question is concerned, but even regarding their explanatory value regarding any political processes or reforms (Rothstein 2000: 139-140, 153). This has long been an area of dispute in social sciences and, while a summary would fall well outside the scope of this essay, a central argument may be summarized (and greatly simplified) as such: Men shape institutions, not the other way around, and leaders use them as instruments in order to reach their various aims (Rothstein 2000: Ibid.). Accordingly, institutions change due to the actions of men. The latter has often occurred of course, and there is undoubtedly some truth in this. Yet in other ways, this argument falls short, as it underestimates the extent of how much earlier choices both shape the leaders of the day and pose constraints for them. Additionally, the institutional framework may help determine who has a say on the political scene in first place (Rothstein 2000: 145-147). Looking at how institutional factors have shaped the Catalan and Scottish independence debates serves to illustrate these points.

Both the United Kingdom and Spain are unitary states, but this description may be more of technical than practical value. It seems to imply strongly centralized states, but as shown, this is far from the truth. While Spain is not constitutionally a federal state, a region like Catalonia has a much more significant degree of self-rule than does most of the länder in an ostensibly federal country like Germany (Gallagher et al. 2011: 179). Similarly, London has devolved significant powers to the constituent nations of the United Kingdom (though asymmetrically, similarly to Spain), and Scotland has been given the most extensive powers of these. Still, seeing as both are technically unitary states, the central governments would have the legal right to strip Catalonia or Scotland of their powers (Gallagher et al. 2011: 179,181). This, however, is not practically plausible, which can be seen in connection to the earlier point regarding how past choices put great constraints on the governments of the day. It may also help explain why the British government felt no choice but to cooperate concerning the terms of the referendum, perhaps seeing the Scottish government as a permanent factor, necessitating some kind of solution.

Still, if the latter point is of any relevance, why does the same not apply as far as Spain is concerned? Other institutional factors likely play a part, with the Spanish and British constitutions being particularly important. One of the peculiarities of the British political system is that there is no single document called the Constitution, as the constitution of the United Kingdom is rather composed of several sources, including parliamentary legislation (Gallagher et al. 2011: 91). The lack of certain constitutional barriers provides the British parliament with near unlimited power to implement any legislation on a simple-majority basis, and this would include breaking up the union itself. This, of course, is what the Cameron government had effectively pledged to do if the referendum resulted in a “yes” to independence (see page 5). As a point of contrast, the difference could hardly be greater with regards to the Spanish constitution. The latter proclaims the “indivisibility of the country” (Gallagher et al. 2011: 91), making any attempt of breaking it up an illegal act. This may go a long way in explaining why David Cameron’s actions were simply not an option for Mariano Rajoy, and why the central state in Spain could and would resort to legal action against the president of the Catalan regional government.

Still, despite the obvious fact that constitutions can place great practical restraints on leaders, there is still the counterpoint that its laws can be altered (Rothstein 2000: 139-140, 153). Does this mean that this institutional factor may not explain these differences to any large extent after all? The answer is no: Looking at the matter from that perspective does not diminish the importance of these constitutions (or lack thereof) as far as the United Kingdom and Spain is concerned. In fact, even if the argument that men simply use institutions as tools were to be accepted, this would only add to the explanatory value in this case. While perhaps the Spanish government could change this feature of the constitution, and thus arrange some kind of arrangement similar to the British referendum, it has no reason to do so. Along with any backlash that would result from such a decision, there is also the fundamental fact that the government can use the constitution as a tool to legitimize its rejection of any discussion of independence. Conversely, the British government cannot use a similar argument to reinforce its own defense of national unity (Gallagher et al. 2011:108).

The fact that no parliamentary law may be declared unconstitutional at all clearly contributes to the British judiciary playing a less vital political role than that of many other states (Gallagher et al. 2011: 106-108). As has been indicated, this stands in great contrasts to the significant role of the Spanish constitutional court, which has played a central part in determining many disputes between the central government in Madrid and the Spanish regions. Its strong commitment to the unity of Spain, and its noted opposition towards the idea of a Catalan “nation”, makes the court an important ally for the central government in this matter. Moreover, this would put severe constraints on the ability of any Spanish government to act otherwise regarding the idea of a referendum (Gallagher et al. 2011: 107). 


Clearly, the British and Spanish governments are both fiercely opposed to separatism, in Scotland and Catalonia respectively. Appeals for national unity and an emphasis on a shared identity have been features in the rhetoric of both governments, and both have tended to back up such appeals with the argument that an independent Scottish or Catalan state would not prosper, neither economically nor politically. In light of these corresponding attitudes, it is remarkable that the two governments have chosen decidedly different strategies when dealing with this threat. Whereas the Rajoy government has rejected discussing even the notion of independence, threatening Catalan separatist leaders with legal prosecution, the Cameron government soon agreed on the terms for a vote on independence. The British government felt that this was a matter for Scotland alone to decide, which stands in marked contrast to Madrid’s view that Catalan independence would be a matter for all Spaniards.

The explanation for these contrasting approaches is clearly multifaceted. While establishing cause and effect in matters such as these is not an easy task, this essay has confined its analysis to some of factors that appears the most relevant. It appears that differences between the ruling parties or between particular national leaders would not have much explanatory value in this case, in light of the relative consensus on the national political scenes regarding proposed referendums. As such, the focus has been directed towards distinguishing features between the two states at large. Differences in the histories of Scotland and Catalonia, and the widely different views in Britain and Spain over the “nationhood” of their respective regions, is likely to have affected the attitudes of the two governments.

Furthermore, institutional factors have played a significant role as well. In particular, the very different features of the constitutions and judiciaries of the two countries probably remain the issue of most central importance. In this respect, the essay has argued that the institutions both pose constraints for national leaders and that they can be used by these leaders as a bulwark against unwelcome changes. Accordingly, the activist Spanish judiciary and the strongly antiseparatist constitution both act as a safeguard against independence threats and severely constrain the room for maneuver of any government in Madrid. On the other hand, no British law can be declared unconstitutional, and the country has neither a written constitution nor a politically influential judiciary similar to that of Spain. This means that the British government does not have similar grounds on which to reject the viability of independence, and has thus seen no choice but to confront the issue head-on.


1 The Labour Party has for decades represented one of the two major parties in British politics, the other being the Conservative Party (on which more will follow) (Gallacher, Laver & Mair 2011: 397). 

2 Dalyell is also the man who named the so-called «West Lothian question”. While outside the scope of this essay, it may be noted that it concerns the problem of “dual representation”. After devolution, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs can still vote on issues that solely concerns England, whilst English MPs cannot vote on devolved matters in the other constituent nations of the UK. Some view this as a problem for British democracy, and the “West Lothian question” is increasingly a matter of great dispute (McLean et al. 2015: 114)


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Emneord: Regional governments, English, 2000-nivå (fordypningsemne), (KP) Komparativ politikk
Publisert 4. sep. 2017 13:44 - Sist endret 8. sep. 2017 16:47