Watching the 2014 Scottish referendum in Spain was one of the most surreal moments of my time living there.
I left the UK on the 1st of September and I’d registered to have a postal vote. I was streaming the UK news daily. What I didn’t quite anticipate for was – despite the posturing of the Spanish prime minister – that the issue was as lively a news topic here as it was at home. For days before the vote, everyone knew what Scotland might do and what the talking points were. Few people in this southerly resort could name the campaign leaders, but they could certainly talk about the economic and social pros and cons with aplomb.
I remember this started to dawn on me when I turned on the TV the evening before the vote. I seldom watched it, but after watching an episode of The A-Team in Spanish (Me encanta cuando un plan viene junto!) I was channel surfing away. Lo and behold, standing in Edinburgh’s Parliament Square was a 100 strong contingent of Catalans, draped in Scottish flags, wearing ‘See you Jimmy’ hats and waving Catalonia flags.
It was repeated after the vote. I was sitting in one of my favourites Spanish bars and David Cameron appears on the news talking about the outcome. The whole thing was a stark reminder that too many the world over the vote was a seismic test about of whether you could vote yourself into being a country. Countries have had referendums, namely Quebec in Canada, but to the Spanish the idea that Scotland really might end the UK was TV drama at it’s finest. The post-referendum outcome was just the same.
To them, the vote was very emotional. From adults to school kids everyone had an opinion, even if they didn’t know the day-to-day minutiae of the campaigns. To the Spanish – and it was particularly insightful hearing the views of young teens – the issue was about the idea of separation from a greater whole. It was an inexplicable solution, the political equivalent of cutting the nose off to spite the face. The whole thing seemed an inherently tragic end to a country that had literary, film and musical icons that were instantly recognisable (the latter was particularly true of young people and their love of One Direction).
To listen to the Spanish on their home turf was an opportunity. I kept my mouth shut and my ears open and only ever made a case for my opinion when I was asked ‘what do you think about it?’
I knew that the referendum was a barometer for the restless nationalism of the Basques and Catalans, but it was barely mentioned by those Spanish people I spoke to about the Scottish referendum. There was a very real subconscious attitude among them that splitting away from the whole didn’t make sense. Catalonia and the Basque Country, when it did come up (usually at my prompting) was the devil issue that provoked a bizarre mix of unionist and nationalist logic.
For most, these autonomous communities (Spain’s federalist devolution) were acknowledged as being their own entities, ticking the big three boxes of each having a unique language, a national identity and a decentralised education system. They were either perceived as benign in their differences to Spain or as anti-Spanish, seen as rude. Some Spanish friends told me that if they spoke Spanish in Catalonia they were shunned, a language stigma on par with a Scotsman in London being told their money was not “legal tender.”
These Spaniards could be divided into those who thought: “that’s fine, but pipe down as you’ve never been a country” and those who said: “fine, leave and have done with it if you don’t want to be Spanish.”
What I’ve found refreshing is Spanish candour. They call it how it is, usually with balletic gesticulation and operatic articulation. In nationalism, they see a truth that Scotland tends to obfuscate: nationalism is best served through a democratic and equal forum, like the House of Commons, where it can be dealt with democratically. It cannot be tamed or countered on social media or in the streets because it is beyond reason and about passion. The Spanish are learning to leave these communities to it, and their system of autonomous communities constitutionally stipulates that. In turn some struggle with a perceived disrespect against this equanimity, and that is the source of the tension.
In retrospect hearing the views of Spanish people confirmed that the SNP in the House of Commons is the best thing that could have happened. Real debates, not social media diatribes, move the discussion forward. Writing this in retrospect, and listening to the respectful and passionate maiden speeches of the SNP’s new members, I am optimistic.