Catalonians in Scotland

Uncertainty breeds conservatism. It’s by no means universal, but for election watching it’s a good general rule that the late deciders — the voters who make up their minds only when they actually reach the voting booths –tend to break in favor of the incumbents.

In a referendum the trend is even clearer: “when in doubt, vote no“. And so it was in Scotland. The last week of polling had suggested a close result, but in the end it was clear, with 55.3% voting against independence. Nationalist emotion had its run in the final stages of the campaign, but caution prevailed when people had to actually make a choice. Turnout was huge, at 84.6%.

With Scottish independence off the table for the foreseeable future, attention now turns to other potential cases of self-determination. Are the lessons of Scotland applicable elsewhere, and will other nationalist movements, who might have been inspired by Scottish success, now be discouraged?

The most obviously comparable case is Catalonia, whose regional parliament voted overwhelmingly on Friday to authorise a referendum — described as a “consultation” — on November 9. Catalan President Artur Mas denies that the “no” vote in Scotland was a setback, and says the real lesson is the need for the people to have their say:

“This is a powerful and strong message that the UK is sending to the entire world — that if there is such a conflict elsewhere in the world you have the right way to try to resolve these differences.”

But there are some strong dissimilarities. Spain needs Catalonia much more than Britain needs Scotland. Catalonia was conquered and oppressed, whereas Scotland joined the United Kingdom more or less voluntarily. And perhaps most importantly, polls for the last year have shown that, prompted in part by the economic crisis, Catalans are quite likely to vote in favor of secession if given the chance.

For those reasons and more, the Spanish government is determined to prevent a vote on independence. This week the constitutional court will take up the question of the legality of “consultation”. It might order the Catalans to abandon the idea, but there’s little chance that will end the matter, and it’s a poor sort of regional autonomy that won’t allow the government to consult its citizens.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had repeatedly poked his nose into the Scottish debate, stressing the difficulties associated with independence in the hope of discrediting the idea (and perhaps hoping that Britain would one day return the favor). Last week he was triumphant, saying the Scots “have chosen the most favourable option for everyone, for them, for the rest of the British citizens and for Europe”.

The other referendum expected this year is in Iraqi Kurdistan. Unlike the Scots and the Catalans, the Kurds are not just an issue for one country — their homeland stretches across parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. But it’s in Iraq that they have built a functioning autonomous state, and the current regional chaos may provide them with the impetus to assert de jure independence.

Also unlike Scotland, there’s no real doubt about the result of a Kurdish referendum if one were to be held — support for independence would be overwhelming, more along the lines of South Sudan or East Timor. (An informal poll in 2005 showed 99% in favor.)

But with a new Iraqi government finally in place, the Kurdish authorities may decide to keep the threat of independence in reserve for a while longer.

Plenty of other regions are the subject of nationalist agitation. In Europe one thinks of such perennials as the Basque country, Sardinia and Corsica; elsewhere there are more potentially serious cases like Tibet, Xinjiang, West Papua, Kashmir and Western Sahara.

Other sorts of unrest don’t involve national self-determination in quite the same sense, but rather a population who think they’re in the wrong country and would rather be attached to a neighbour. That’s been the issue with the rebellious provinces of eastern Ukraine; although self-proclaimed as independent states, the underlying question is whether they should remain in Ukraine or become part of Russia. It’s as similar story with the Serbs of northern Kosovo, the Muslims of southern Thailand, the Hungarians of Transylvania, and numerous others. Scotland might be a disappointment just for its decision in favor of the status quo, but its nationalism is fundamentally of a different sort.

Most interesting perhaps is the case of Belgium, where for two elections now the largest party has been the separatist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), committed — at least in theory — to independence for the Dutch-speaking northern half of the country. Last time around, the other parties combined to keep the N-VA out of government; since the last election, in May, negotiations are still continuing on the formation of a new administration.

Logically (but with the caveat that logic doesn’t always rule in these matters), Flemish independence would just be a stepping stone to reunion with the Netherlands, and without Flanders, the southern half of Belgium, Wallonia, would be more likely to join France. In European terms it would be a major geopolitical earthquake.

But party rhetoric doesn’t always mean what it says, and it’s possible that the N-VA will ultimately be content with a better deal for its region without pushing for a vote on independence. If nothing else, the example of Scotland will remind them that when given the choice, voters sometimes prefer to stick with the devil they know.