Scots & Catalans: Union & Disunion by J H Elliott - review by David Gilmour

David Gilmour

Put Out More Flags?

Scots & Catalans: Union & Disunion


Yale University Press 339pp £20 order from our bookshop

In October 2017, the autonomous government of Catalonia held a referendum on independence from Spain despite the fact that the action was illegal under the 1978 constitution (which Catalans had voted for) and the statute of autonomy (which they had also supported). It was later declared unlawful by Spain’s Constitutional Tribunal. Following the referendum (which had a turnout of 43 per cent), the Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, declared independence, an act which the Spanish government naturally refused to accept. Then, fearing arrest, he fled with several of his ministers to Brussels. Instead of being embarrassed by Puigdemont’s performance, his supporters erupted onto the streets of Barcelona demanding ‘liberty’ for Catalonia and an end to the ‘oppression’ of the Spanish state. For them, their leader and his fellow exiles were ‘martyrs’, while the Catalan ministers who had remained in Spain and were now under arrest were ‘political prisoners’. 

People who remembered the dictatorship of General Franco, when Catalans (and other Spaniards) really were repressed, were bewildered by the spectacle of vast crowds marching with banners and waving placards demanding ‘freedom’. In what sense were prosperous Catalans, living in an autonomous region within democratic Spain, not free? As the drama developed, the Spanish newspaper El Mundo published a letter from the distinguished historian Sir John Elliott (first printed in The Times) blaming the crisis chiefly on the Catalan government, which, he claimed, has

for many years been attempting to impose its radical agenda on Catalan society. Through its control of the educational system, influence over the media, manipulation of Catalan history for its own purposes and, in some instances, intimidation, it has sought to impress on the population at large its depiction of Catalonia as the victim of malign outside forces.

Elliott had certainly earned the right to speak out. Although he may be less colourful and flamboyant than some other British historians of Spain, such as Raymond Carr and Hugh Thomas, he is the finest. He has been studying Catalonia since 1953, when he decided to live with a family in Barcelona on condition that its members spoke to him only in Catalan. His first book, The Revolt of the Catalans, was a study of the 17th-century rebellion against the Madrid government of the Count-Duke of Olivares.

In Scots & Catalans, Elliott traces the history of Catalonia from its medieval glory, when, as the principal region of the kingdom of Aragon, it formed part of an empire that included Sicily, Sardinia and even Athens. Yet by the time that Ferdinand, the heir apparent to the Aragon throne, married Isabella, the heiress to the crown of Castile, in 1469, it had been weakened by plagues, recessions and civil wars. The subsequent union of the crowns of Aragon and Castile took place at a time when the former was unnaturally weak and underpopulated and the latter was richer, more powerful and more populous than in any previous period. Castile’s political dominance, a consequence of this imbalance, lasted long after economic power had shifted towards Aragon, a situation that led to the Catalan rebellion of 1640 and another one at the beginning of the 18th century. Catalonia’s support for the Habsburg claimant in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14) persuaded the Bourbon candidate, Philip V, who eventually prevailed, to abolish its ‘ancient liberties’ and attempt to centralise the state. The Catalan grievance – and the demand for redress and political empowerment – has its origins there.

All romantic nationalisms of the 19th century required myths to sustain them, and Elliott is excellent on the Catalan rewriting of history, the cultivation of tradition, the sense of victimhood and the invention of Catalonia as a medieval ‘nation’. Buttressed by legend though it may have been, the Catalan Renaixença (or Renaissance) of the 19th century was a genuine cultural movement, with its own art and its own literature. Thanks also to Barcelona’s growing industrial might, it became possible to make a powerful argument for a political arrangement that recognised the region’s special character. The first attempt to create an autonomous Catalonia collapsed with Franco’s victory in the Civil War. The second, made in the late 1970s, seemed to be a great success: effective and responsible Catalan politicians cooperated with the government of Adolfo Suárez in Madrid and were rewarded with the support of the Catalan electorate. The Catalan question appeared to have been settled.

Scots & Catalans is, as its title suggests, comparative history, a genre Elliott has excelled in before, as exemplified by his study of Olivares and Cardinal Richelieu and his brilliant Empires of the Atlantic World, a history of the British and Spanish empires in the Americas. I was a little nervous when I heard that he was going to tackle Scotland because I doubted that a man in his mid-eighties would be capable of assimilating the vast historiography of another country. Yet Elliott has succeeded both in understanding Scotland and in illuminating its nationalist movement through subtle comparisons with that of Catalonia. The circumstances of union with a larger neighbour were plainly more favourable to the Scots than to the Catalans. In the 18th century, Scotland became ‘hitched to an economy in full expansionist flow’ and could take advantage of an empire expanding all over the globe: a family like the Johnstones of Westerhall could leave their damp glen in Dumfriesshire and pursue careers in North America, the West Indies, the East India Company and Westminster. Several Scots became prime ministers and many became colonial governors, while home-based Scots retained control of their courts, their kirks, their schools and local government. Romantic national feeling took hold in Scotland, as in most of Europe, but Walter Scott, the country’s most illustrious bard, could be romantic about Scotland’s past and simultaneously realistic about its future in the union, forming what many Scots happily came to call ‘North Britain’.

Elliott follows Scotland’s path to devolution and the creation of the Holyrood parliament, but, like most of us, is puzzled by what happened next. In 1997 many of us voted for devolution partly because we thought it was right and partly because we believed it would stifle demands for independence. (As someone with two Scottish grandfathers and two English grandmothers, I have never felt I belonged to two nations.) Elliott ascribes growing support for Scottish independence largely to the failures of the main British parties: to the Tories for the Poll Tax fiasco and Margaret Thatcher’s disregard for Scottish sensibilities, and to Labour because, with the exception of Donald Dewar, all its leading Scots chose to pursue careers at Westminster rather than in Edinburgh. He attributes support for independence in Catalonia partly to the policies of the conservative Partido Popular, which is perennially insensitive to regional feelings, but mainly to the behaviour of the Catalan government, which has indoctrinated two generations of young people into thinking that ‘victimised’ Catalonia is not really a part of Spain – even the weather forecast on the Catalan channel TV3 covers the Spanish capital only in a list of European cities.

One finishes this lucid and well-reasoned book with a feeling of exasperation that movements of national independence still exist in western Europe. No doubt Elliott is right to observe that devolution can simply create an appetite for more devolution and, ultimately, for independence, but how futile and unimportant the issue seems in a world beset by military and environmental problems that might destroy the planet. Do we in Europe in the 21st century need more little states, more flags, more embassies, more toy armies marching about? Is there any excuse for nationalism today, except in places where peoples have been expelled and their homelands occupied?


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