Like those gap yah Tristrams who backpack from one war zone to the next, bagging a few selfies with traumatised locals along the way, Scottish Nationalists have arrived at their latest destination.
The rest of the world looks at the Spanish constitutional crisis with a mixture of bafflement and boredom. Is Europe hellbent on tearing itself apart?
The Scottish Nationalist beholds an altogether more stirring vista. The barricades are manned, the aroma of gun smoke scents the wind, and the cry of revolution goes up. Strike with your sickle, defenders of the land! Even if the reality is a little more prosaic, Catalonia’s unilateral declaration of independence is a rallying point for the jet-setting freedom fighters of the SNP.
Quebec used to be their port of call and Scottish Nationalists would visit to learn from the insurgent separatists of Canada’s Francophone region. Unfortunately, the lesson was that after two failed referenda Quebecers tired of constitutional politics — what’s the French for ‘Get on with the day job’? — and now sovereignty is even further from the agenda in La Belle Province than it is in Scotland. Palestine was an obvious next stop for the bandwagon but there is a little too much gun smoke there, so virtues were signalled, excuses made, and solidarity announced from afar.
Catalonia is an altogether more attractive prospect. Public opinion is volatile, though not volatile enough for violence, and you can fly direct to Barcelona for under £100. Independence tourism is cheaper than a package holiday these days.
The situation in the autonomous enclave is far from straightforward. The nationalists have been pushing for full independence for a decade now, in defiance of the national government. Earlier this month, Catalan president Carles Puigdemont held a referendum on the matter despite the constitutional court ruling that such plebiscites are illegal. Madrid had protested previous votes and ignored their outcomes, confident that it had the law on its side. This time, however, it sent in the police to disrupt the process and this led to violent clashes in the streets. Over the weekend, the Catalan parliament declared independence and the Spanish government retaliated by removing President Puigdemont from office. The spectre of direct rule, last seen under Franco, hangs in the air.
To any sensible observer, this is a lamentable situation in which both sides deserve a share of the blame. The separatists have been spoiling for a fight for some time despite public opinion in the region being evenly divided between staying in Spain and breaking away. Calling an unconstitutional poll was inflammatory and showed contempt for the rule of law. Yet by its muscled-up response Madrid had lent ersatz nobility to a squalid political manoeuvre, providing the secessionists with propaganda images of elderly voters being thumped by the riot squad. If its overreaction prompts a majority of Catalans to embrace separation, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy will have no one to blame but himself.
While the rest of us look on in dismay and hope a compromise can be reached, Scottish Nationalists see another opportunity for independence tourism. SNP politicians and activists have been banging the drum for Catalan separatism and flying out there to lend support to their brother and sister nationalists. George Kerevan, no longer MP for East Lothian, has set himself up as a roving Thomas Jefferson, the founding father the Catalans never knew they wanted.
Edinburgh South West MP Joanna Cherry flew out to support the October 1 vote, despite being a QC and the Spanish constitutional court having suspended the referendum law the month before. There are people who struggle to follow the legal arguments on Judge Judy who had worked out which way the Spanish courts were going to rule. But such trivialities seem not to burden Miss Cherry. You get the impression that she thinks her elevation to Queen’s Counsel was a real honour for the Queen.
Now Christina McKelvie wants MSPs to vote for ‘recognition of Catalonia’s right to self-determination’. In a bunker deep under the streets of Barcelona, an animated lackey is galloping towards Carles Puigdemont whooping, ‘Senyor President! We’re saved! Christina McKelvie has tabled a non-binding motion before the Scottish Parliament.’
Pity the poor Scottish Nationalists. Everywhere they look, freedom is on the march — from Catalonia to Kurdistan. Everywhere, that is, except Scotland, where the country is heartily scunnered of constitutional argy-bargy after five solid years of nothing else. Scots have had their fill of idealism for a while. We’d like our roads fixed and a couple more GPs down the local practice, please.
The SNP’s competing subterfuges could only endure as long as it was able to make discrete appeals to the schemes and the suburbs. The referendum changed that, forcing them to become the very ‘national party of Scotland’ they had always sought to be and to address Scotland as a whole. This moment is the root of the Nationalists’ present malaise, exposing the contradictions in their Left today, Right tomorrow politics of triangulation. It was now clear that they believed in one thing and one thing only: Independence. Their refusal to accept defeat in the 2014 referendum, their constant prodding and prating for another go, only confirmed this in the minds of voters. Nationalism is always at its most potent the moment before its true intentions can be glimpsed.
The unseemly enthusiasm for struggle and division in Catalonia shows a disregard for history. Such upheaval, even when unavoidable, seldom ends as dreamily as the idealists envision. As George Orwell recalled of his own time there: ‘It seemed queer, in the barber’s shop, to see the Anarchist notice still on the wall, explaining that tips were prohibited. “The Revolution has struck off our chains,” the notice said. I felt like telling the barbers that their chains would soon be back on again if they didn’t look out.’
Deprived of their own struggle, for now, the Nationalists are working out their frustrations and patronising Catalans in the process. They are patronising us too. We don’t want their homage to Catalonia, we want home-building in Cumbernauld.
I was 17 when a fine teacher introduced me to an alluring and dangerous one. It was Mr McGlone’s English class and this frustrated but brilliant dominie would slouch against a filing cabinet branded with his shoe prints — rumour had it he kicked the unit every time he was forced to teach Sunset Song — and read to us from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
Muriel Spark’s Edinburgh schoolmarm has been softened by memory and Hollywood into an ‘inspirational’ educator — ‘Oh Brodie, my Brodie!’ In fact, she was a deeply sinister romantic who instructed her young charges in fascism and fornication, beguiling them with dubious tales of her eternal prime.
Newly announced plans to mark Spark’s centenary include the republishing of her 22 novels. This is welcome news but it is to her sketch of Calvinism transfigured, semi-liberated and with its own capricious moral code, that I will again be drawn. When Jean Brodie gets you at an impressionable age, you are hers for life.
It’s Hallowe’en tomorrow and some schools encourage younger children to come to lessons in costume. If you want to inspire true terror in their teachers, dress them up as John Swinney’s eduction reforms. More frightening than any goblin and cheap too — all you’ll need is the price of a blank sheet of paper.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at email@example.com.