The Scottish referendum last month saw a huge wave of enthusiasm for independence and the pro-autonomy movements across Europe.
Scots may have eventually voted to remain part of Great Britain, but the fact that the referendum happened at all has been seen as inspirational by many. Here is a brief look at some of the nations that might be arriving on your world map sometime soon (or not).
But first, Scotland
The Scottish vote saw 55 percent of people voting against independence, and 45 percent for, with a record-breaking turnout of 84.5 percent. That’s pretty close, all things considered. In the closing days of the campaign, all three main British party leaders—Tory prime minister David Cameron, his Liberal Democrat coalition partner Nick Clegg, and opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband—made wild promises through their medium of former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown.
Brown was previously portrayed as a dour loser who couldn’t be trusted to run even a bath. But suddenly he was back, he was inspiring and, helpfully, he was Scottish. It also helped that he wasn’t Cameron, who was the real-life inspiration for the film Riot Club, or Clegg, whose popularity is less than half that of Jar Jar Binks. And Miliband is so uninspiring I can barely bring myself to finish this sentence.
Brown promised “home rule” if the Scots voted No, and a subsequent “vow” by all three party leaders pledged new, far-reaching and imminent powers to Edinburgh. And sure enough, when the results came in, the “vow” held. For three hours.
That’s when Cameron announced that further Scottish devolution was to go ahead, but that he was going to throw English devolution into the mix as well. Labour stands to lose from such a set up, due to much of its support coming from Scotland, and the “vow” started to feel strangely less solid. Before the vote, there seemed to be an implication that new powers were going to come into force so quickly that Cameron was practically holding his finger over his phone’s send button having already typed a text message to the queen asking for her to approve constitutional change.
And the whole independence question hardly seems settled—the pro-independence Scottish National Party saw its membership increase from 25,000 pre-vote to reportedly more than 100,000 today.
Autonomy for the UK?
So a new, more federal UK might be on the cards. The only snag is that each party involved seems to be playing a different card game.
The most obvious countries affected by the Scottish issue are Wales and Northern Ireland, which alongside England and Scotland make up the UK. Both already have regional assemblies as well as movements to break from the union, albeit in very different circumstances.
The Welsh appetite for independence stands somewhere between 3 percent and 17 percent, depending on who writes the surveys. But left-leaning nationalist party Plaid Cymru, which has 11 of the 60 seats in the Welsh Assembly, is pushing for greater autonomy, especially if England and Scotland are going to get it.
Plaid Cymru’s Bethan Jenkins is the Welsh Assembly member for the South Wales West region. Did she think Scotland’s referendum had changed anything? “It certainly has, and in a very positive way indeed,” she said. “It has sparked people’s imagination, and encouraged more people to be curious about Plaid Cymru and about the national movement.”
Jenkins said that she expects a renewed independence movement in the country. “This won’t be an overnight thing,” she said. “It will take time, but let’s not be negative. Scotland showed us that it is possible to spearhead such a campaign, and that they can fight the British establishment.” She said that the situation “cannot be the same ever again.”
One of the most important driving factors behind the campaign, once again, is central government austerity measures. “I think that is the work that we need to do in encouraging people to realise that under the UK political system, austerity will remain,” said Jenkins. “Scotland, and the Scottish National Party in particular, offered a new way forward and an alternative to austerity. That is what we want to try and do in Plaid Cymru as well.
“Clearly we wish for Wales to be independent one day, but we will talk to as many people as we can along the way, and involve ourselves in the campaigns that matter to people in their every day lives such as saving local schools and fighting against local authority cuts.”
A new union for Ireland?
Across the Irish Sea is another story altogether. Northern Ireland has a power-sharing assembly already—the result of years of peace negotiations between Republican and Unionist forces which ended with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the end of the armed struggle. Sinn Fein, the Republican movement formerly linked to the IRA, is now part of a power-sharing government with the Democratic Unionist Party.
Since the Scottish poll, Sinn Fein’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has called for a border poll with Ireland. This poll, provisions for which are entrenched in the Good Friday Agreement, would be a vote within what is now Northern Ireland as to whether to join with a united Ireland.
The vote would largely, although not exclusively, go along community lines, with Catholics wanting to leave the UK and Protestants wanting to stay. Appetite for the border poll itself is relatively high, with 56.2 percent of Northern Irish residents in support according to one recent survey. However, only 7.7 percent of the people polled would support immediate independence, with 32.5 percent wanting it instead in 20 years time and 59.8 percent totally against. But the Catholic population is gradually growing, while there is a drop in the number of Protestants. This change in demographics could point towards the prospect of a reunited Ireland becoming a reality in the decades to come.
Unlike other UK countries, Northern Ireland is still seen by many as a British colony, and that’s understandable. British military repression pre-1998 saw tanks and soldiers on the streets to “maintain order”, alongside paramilitary violence including bombing campaigns. This makes the whole issue of Northern Ireland far more complex than somewhere like Scotland, and a united Ireland would be a huge defeat for the UK.
Elsewhere in the UK, wannabe autonomous regions have also got in on the act. These includeYorkshire, whose Yorkshire First movement is pushing for a regional parliament, arguing that its economy is double that of Wales. The south western county of Cornwall is also giving it a go, complete with its Mebyon Kernow party which calls for Cornwall to be treated as a country within Britain.
Homage to Catalonia
But elsewhere in Europe, the issue of independence is far higher on the agenda, most notably in Catalonia, the north-eastern region of Spain that includes Barcelona. Catalonia’s regional government called a referendum for 9 November. But before you Google an image of the Catalan flag and make it your profile picture, there’s a rather large “but” involved.
“We don’t even know if we will vote yet,” said Barcelona-based journalist and independence supporter, Lídia Martorell, “And it is not a referendum on independence. The Catalan government is sounding out the people’s opinion before going about the process of changing the constitution and laws so we can have a legitimate vote and do the same as Scotland.”
The problem is that Spain’s central government, led by the right wing People’s Party, has challenged the decision to hold a referendum, leading to the constitutional court forcing an end to all campaigning and suspending the vote for up to five months. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy described the call for a referendum “anti-democratic”, which follows a similar logic to Tony Blair being described as a “Middle East peace ambassador”. (Note: This has changed since the time of writing; Catalonia will now hold a poll, but it will be unofficial.)
“You can’t tell people they are not going to vote, because that will be really hard,” said Martorell. “I can’t predict they are going to burn the streets, but I think if the consultation referendum does not happen, the Catalan government will announce elections. This is worse for Spain. People will vote for the most radical party that wants independence.”
Like Scotland, central government policies post-economic crisis have been widely seen as contributing to the clamour to separate, and the past few years have seen the independence movement rocket in popularity.
“The crisis arrived and we had all these clashes with central government, like giving a lot of money but not receiving the fair treatment we deserve, and there were also many other things,” said Martorell. These others things include the Spanish Minister for Education airing his concerns that too many children speak Catalan and not enough of them Spanish. “It is in our interest to hispanicise Catalan children,” he said.
“He started an unnecessary fight for the language,” said Martorell. “People were storing up all this negativity.
“I love Spain,” she continued. “I’m so proud of the Spanish culture and my Spanish friends.” But she added that the media often pushed negative images of her community. “Catalans are thieves, they are selfish people who want to take all the money, they want to destroy Spain, and all this shit.”
But neither side was perfect, she added. “The Catalan media is politicised, hammering people’s brains with the issue of independence like priests, saying the redemption day will arrive when we’ll be independent. Do you think this will be the end of all of our problems? It sounds so apocalyptic, and when people are desperate, when people are suffering the crisis, it’s like taking the first religion that knocks on your door.”
Despite these concerns over what a future Catalonia would look like, Martorell said that the movement was inspirational. “When you go on a demonstration, like we did on 11 September, independence day for Catalonia, and you are able to put two million people on the street out of a population of 7 million, this is a lot of people warming the atmosphere so much.”
Catalonia is not the only region in Spain with an independence movement. Back in June, Basque separatists formed a 150,000-strong human chain that stretched 123km as part of a campaign to allow a referendum on their own exit. A recent study by Euskobarómetro suggested that 59 percent of Basques want a referendum, an increase of 5 percent on the previous year.
The movement for Basque independence has a painful history for many, and was long associated with the paramilitary group ETA, which has since respected a ceasefire and changed its focus towards using peaceful means within the democratic framework.
These movements are just a few of those currently making headway across Europe. Flanders, the region in Belgium containing around 60 percent of the population, also has a independence movement. And Italy has two, largely right wing, attempts for independence in the regions of Veneto and Padania.
The age of economic crisis and austerity across Europe has seen a multitude of political reactions, and independence movements, at least in part, would seem to be one of them. The crisis has also led to the growth of radical left wing groups such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, which have the potential to deliver a hugely damaging blow to Europe’s austerity project. But fear is also encouraging people to look elsewhere, to the far-right in countries like Hungary and Greece, which has seen a worrying rise in Nazi movements that attempt to blame economic misery of migrants, Muslims and other minority groups.
With such threats to the status quo on the table, and with other forms of resistance also growing, it remains to be seen if the disillusionment with the political mainstream throws up any more surprises in the years ahead. We might see a very different Europe in the decades that follow.