Why have we heard so little about the Catalan independence referendum?

Catalonia is due to hold a referendum on October 1 - but faces repression from Madrid

Catalonia is due to hold a referendum on October 1 - but faces repression from Madrid

Friday, September 22, 2017

This isn't exactly a story of unrequited love, but it's certainly one of curiosity that seems to flow in only one direction. 

In the period leading up to the Scottish independence referendum, Catalonia's broadcast media eagerly followed every twist and turn of events in a distant and very different stateless European nation. 

The reason is not hard to understand - Scotland was experiencing in real-time what the majority of Catalans longed for, namely a chance to choose its own constitutional future, with a commitment from all sides to respect and implement the outcome.

Simply the fact of a binding referendum made it a salient news story for Catalans. If a process of self-determination could be agreed in another EU country, it offered hope that a precedent was being set that would prove irresistible in Spain. At the very least it weakened the Spanish government's moral authority in offering nothing but a flat "no". The only defence Madrid had against that process was to encourage ignorance and disinterest. 

The official government line was that Scotland had no relevance to the Catalan situation, because the UK's constitutional arrangements were entirely different from Spain's. But that was never going to be the final word on the matter. There was no chance of Scotland conveniently disappearing from the airwaves, because Catalan TV is autonomous and conscientiously caters to the interests and aspirations of those it serves.

How utterly different things look now that the tables are turned, with Scotland looking on as Catalonia holds its own independence referendum on October 1. You'll search in vain for BBC Scotland's obsessive interest in the vote, because they've been reluctant to give it even the most cursory of mentions. This in spite of the fact that it's every bit as vital a story for Scottish viewers as the Scottish referendum was for Catalan viewers. 

The unauthorised nature of the referendum has a clear parallel in Scotland, because Theresa May's government has recently departed from four decades of British policy by declaring that there is now a Westminster veto on any attempted exercise in Scottish self-determination ("now is not the time"). It's perfectly possible that Nicola Sturgeon will sooner or later have no option but to push ahead with a referendum in the absence of London's blessing, in which case there's an obvious fascination in seeing how a similar scenario plays out before our eyes in Catalonia. 

Is it actually possible for a country to become independent by this method? If it does prove possible, could there be a domino effect with Scotland first in line?

BBC Scotland are not remotely fascinated by these questions - that much is beyond reasonable dispute. But why is Scottish television so much less interested in Catalonia than Catalan television was in Scotland?  Apologists for the BBC would doubtless say that the corporation is merely reflecting its viewers' own lack of interest in the subject. But that makes no sense - it's pretty likely, for obvious reasons, that more Scots have been to the Costa Brava than Catalans have been to Burntisland. 

In any case, what viewers are interested in is largely a chicken-and-egg question. Interest in women's football was fairly limited until it was belatedly given a platform. It's up to BBC Scotland to explain why events in Catalonia are so important, especially for the near-half of the population that voted Yes in 2014.

But it doesn't happen for one simple reason - while there is such a thing as Catalan TV, with broadcasting powers devolved to Barcelona, the concept of Scottish broadcasting is largely a myth.  BBC Scotland is merely an underfunded regional branch of the state broadcaster - with the state in question being the United Kingdom. The claims of conscious BBC bias are probably a bit paranoid, but the fact remains that when it's firmly in the interests of the state for a topic to be downplayed, that's magically what happens at BBC Scotland. 

The irony is that the state has rather a good story to tell in this instance. If a consultative Scottish referendum takes place, it's extremely unlikely that the British government would ever resort to the Franco-era tactics that the Spanish authorities are currently employing.  Explicit political repression isn't really part of the British culture. But even though a favourable comparison is there to be made, the subject matter is simply too hot to handle, so the people of Scotland must be fed their familiar diet of football, murders and cute animals.

It turns out that Scotland and Catalonia each have something to envy in the other - Catalonia has a media which serves its needs, while Scotland still has a democratic road-map to independence, in spite of the obstacles that have recently popped up. Perhaps that's why the fate of the two countries seem entwined in a semi-mystical way. 

Certainly there'll be a tear or two shed in pro-independence Scottish households if our Catalan friends overcome the disgraceful intimidation, successfully hold their referendum, and return a resounding "Si" vote.

James Kelly's blog, Scot goes POP!, is among the most popular political blogs in the UK. He has also contributed to a number of newspapers and magazines.

You can check out the blog here or follow James on Twitter.

James has also written for us about the tyranny of Theresa Maythe madness of King Trump, the crisis created by the Brexit legal challenge and why Scottish Labour care more about Corbyn than their country.