Quotes from Locals on Scottish Independence

In this post, I will share several quotes from my conversations with locals during my time in Scotland. Whenever I had the chance, I would try to gather opinions from people in the country on the topics of Scottish independence, Brexit, and the political realities of their country. Below are a few noteworthy comments from my conversations, ranging from informal exchanges to sit-down interviews.

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson, likely to be the next leader of the Conservative Party, is anything but popular in Scotland. During my time there, I only met one person who shared positive sentiments about Johnson. Many shared the belief that he is unintelligent, using words such as “buffoon” and “idiot” to describe him. If he becomes Prime Minister, this will, without a doubt, further excite the independence movement in Scotland.

Boris Johnson is effective and good at what he does, even if I disagree with him on policy. Right now in Scotland, people aren’t talking about the SNP or Conservatives, they are talking about Boris Johnson, or as I call him, “Boris Trump.”

EU Elections

As mentioned earlier, during one of my first days in Scotland, the country held their elections for EU Parliament. As this person said, the elections were much more significant this year than in years past. The Scottish National Party enjoyed a clear victory.

Today we vote in the EU elections. People are paying attention to what is happening which is unusual. 

Scottish Independence and Brexit

During my time in Scotland, it has become clear that Scottish independence and Brexit are tightly intertwined.

Politicians are putting party over country. Brexit was built on lies from criminal politicians. If this were a business, it would have imploded long ago.

A majority of the people I spoke with were against Brexit, and many, though not all, of these individuals viewed the UK’s departure from the EU as justification for another independence referendum.

After the initial referendum, people thought it was over. Then Brexit happened. Personally, I am against independence, but I am also against Brexit. 

Political Parties

The pro-independence Scottish National Party currently controls the government in Scotland and has worked towards greater devolution on matters such as education and social services for some time. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon is the First Minister of Scotland, and I spoke with many people who were satisfied with her leadership.

[The most important issue to me] is free education. We have this, only in Scotland, thanks to the SNP. I once voted Labour but the SNP has become the best for the Scottish people.

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First Impressions of Spain and Catalonia

I have now been in Spain for one week. I began in Madrid, the largest city in Spain and the capital of the country, and have now made my way to Barcelona, Spain’s second most populous city and the capital of Catalonia. Catalonia is one of 17 autonomous communities in Spain (in addition to two autonomous cities, Ceuta and Melilla), all of which enjoy different sets of devolved powers, similar to those found in the Scottish Parliament.

Meeting the Former President of Catalonia

At this point, you might be starting to ask something along these lines: “European politics and independence movements are interesting things, but how did Joseph choose this as the focus of his summer?” One event that piqued my interest in the matter can be traced back to Duke’s campus. Last November, I attended a talk by Artur Mas, the former president of Catalonia, which was co-hosted by the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy and the Center for International and Global Studies. After his talk, I had the privilege of sitting down for dinner with Mas and several other professors and students. Mas presented the cause of Catalan independence as one of freedom and self-determination, and the interesting combination of left-wing politics and nationalism (which is typically associated with the right in America) left me with more questions that answers.

Artur Mas, the former president of Catalonia, speaking at Duke in November.

Catalonia: A General Overview

The historical relationship between Catalonia and Spain has been tense, most recently evidenced by events in 2017. On October 1, the Catalan government held a referendum on independence, asking the Catalan people: “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?” Over 90% of ballots cast were “Yes,” in favor of independence, though the legality and accuracy of the election has been the subject of much debate over the past two years. Many of the Catalan officials behind the referendum have since been arrested, and Catalonia remains a part of Spain, at least for the time being.

One of my biggest challenges in studying this subject is the language barrier. Unlike in Scotland, where I could initiate political conversations with locals, in Catalonia, just ordering a meal can be a challenge. Most locals speak Spanish and Catalan (yes, they have their own language), and a significantly smaller percentage speak English. Fortunately, the recency of the independence referendum means there is ample evidence to explore around the city. For instance, take a look at these yellow ribbons found all over Barcelona, signifying solidarity with the Catalan leaders currently imprisoned.

The View of Independence in Madrid

During my short 5 days in Madrid, I did my best to explore the capital city and talk to locals about their opinion on the Catalan independence movement. On Wednesday I sat down with a college-aged Madrid native and picked his brain on the matter. Early on, it became clear that he believed the referendum was illegitimate. He explained that a decision to secede would affect all of Spain, and as such, felt it logically followed that all citizens of the country should have a vote on the matter. He also voiced concern for those in an independent Catalonia who were against independence, saying that a simple majority is insufficient to make such a substantial decision.

He shared his view that the politicians in Catalonia have engaged in brainwashing, spreading disinformation amongst their constituents to make it appear as if Catalonia is taken advantage of by the rest of Spain. Instead, he claimed that Madrid is the heart of the Spanish economy and that Catalonia benefits from its relationship with the Spain. Furthermore, he points out that Catalonia is one of Spain’s most autonomous regions, and any attempt to secede would only create problems for the region— they would no longer be members of the EU or UN. Theoretically, Catalonia could rejoin the EU after independence, but Spain holds the power to veto their membership, a move necessary to set an example for other regions considering a similar move. This is not dissimilar to the potential no-deal Brexit situation, as the ensuing economic downfall of Britain would dissuade other EU member states from attempting a similar move.

In the end, I asked for his thoughts on the most likely path forward. He predicts that current socialist leaders in Madrid will take a lenient approach in the handling of Catalan officials responsible for the referendum, leading to widespread dissatisfaction amongst the Spanish population. Soon after, the people will once again elect a conservative government, which he hopes will tighten controls on Catalonia and prevent a similar situation from happening again. 

A Visit to the Palau del Parlament de Catalunya

Earlier this week, I had the unique opportunity of receiving a private behind-the-scenes tour of the Catalan Parliament. Located at the heart of Citadel Park, an expansive green space near the center of Barcelona, the Catalan Parliament is housed in a former military arsenal. My guide explained that in the late 1800s, over 100 years after it was built, the government converted the building into a royal palace. Although it was never used as a residence by a monarch, there are many remnants of its past purpose that are quite noticeable in the architecture and decor of the current structure. Many of the rooms intended for use as a royal palace have since been repurposed for use by the parliament. For example, the throne room now houses the main debate chamber used by members of parliament (see a picture of me standing in the room below).

The Epicenter of the 2017 Independence Vote

This room was the site of the passing of the Catalan declaration of independence of 2017, an event watched closely around the world. The resolution, which was the result of the overwhelming victory of independence in the illegal referendum earlier that year, was a failure. While Catalonia declared itself independent, the declaration was only meaningful if it received recognition from the international community. Needless to say, the world still views Catalonia as a part of Spain. Carles Puigdemont, the President of Catalonia at the time, was likely against the decision to make a unilateral declaration of independence based on an illegitimate vote. Eventually, however, he granted his party’s wish, a move which resulted in his exile in Belgium where he remains to this day.

The Catalan Parliament Today

The Catalan Parliament is made up of 135 members, each elected to four-year terms (sometimes less in the case of dissolution). In today’s parliament, 8 different political groups hold some number of seats in the Parliament, and the government is lead by Quim Torra, the current President of Catalonia. The Parliament is controlled narrowly by pro-independence parties, indicating significant support for independence in Catalonia even after the failed attempt just 2 years prior. As in Scotland, the Catalan Parliament enjoys a wide range of devolved powers and addresses many of these issues through committees. For example, the autonomous region has its own police force and is responsible for a number of matters including education, health, and culture. As you can see below, I visited one of the 5 committee rooms in the palace.

A committee room in the Palace of the Catalan Parliament.

I look forward to sharing more about the events of 2017, as well as those that led to calls independence, in future posts. Tomorrow, I leave the city to hike Montserrat, the location of a famous Catholic monastery nestled high in the mountains!

The Flags of Independence

A pro-independence march took place yesterday in Ayr, Scotland. Notice the red and yellow Catalan “Estelada” flags. (Source: The Herald Scotland)

Are those Catalan flags…in Scotland?

As you can see in the image above, since I’ve left Scotland, the pro-independence activists have continued to make their voices heard. This photo is from yesterday as tensions continue to ramp up after recent comments from Boris Johnson. The prospect of his assuming the role of Prime Minister seems to be unsettling many in Scotland, and pro-independence social media channels I have been following this summer seem to be more active than ever. I include this photo, however, not only to briefly update you on the happenings in Scotland, but to also draw your attention to the flags in the image. In the sea of blue Scottish flags, you will find a handful of blue, red, and yellow flags. This is the Catalan Estelada flag, and its presence in Scotland illustrates the sense of a bond and shared struggle between the two nations.

The Senyera and Estelada

On the left, you see the Senyera flag, the official flag of Catalonia. You can find this flying high above government buildings and museums throughout Barcelona. On the right, you see the Estelada flag, the flag representative of calls for an independent Catalonia. In Catalan, “Estelada” translates to “starry” in English, and you can clearly see the star on the left side. Inspired by the flag of Cuba which also features a triangle and star, the designer of the flag, Vicenç Albert Ballester, created the new symbol of resistance in the early 1900s. You will notice that a number of flags of nations formerly under Spanish rule have a similarly designed flag (Puerto Rico, Cuba, etc.).

A Day in Montserrat

On Friday, I visited Montserrat, a mountain range outside of Barcelona that is the home to Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey. This Catholic abbey nestled high in the mountains (I had to take a train and a funicular to reach it) houses the Virgin of Montserrat, a black statue of Mary and the baby Jesus. Catholics travel from around the world to touch the statue, and, even as a non-Catholic, I joined in on the tradition. After waiting in line for 2 hours, I finally had a moment with the statue.

The mountain of Montserrat, a place at the intersection of Catalan history, nature, and religion, is held dearly by many Catalan nationalists.

Beyond its significance in the greater Catholic Church, the Virgin of Montserrat is also the patron saint of Catalonia. On the gate of the abbey in which the statue is displayed, you will find the quote: “Catalonia will be Christian or it will not exist.” This message represents the importance of religion to the Catalan identity, and as such, the mountain of Montserrat, a place at the intersection of Catalan history, nature, and religion, is held dearly by many Catalan nationalists. Adding to this significance, the monastery protected a number of political refugees during the rule of Franco, a time in which the Catalan culture and language was banned across the nation. For a time, it was one of the only places in Catalonia where you could hear people speaking their native tongue openly and without fear of oppression.

“We Will Do It Again”

Yesterday, I took a day trip to Girona, a city in the Costa Brava region just a half hour outside of Barcelona by high-speed rail. The city has a beautiful medieval centre, but before even making it to that area, I noticed a significant difference between Girona and Barcelona. The city was covered in pro-independence flyers, graffiti, banners, and flags. Although widespread in Barcelona, there was a marked disparity between what you see in Barcelona, population 1.5 million, and in Girona, population 100,000. Later in this post I will discuss potential reasons why this is the case. Below are some images which highlight the pervasive pro-independence political speech in Girona.

In the image below, you will find the Catalan phrase, “Ho Tornarem a Fer,” which translates literally to “We will do it again.” The phrase, which only started appearing amongst Catalan political groups recently, comes from a speech by Jordi Cuixart, a pro-independence Catalan businessman and activist. Currently, Cuixart is serving a sentence of up to 15 years in prison under the charges of sedition and rebellion, attempting to overthrow the existing political order. He is one of several “political prisoners,” as they are called in Catalonia, currently imprisoned by the Spanish government. Outside observers, including Amnesty International, have declared these punishments unreasonable, and many here believe that the current socialist government in Madrid may move to release them or lessen their sentences.

Geographical Differences in Support for Independence

Several days ago, I had lunch with an American expatriate who lives in rural Catalonia with her husband, a native from the village. She recalled her experience on the day of the independence referendum — her region was spared from the more egregious police action, though helicopters flew overhead several times during the day which she believes was in an effort to intimidate potential voters. She explained that in Catalonia, the rural communities support independence more widely than urban communities, likely the reason for more noticeable signs of pro-independence activities in Girona. This is dissimilar to Scotland, where the reverse is actually true. There, the urban centers are in favor of independence, while rural areas are more skeptical of the need for such action.

Earlier in my travels, I met a young professional from Girona and asked for his thoughts on independence. When I mentioned that I had met Artur Mas, he quickly called him “good man.” He went on to say that he finds himself neutral on the issue of independence — he likes the idea of an independent Catalonia, but says that pro-independence parties have failed to explain how Catalonia would proceed after independence. This lack of direction and clarity makes him skeptical of any promises made by politicians about the benefits of independence.

Game of Thrones and Tourism Debate

While in Girona, I also took time to visit several locations used in the recent hit-television show, Game of Thrones. Since scenes were shot in the city just several years ago, tourism numbers have skyrocketed. Though a number of locals employed by the tourism industry are likely happy with the industry’s success, throughout the city you could find signs of a different sentiment. Phrases like, “Tourists are terrorists” and “A Tourist house is a house stolen from a local” were all over, which actually caught me off guard. Shouldn’t they be grateful for the economic boon of foreigners spending money at their restaurants, hotels, and businesses? Instead, it appears that for some, tourism, and its effects on housing prices, is more of a burden than an asset.

Below you can check out several side-by-side images. On the left are scenes from Game of Thrones, and on the right are images I captured of where the filming locations of each scene.