The Catalan government, inspired perhaps partly by events here in Scotland, has called a referendum on Catalan independence. The central government in Madrid has declared the referendum illegal and the issue has been referred to the Constitutional Court; the Court has confirmed its illegality.  There will be bluster; but there will probably not now be a referendum.

They do things differently in Spain.  Are they less democratic?  Perhaps.  But remember  also other historical facts, which make Spain very different from Britain.  Britain has not had a civil war since the 17th century, or a successful foreign invasion since 1066.  Spain had a civil war in the twentieth century, and the wounds are still not entirely healed.  And Spain was successfully invaded by Napoleon and remembers Hitler at the Pyrenees.

The Scottish referendum crisis aroused worldwide interest – and some astonishment.  What other national government in the world would allow – almost encourage – a major part of its territory to hold a referendum on independence, and given a positive result, to secede? And Britain, whose whole strength has been based, historically, on the unity of the British island and the width of the Channel – to throw those incomparable advantages away!  The world remembers the Great Britain of the past and mourns the senile Britain of today.

Devolution can work very well, as British history shows us.  Scotland has always had devolution.  The compromise which was successfully negotiated between Scotland and England in 1707 provided that Scotland and England should remain entirely separate countries as regards their churches and legal systems, but should unite as one nation in their foreign policy and defence.  Thus Scots kept to their accustomed everyday political habits, but gained the defensive advantage of the Royal Navy and were able to spread their people and their interests, as we English did, throughout the world.  And England gained the advantage of a unified island and the military strength of Scotland.

Devolution worked well in Canada too.  150 years ago, we had two colonies in Canada. Lower Canada, which is now called Quebec, had been a French colony till the late eighteenth century and was still entirely French-speaking.  Upper Canada, now called Ontario, spoke English.  Both were difficult to govern from London and clearly ripe for self-government.  Both were threatened by an expansionist United States on their southern frontiers.  What could be done?  A doubly devolved system was devised and it worked. Each of the two provinces had self-government in internal matters, but a new government in a new capital – Ottawa – coordinated defence on the southern frontier and expansion to the west and north. Foreign affairs continued to be handled from London.

There are many other countries – democratic or not – which combine or have combined central government with devolved government in provinces or states.  They can be divided into two categories.  The first category – where disparate states with differing political cultures come together in permanent alliance – is called federation. It often works very well.  The second category – where a previously unified country is divided into partially separated units – is quite different.  It is a progressive tendency which, if not arrested in time, leads to disintegration.  It happened to the Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages.  It happened to the Soviet Union in the 20th century.   It is happening to the United Kingdom now.

Photo by daniel.d.slee

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