Spain's Local Success: Scots Should Look to Catalonia and Take Courage

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The run-up to Scotland's devolution referendum next Thursday has concentrated people's minds on some of the fundamental questions at stake, economic, political and moral. But there is another European region from which the Scots, and English, could learn much. Catalonia, in northern Spain, shares Scotland's history of having been independent until the early 18th century and then subsequently integrated within a larger state. For 20 years, however, it has thrived as an autonomous entity, having successfully negotiated many of the dilemmas now being debated in Scotland.

Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party, argues that "an independent Scottish government must enable business to flourish, jobs to be created and services to be provided". Donald Dewar, the Scottish Secretary, has dismissed claims by the governor of the Bank of Scotland, CBI Scotland and Scottish Financial Enterprise that a tougher tax regime would apply, hitting job creation and investment. Catalonia's experience suggests that devolution, rather than being a burden, could boost Scotland's civic and economic life.

The region is thriving both economically and culturally. At half the national average, it enjoys the lowest unemployment rate in Spain. From this year the Catalan government will directly collect 30 per cent of the region's taxes. Barcelona, Catalonia's capital, has become a modern dynamic city. Jordi Pujol, president of Catalonia since 1980 and leader of the ruling nationalist coalition, Convergence and Unity (CiU), constantly stresses the need for Catalonia to be a "country of excellence". For, he says, excellence, once achieved, will bring about collective and individual respect, self-esteem and freedom.

Pujol's approach to Catalan development has prioritised four key themes: identity, competitiveness, a sense of community and cultural projection. Catalan nationalism has never suffered from the xenophobia, racism and use of violence that has characterised other nationalist movements. It has become a progressive and democratic social movement based upon the defence of the right to be different and the desire to participate in determining the country's political future. In particular, the concepts of purity of race and blood are absent from Catalan nationalism. A Catalan is defined as "a person who lives and works in Catalonia and wants to be Catalan". This excludes ethnicity as a definition and emphasises the individual's choice in adopting an identity. It has, crucially, meant that Catalonia has been able to defy the "slippery slope": the argument that decentralisation of political power invariably sharpens people's appetites for a more extreme form of nationalism.

Spain has also found a way around the all-important West Lothian question about the decision-making limits that should apply to MPs from a devolved region who sit in Westminster.

During the Francoist regime (1939-75), nationalism and democracy stood together as part and parcel of regional demands for the transformation of Spain into a democratic state. After Franco's death in 1975, Catalonia and the Basque region led demands to reopen the national question. …