Students at the heart of the Scottish and Catalan independence movements 

By Alan Rubin Castejon

University activists reflect on the contrasts and similarities that unite their respective secessionist movements.  

The ever-evolving Catalan and Scottish Secessionist movements are among the most well-known campaigns for independence around the world. The political struggle for independence has reached an interesting point, with the SNP currently in the midst of a historic leadership election and Esquerra Republicana, a left-wing pro-Catalan independence party standing in a minority government for the first time in its lifetime. 

Although each movement has its unique challenges and developments, there are still strong connections between them, as evidenced by the display of the Saltires during the national day of Catalonia, Diada, every year and the estelada, a flag which represents support for Catalan independence, being flown at Scottish marches. 

To gain further insight into these movements, The Glasgow Guardian has spoken to student activists from both movements: Olaf Stando, the international officer of Young Scots for Independence (the SNP official youth wing), and Duran Matamoros, his counterpart in Jovent Republica (the youth wing of Esquerra).

On the Catalan pro-independence movement, Matamoros acknowledges that “the whole effervescence that happened in 2017 is quite far away”, referring to the buildup of pressure and momentum that led to the constitutionally illegitimate referendum in October of that year and the legal procedures against Catalan pro-independence  leaders that followed. He describes the current state of the movement as a “standby situation” and explains the dialogue process that the Catalan government finds itself in with the central Spanish government: “We need to take the whole political affair outside of the legal course so that people are not persecuted for calling a referendum or taking part in one.”

As Spain readies itself for a general election later this year many pollsters suggest a centre right government led by the Partido Popular with the confidence and supply of the far right Vox party. “I do not believe in independence because I hate Spain but because I think that Catalonia will be better independent. I would never want Spain to be ruled under a government that is fascist or has far right components within it,” says Matamoros. 

Despite his disapproval of the possibility of this government Matamoros recognises that it could help the Catalan independence cause, since “they will be more harsh and provoke a greater reaction”. He draws a comparison with the Scottish movement here, and the beneficial narrative that could be written as a result of the UK leaving the EU. 

The 2014 Edinburgh Agreement and the Smith report (a set of recommendations for devolving further powers to the Scottish Parliament, following the 2014 Scottish independence referendum) are beacons of judicialization that the Catalan group hope to see for their movement, with Matamoros citing the Spanish constitution and judicial system as amongst the main barriers to achieving independence. 

Recently back from Galicia, where he attended an EFA (a coalition of European pro-independence  parties) Youth Summit, Stando stressed the unity and shared motives of pro-independence movements across Europe. “Self-determination is what unites our movements. In both Scotland and Catalonia, people vote for more progressive and leftist parties, and you don’t often get these outcomes. It is a desire for democracy and to get the governments we vote for.” 

His own movement, that of Scottish independence, Stando says is “fundamentally strong.” “We are at a crossroads due to the unforeseen resignation of Sturgeon, but despite this, the SNP continues to be a driving force for Scottish independence.” 

Before her resignation, Nicola Sturgeon announced the next general election would be a “de facto referendum“, meaning the SNP would run on the explicit message that a majority of votes for them or another pro-independence party would be considered a demonstration of the will for independence by the majority. Duran Matamoros draws comparison with the 2015 Catalan parliamentary elections when the major pro-independence parties united under the electoral pact Junts Pel Sí, an exercise he called “useful” despite the fact the parties received a combined total of less than 50% of the vote. 

However, Matamoros expresses scepticism about whether a similar strategy would work for the Scottish independence movement, due to the differing ideological nature of Catalan nationalism, which spans parties on both the left and right. Unlike in Scotland, since the end of the Franco dictatorship in the 70s, Catalonia has been dominated by centre-right politics. It was only in the 2021 regional elections that left wing Esquerra became the largest pro-independence party, and nationalist ideology remains deeply divided. 

Matamoros’ views the ideological component in Catalonia as a strategic benefit to achieving independence if parties across the political spectrum share a common vision. “Junts and Esquerra should share a common strategy, that is, Esquerra should focus on the left side of the political spectrum. And Junts should do more liberal and centre-right narratives that would also appeal to pro-independence supporters,” he explained. On the other hand, he acknowledges that competition between independence parties creates “continuous confrontation which only decreases the force as a whole that the pro-independence movement has.” 

Although the Scottish independence movement does not encompass such a wide range of parties, with the SNP still the most dominant force, Standos believes that ideological changes have also occurred here. He considers that the SNP has shifted to the right since 2014, understanding “the desire to capture 2014 No voters and 2016 Remain voters” as presented by their embrace of free ports and economic liberalisation measures. 

However, he stressed that he does not consider the SNP to occupy the centre-right. “The SNP is very much a centrist party, very much in the middle of the pact,” he explained. He also stated that “broadly, the independence movement is a centre-left movement which is crying out for the SNP to embrace more progressive policies.”

Although Stando stressed his neutrality on the leadership race due to his position within the party and the YSI, he did state that “the candidate we choose should be progressive, and unashamedly so, both economically and socially.”

“The party risks drowning in division and a spiral of polarisation which we haven’t had since 2004, when Alex Salmons was elected leader” Stando highlighted on the SNP’s leadership race. “The movement in Scotland feels a bit disjointed, perhaps disoriented, and it just needs a bit of a push to get going and campaigning, and I’m confident that with a new leader that’s exactly what we are going to do.”

Looking to the future, both Matamoros and Stando express optimism for the progress of their respective movements. In Scotland, the movement’s success relies heavily on the outcome of the SNP leadership election and the ability of the next First Minister to maintain the momentum and garner greater support for independence. In Catalonia the “standby situation” seems to drag on, seriously hampered by the rigid constitution and judicial hurdles it faces. Additionally, the dialogue process is threatened by the rise of the right throughout the rest of Spain.

“Despite the differences in language and culture, the desire for political autonomy and the right to choose one’s own government is a common thread that runs through both movements”, says the SNP’s Stando. He believes that this shared vision will continue to drive the movements forward towards their ultimate goal of independence.


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