Independència/ Unthirldom: How Devolution Reinforced the Independence Movements

Leiden, a.d. XVII Kal. Oct. MMDCCLXVIII A.U.C.,

Yesterday were Catalonia’s parliamentary elections. Several parties ran on a separatist platform, some of which are united in Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes, JxSí). JxSí has framed these parliamentary elections as a de facto referendum on Catalan independence. If a majority had voted for JxSí, President Mas, affiliated with JxSí, would declare independence within 18 months. JxSí did not win the majority of votes, but the independistas (JxSí+CUP) do have a majority of the seats in Catalonia’s parliament though, so it remains unclear what whether an independent Catalonia is any closer than it was yesterday morning. Catalonia is not the only region in which separatism and regionalism are stronger than ever. The Catalan case is quite similar to the Scottish case, where the Scottish National Party captured a majority of the votes and a land-slide victory in terms of seats in the UK’s national elections. Although a clear majority voted against independence last year, combined the supporters of independence and supporters of more power for the Scottish government form a majority.

What is particularly interesting about both the Scottish and the Catalan case is that in spite of devolution, the transfer of power from the national governments to regional governments, a stronger call for independence has been heard in the two regions. The intuition behind devolution was twofold, firstly a lot of people felt that the Catalans and Scots had legitimate issues with the national government. Devolution was seen as a way to give people a bigger say in the way their own community is governed. Secondly, there also was a concern in Madrid and London that if Catalonia and Scotland were not given more power, the separatist movements would only gain more support. In other words, devolution was seen as a way to maintain the unity of the country, while acknowledging the regional differences.

So contradictory to what feels intuitively logical, the national government gave regions what they wanted, thus trying to solve the problem in a democratic and mutually respectful way, and then the regions only started demanding more autonomy. Blair thinks the perpetual demand for more regional power, culminating in the Scottish independence referendum of last year, is caused by the UK’s lack of a mechanism which maintains a national identity. However, I think looking at Spanish and British institutions provides a better answer to this puzzle.

Although Spain and the UK officially are no federations, they show great similarities with a federation, which is defined as: “a system of government in which power is divided between a central authority and constituent political units.” Firstly, the regional governments are elected, secondly, the regional governments have legislative power as well as executive power, thirdly, although officially the national government can repeal devolution in both cases, in practice that is next to impossible. This is the major difference with federations, where the federal government cannot repeal the sovereignty of the constituent states. So, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, lets call it a duck. In other words, the large literature on federalism probably applies to Spain and the UK.

One of the seminal books on federalism, ‘Designing Federalism‘, argues that what keeps federations together is the party system. While the federal government and sub-federal governments cannot control each other directly and completely, political parties can control both national and regional elites. They can do so through two mechanisms, firstly politicians can climb up the political ladder through political parties, giving regional politicians an incentive to comply with the party line, secondly politicians need a ‘label’ to be elected. Because voters do not have time to look into every little detail themselves, they need a way to quickly see which candidate stands where. A political party provides exactly such a label, as a voter broadly knows what a Republican, Labour or D66 candidate stands for. To maintain the value of the label, politicians have an incentive to make the party successful at all levels, thus giving both the national as well as regional elites some power to do what is in the best overall interest of the party. The authors of ‘Designing Federalism’ think that integrated partiesso parties which function on all levels of government and whose representatives are all dependent on each other across the different governmental levels, prevent federations from disintegrating or centralizing completely. This works roughly as follows, when regional politicians try to run on a separatist platform, the party will punish them, but when the central government tries to take away too much power from the regions, the regional politicians will punish the party on a national level. So political parties are the glue that makes the different levels of government stick together.

What is striking about both Scotland and Catalonia is how large the separatist parties are, these parties are not integrated at all, they run on a strictly separatist platform. In other words, devolution gave a lot of power to regional governments, which then became separatist. While before devolution separatism was a relatively minor issue (compared to now at least), and the separatist parties operated on the fringes, the separatist parties have managed to frame the public debate in a way that is highly beneficial to them, namely along regionally divisive lines. As ‘Designing Federalism’ argues, the best way to maintain the federation, is when separation and redistribution of money is not even discussed. Separatism is a genie that should stay in the bottle in order to preserve federal stability.

One of the things identified in ‘Designing Federalism’ as conducive of integrated parties, and which is particularly lacking both in Spain and the UK, is a venue where representatives of the regions can come together to discuss issues related to the powers of the regions and issues of redistribution of money between the regions. In countries where such a venue exists, it is often called the senate or the upper house. If there is an upper house where this is possible, like the US Senate, the debates on the federal structure are held by members of nationally integrated parties. As long as the debate on the federal structure is held by politicians who can be punished for talking about issues that cause federal instability, the debate will never move to a point where separation becomes a viable option, so it will be a ‘contained’ debate. So even though members of the upper house represent the regions, they are still subject to some degree of party discipline, which helps federal stability.

Neither the UK nor Spain has a powerful upper house which allows regions to have a contained debate. The UK has the House of Lords, which does not represent regions, but is appointed by the Queen at the advise of the Prime Minister. Spain has an upper house which does represent the regions, but it is rather weak. The lower house can override the senate with an absolute majority in case of normal laws, in case of constitutional amendments it can do so with a 2/3 majority, and only the lower house can grant or revoke confidence in the prime minister. In other words, although the Spanish upper house does represent the regions, it is too weak to be a real venue of debate among the regions themselves, and between the regions and the national government. Meanwhile, both Scotland and Catalonia are very small compared to the regions in the UK and Spain which favour a union. They are underrepresented, so the lower house could never be a place in which Catalonia and Scotland could defend their regional interests, because they are not necessary to form coalitions. This means that the debate on the power of the regions is not held by and within the mainstream political parties. There is no way for the regions to defend their interests in a formal venue, so this debate has to be held outside the official platforms for discussion, even if national parties can try to gain votes by supporting devolution, like Labour did in the 1990’s. This means the debate is not necessarily contained by integrated national parties.

It is in these situations that Spain and the UK decided to implement devolution to appease the regions. But in fact, giving regional parties more power and resources, and giving Scotland and Catalonia their own parliament, caused the disintegration of the national party system. Especially creating regional parliaments gave the separatist parties a regional platform, which allowed them to form governments to prove they are capable leaders and gave them campaigning resources and access to media. Moreover, it gave politicians a place where opposing the national government was valued, it was the very reason of existence of those parliaments. While before devolution the countries were unitary, devolution made them de facto federalist, which is inherently less stable than a unitary state. Ethnic or linguistic differences are not even necessary factors to create federal instability. For example, Canada’s western provinces were as regionalist as Quebec is now, even though they share ethnicity and language with Ontario. Issues of redistribution of money alone are a sufficient cause for destabilizing a federation. Meanwhile, the UK and Spain share with Canada the lack of an upper house which represents the regions, which, if ‘Designing Federalism’ contains some truth, is a factor which causes instability in these countries.

Now debate is no longer contained by integrated parties, ‘political entrepreneurs’ will run on regionalist or separatist platforms, and by putting independence on the agenda, it becomes an actual possibility. Even though Scotland might not have voted for independence last year, and even if the SNP will lose votes when the British economy starts growing again, there is nothing that prevents a separatist party from becoming successful when another economic crisis hits Scotland. The same is true for Catalonia, independent of yesterday’s results.

It is doubtful that the separatist genie can be put back in the bottle, with or without changes in the constitution of the two countries. If the national governments want to at least try, they need to create an upper house which is as powerful as the lower house, in the hope of moving inter-regional and multi-level bargaining from outside the regular political system into the regular political system. The debate should be held between regional representatives in a clear and institutionalized setting, rather than in non-institutionalized settings. If representatives of Scotland and Catalonia get a bigger say in London and Madrid as representatives of their respective region, hopefully the national political parties will pay more attention to their specifically regional needs. Either way, we should hope that if a declaration of independence of either Scotland or Catalonia takes place, it will happen in an orderly, non-violent and democratic way.

Bottom Line: Integrated parties keep federations together. Spain and the UK lack integrated parties, probably because the political system forces people to hold debates about the federal structure outside of official venues. This means regionalist parties get a chance to influence public debate. Both countries should get a powerful upper house which represents the regions, in order to get an integrated party system.


2 thoughts on “Independència/ Unthirldom: How Devolution Reinforced the Independence Movements

Add yours

  1. On the other hand, there is the issue of keeping the other regions happy. A proposed UK Senate with representation for Scotland and with veto power over all legislation, combined with devolution of more powers, might bring up the West Lothian question, and might give English voters the impression that they are being underrepresented. The solution proposed by the current government (English Votes for English Laws) would make the proposed Senate less useful for regional representation. The other solution (dividing England up into regions which would have powers given to them) would solve this, but it is much more radical.


  2. Why would it be less useful?
    You could have a scheme where English laws are passed by English MPs and English senators, while having the complete House of Commons and the Senate vote on those issue affecting the UK at large.

    Whether that is actually possible, also depends on how taxes are collected, and how those are distributed through laws. Would and English law be allowed to spend Scottish pounds, for instance… So I see how it could get really messy, yes.


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