Ben Wray: Are Europe’s independence movements dead?

Europe’s independence movements are no longer the threat they were in the mid-2010s, but it would be premature to write-them off entirely.

Ben Wray is the co-ordinator of BRAVE NEW EUROPE’s Gig Economy Project and is co-author of Scotland after Britain: Two Souls of Scottish independence (2022).
Picture by Alister

Are Europe’s independence movements dead? German journalist Wolfgang Münchau thinks so.

In a blog, he argues that the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon as Scotland’s First Minister is the fatal blow to “the last of Europe’s great independence movements”.

Beyond Scotland, far-right pro-independence force Vlaams Belang (‘Flemish Interest’) in Flanders and the Catalan independence movement are both long past their peak as serious threats to the unity of their respective states, he argues.

Some of Münchau’s reasoning is highly questionable. For instance, he seems to be of the view that the far-right Spanish nationalist party Vox is winning voters away from Catalan independence parties. I’d challenge Münchau to go to Catalonia and find just one voter that has shifted in this direction. I suspect he will be searching for quite some time. 

Despite the faulty argumentation, Münchau has hit on something that is worth thinking about: why is it that Europe’s independence movements appear to be significantly less menacing today than in the mid-2010s? And if they are in decline, is that a temporary lull or a more long-term diminution?

Passive indicators

Independence parties remain electorally successful. In Scotland, the SNP may have taken a bashing in recent months, but it is still significantly more popular than any other party. In Catalonia, support for the pro-independence parties has proven stubborn despite the state onslaught following the 2017 ‘wildcat’ referendum. Indeed, in the most recent 2021 election the independence parties secured a clear parliamentary majority for the first time. Polls remain fairly tight for and against independence in both Scotland and Catalonia. 

Elsewhere, independence parties seem to be going from strength to strength. Sinn Féin, which Munchaü doesn’t mention, is now the largest party in the north and south of Ireland, while EH Bildu in the Basque Country and BNG in Galicia achieved their best ever results in the 2020 parliamentary elections, both finishing second. In Flanders, Vlaams Belang are currently leading in the polls for the 2024 Belgian election. Independence support, registered through electoral performance and opinion polls, appears as resilient as ever in Europe.

But beneath these headline trends, there has been a weakening in electoral participation, particularly among working class voters, a signal that independence movements may no longer be acting as vessels for those alienated and ignored by the state-wide parties. 

In Scotland, the turnout in the 2014 referendum, 84.6%, was historic. The numbers who registered to vote – 97%, 330,000 people for the first time – were equally impressive. One study found those who ‘fear[ed] unemployment’, were in the bottom 25% of income earners and social-housing tenants were the most likely to vote Yes. 

In the years since, voter participation has tailed off. In the next election, the 2015 UK General Election, 71.1% turned out in Scotland, 7% more than the previous General Election in 2010. In the most recent, high-stakes ‘Brexit’ General Election in 2019, Scottish turnout was at 68.1%. The most recent election in Scotland, the local elections in 2022, saw voter turnout fall to 43%, from 47% in 2017. In Inverclyde, one of Scotland’s poorest Westminster constituency’s, 75.2% turned out in 2015, which fell to 66.4% in 2017 and 65.8% in 2019. Voters energised by 2014 are not turning back to unionist parties, they are merely returning to apathy.

In Catalonia, the class dynamics are more complex, but there has been an even more stark drop off in voter engagement after the 2017 referendum. The December regional election in the immediate aftermath of ‘1-O’ saw 79.1% vote. By the 2021 regional election, that had dropped to just 51.3%. Almost one-third of the electorate dropped out in the four years between insurgency and despondency.

Active indicators

It would be an analytical error to assess how threatening the independence movements are to their respective states purely based on these passive indicators of participation. The dynamics of pro-independence politics are just as much about what is happening on the streets and the intensity of conflict between the independence parties and the state. On these active indicators, it is very clear that the dial has been turned down significantly since the highs of 2014-2017, when both Scotland and Catalonia had insurgent movements and appeared to be on the verge of independent statehood. 

Under Sturgeon’s leadership, the Scottish independence movement has been slowly drained of life since the 2014 referendum. The first blow was Sturgeon’s prioritisation of a UK-wide ‘People’s Vote’ on the EU over an independence vote. Secondly, the First Minister racked up mandates for an independence referendum in election victory after election victory but failed to make good on repeated promises that such mandates would be sufficient in and of themselves (she discouraged protest movements) to deliver that referendum. 

When the reality – that Westminster was not as susceptible to democratic pressure as Sturgeon made out – became too obvious to avoid, Sturgeon made a bid to the UK Supreme Court which she surely knew had almost zero chance of success. That legal defeat left her touting a ‘de facto referendum’ at a UK General Election which neither her nor her party had any real faith in, and she bowed out before having to defend that position at a special SNP conference next month.

As for Catalonia, following the 2017 referendum initial energies were understandably put into resisting the state crackdown on the movement’s leaders and hundreds of activists who faced prison sentences, placing the movement on a defensive footing. Since the centre-left coalition government of PSOE and Podemos came to power in Madrid at the start of 2020, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has successfully been able to deploy a divide and rule strategy towards Catalonia’s two main independence parties, co-opting centre-left ERC, which has supported the government in Madrid in crucial votes, while keeping centre-right Junts per Catalunya at arms-length. 

Sánchez pushed Spanish judges to pardon Catalan independence leaders in 2021, a move which defused tension. Meanwhile, an ongoing but utterly fruitless constitutional ‘dialogue’ between the Spanish Government and the ERC has moved Catalan politics away from rupture and towards accommodation with the Spanish state. When the ERC-Junts coalition government fell apart on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the 2017 referendum in September 2022, it was a potent symbol of the failure of the movement to find a new strategy to deal with the Spanish state’s hard ‘no’ to a referendum.

Neo-autonomism and its limits

In both the Scottish and Catalan cases, we can see that independence parties can continue to draw on the latent energies of their respective referendums for electoral success, while in reality providing no genuine forward momentum towards independence itself. In our 2022 book ‘Scotland After Britain’, James Foley, the late Neil Davidson and I describe this politics as “neo-autonomism”: “a permanent nationalist framing…without a corresponding movement towards statehood”. 

Neo-autonomism has been the dominant politics in Scotland and Catalonia post-referendums, but it has its limits. One of those is the failure of neo-autonomist devolved governments to make use of the powers they do have to deliver social and economic transformation. The SNP and ERC have both largely been orthodox managers of neoliberalism at the devolved level, and have failed to respond to the inflation crisis with the radical measures necessary to defend working class living standards. Eventually, cynicism grows about promises of change tomorrow when little is done in the present.

Another limit is that these parties ultimately rely on the activists which make up the independence social movement for funding and electioneering; if they demoralise these activists too much, electoral campaigning will suffer. Having visited Barcelona for the fifth anniversary of the 2017 referendum protests on 1 October, it was very clear to me that the divide between ERC and the movement has already become a chasm. In Scotland, the SNP has gone from being the largest per capita party in Europe following the 2014 referendum to having a shrunken and hollowed out party base. As David Jamieson has pointed out, one of the possible triggers for Sturgeon’s resignation may have been a mounting scandal over whether the party fraudulently used funds raised from the public specifically for Yes campaigning on rudimentary party activities. Neither ERC or SNP can rely on the traditional sources of cash for state-wide parties – big business and unions – to fund their operations.

With neo-autonomism becoming increasingly exhausted, the most likely trajectory is that the ERC and the SNP drift towards becoming parties that are more or less satisfied with seeking to accrue more devolved powers within the hegemonic state. Nationalism without independence. (There is a precedent for this: the Basque Nationalist Party (EAJ-PNV) has dominated Basque politics on this basis almost without interruption for more than 40 years. However, unlike the SNP and ERC, EAJ-PNV does have very close links to the Basque bourgeoisie, especially fossil capital.)

A more unlikely direction is that the independence parties begin to disappear as serious political forces, with the public returning back to the state-wide parties which were dominant in the 20th century. That would require a transformation of the state, such that it could actually deliver sustained rising living standards for the majority and could act as an effective check on corporate power. Nowhere in Europe are there signs that a serious revival in social democracy is likely. 

A third possibility is that the forces of independence from below find renewed momentum through a more ambitious agenda of constitutional rupture pared with genuinely radical solutions to the inflation crisis. This would require finding creative ways to support the emergent strike movement, especially when it is in direct conflict with neo-autonomist devolved governments. Such a marrying of constitutional and class politics could revive the movement on a new basis, pressuring the likes of ERC and the SNP into a more confrontational relationship with the state.

Münchau is wrong to say that Europe’s independence movements are dead, but they are at risk of becoming irrelevant to the big questions of our time if the neo-autonomist drift continues for much longer.

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