Clara Ponsatí and her lawyer, Aamer Anwar, Edinburgh, Scotland, April 2018

Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images

Clara Ponsatí and her lawyer, Aamer Anwar, after her extradition hearing in Edinburgh, Scotland, April 2018; Ponsatí was wanted in Spain on charges related to her involvement in the October 2017 referendum on Catalan independence

A year ago, a small, white-haired woman emerged from an Edinburgh courthouse into a cheering crowd waving Catalan banners and Scottish flags. Clara Ponsatí, a professor of economics and finance at the University of St. Andrews, had just been served with an arrest warrant issued by the Spanish government that demanded her extradition to face charges of rebellion and misappropriation of funds.

For a few months in 2017, Ponsatí had been minister of education in the Catalan government as it organized and carried out a referendum on independence from Spain. After a horrified world watched Spanish police clubbing citizens attempting to vote in the referendum, which had been declared illegal by the Constitutional Tribunal in Madrid, she fled to Belgium and then returned to Scotland. Several other ministers, including Carles Puigdemont, the president of the Catalan government, also received arrest warrants in the countries where they had taken refuge. Twelve Catalan leaders, elected politicians or activists, were imprisoned and are at the moment on trial in Madrid before the Supreme Court on charges of rebellion and misuse of public funds. If Scotland sent her back to Spain, Ponsatí would face rebellion charges carrying a sentence of up to twenty-five years in prison.

In the street, her lawyer told the crowd that she would fight the extradition. Instantly, money for her legal battle began to flow in. Within two hours, the Scottish public had contributed £40,000; a day later, the fund had reached almost £250,000. Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of the Scottish National Party (SNP) government, declared her solidarity with Ponsatí. Scottish columnists bombarded the Spanish government with reproaches.

Under Scots law, extradition can only be granted if the offense cited would also constitute a crime in Scotland. The Edinburgh prosecutors were reduced to digging up a statute of 1351, updated in the Treason Felony Act of 1848, which was concerned with “levying war against her Majesty.” Months passed without a decision, while the modest but determined Ponsatí became Scotland’s latest heroine. Then in June 2018, the right-wing Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy suddenly fell and was replaced by a socialist administration under Pedro Sanchez. Within weeks, the extradition requests were withdrawn, although Ponsatí and her colleagues are still liable to be arrested if they step onto Spanish soil.

The Ponsatí affair was an easy way for Scots—not only those active in their own independence movement—to show their affection for Catalans and their cause. The relationship has a history. In the 1970s, soon after the fall of the Franco dictatorship in Spain, the Catalan leader Jordi Pujol was making regular visits to Edinburgh and conferring with prominent figures in the pro-independence Scottish National Party. Young Scots visiting Barcelona found common ground with Catalan students and intellectuals, as they discussed the history of their two countries and shared grievances about real or imagined oppression from Madrid or Westminster. In this last turbulent year, there were many Scottish flags in the vast demonstrations surging through Barcelona, held by supporters from Glasgow, Dundee, or Edinburgh.

Yet there are important differences between the political situations and historical experiences of the Scots and Catalans. One is obvious enough: the United Kingdom has no written constitution, and it’s accepted that the Scots can declare their independence with (reluctant) British consent as soon as they demand it incontrovertibly by referendum. Even Margaret Thatcher conceded this, and her successor, John Major, said so explicitly in 1993. The Catalans, on the other hand, live under the Spanish Constitution of 1978, which allows wide autonomy to Spain’s “nationalities” but forbids secession. Article 2 of its preliminary section proclaims “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible patria of all Spaniards.”

A second contrast is historical. Any Scottish student is aware, if sometimes dimly, that Scotland was once an independent country. Catalonia was a principality, strongly attached to its language, culture, and traditional rights, but never entirely free of the orbit of other powers in the Iberian peninsula—for most of the time, Castile.

“Catalanizing” intellectuals in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries worked to construct a more satisfying narrative of nationhood (most stateless nations in Europe did the same). According to J.H. Elliott in Scots and Catalans, Pujol and his Convergència i Unió party aimed to “endow Catalonia with as many of the trappings of a sovereign state as they could. This, in their eyes, was an act of historical reparation.” In 1987 Víctor Ferro, a Catalan legal historian, argued that Catalonia was once “a ‘complete’ state, with all the attributes of a sovereign entity.” This made Catalonia’s history sound more like Scotland’s, except that its “complete” statehood had been repeatedly suppressed, whereas Scotland had surrendered its independence as part of an orderly—if distinctly corrupt—bargain: the Anglo-Scottish Union treaty of 1707.


Catalan nationalism had long included an element of victimology. For hundreds of years, both urban elites and peasants had seen their country devastated and its rights repeatedly violated by outsiders—whether French invaders or the Castilian armies of the Bourbon dynasty—and its constitutions torn up by control-obsessed centralizers in Madrid. Paranoia can be the result of genuine persecution, and a nationalist narrative of constant victimhood can represent the real experience of history. In Poland and Ireland, such narratives hardened into messianic doctrines of sacrificial martyrdom. Catalans, with a more pragmatic mentality, learned to expect the worst and stay obstinately loyal to their traditions.

Elliott’s book, carefully researched and lucidly written, ought to be widely read. The English-speaking world has badly needed an intelligent, critical history of Catalonia, from its medieval beginnings to the present crisis, in order to understand why and how the movement for Catalan independence grew so powerful, and why the Spanish government in Madrid felt it necessary to intervene with force to block it.

Elliott, who is Regius Professor Emeritus of Modern History at Oxford, is a specialist on early-modern Spain and Catalonia. As he admits, Scotland was much less familiar ground for him. But certain that a comparative study of these two varieties of nationalism was an interesting idea, he voyaged north, took advice from Scottish colleagues with varying views on the independence question, and read industriously for two years.

Inevitably his touch with Scottish history is less sure, not so much with detail (his account of Scotland’s contorted religious and political conflicts in the seventeenth century is brilliant) as with generalizations. For instance, it’s not true that the Highland Clearances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are perceived as a wound inflicted by the English on the Scots. Only the English, for subtly masochistic reasons, believe that; Scots are well aware that it was Scottish chieftains, landowners, and their agents who drove much of the Gaelic population out of their homes and replaced them with sheep. Scots enjoy their grievances against Westminster, but it’s significant that mourning past injuries inflicted by “England” or “Britain” plays so slight a part in the nationalist drama. That’s a distinction between nationalisms that Elliott should have noticed.

This is inevitably a book not just about the political struggles of two peoples, but about nationalism itself and the value of “sovereign” independence. As Elliott writes in his introduction, after the cold war the nation-state came under pressure both from above and below: leaking power upward to supranational institutions such as the European Union and, at the same time, downward to regions and “sub-nations.” The demand for power “was especially insistent when it came from those regions, stateless nationalities and ethnic groups which, for historic reasons, felt maltreated and misunderstood, and their interests disregarded.” Globalization, which turned out to intensify both pressures, was partly responsible:

Less expected, and largely unanticipated, was the resurgence of two…deep historical forces…that were thought to have been laid to rest by the apparently triumphant march of cosmopolitanism and secularization. These forces were old-style nationalism and religion, especially in its fundamentalist form.

For most foreign students, recognizable Spain begins in 1469 with the dynastic union of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. The Crown of Aragon brought with it the principality of Catalonia. Spain developed as a composite monarchy of many ethnic nationalities, whose rulers dreamed of eventually resurrecting the Roman province of Hispania by evicting the Moors from Granada and annexing Portugal. Scotland, too, was a multiethnic kingdom whose rulers spent centuries imposing their control on Pictish, Brythonic, Anglian, Norse, and Gaelic peoples. Relations with England grew closer as the Scottish kings grew more securely sovereign over unified territories, only to be shattered by the onslaught of King Edward I of England in the late thirteenth century. The legendary Wars of Independence that followed ensured that the absorption of Scotland into England would never come about.

Composite kingdoms in medieval Europe often included principalities with a fierce sense of their ancient laws and rights (the fueros so precious not only to Catalans but to Basques, Galicians, and other Iberian nationalities). These rights frequently took a contractual view of kingship, and in this Scotland and Catalonia resembled each other. The 1320 Declaration of Arbroath in Scotland praised King Robert the Bruce for restoring the people’s liberties but warned that if he should abandon those principles and submit to English rule, his subjects would treat him as an enemy. The famous Aragonese oath of allegiance (supposedly medieval but concocted in the sixteenth century) ran: “We who are as good as you swear to you who are no better than us, to accept you as our king and sovereign lord, provided you observe all our laws and liberties; but if not, not” (“y si no, no”).


This idea of monarchy and power as an enforceable contract was repellent to the Castilian and English royal traditions. But it survived into early modern times and was adapted to new conditions in both Scotland, where Reformation theology encouraged armed resistance to a crowned ruler who violated the nation’s covenant with God, and Catalonia, which constantly rebelled against kings, Castilian or French, who broke their solemn promises to respect law and custom.

Aragon rebelled unsuccessfully against Castile in 1590, and in the 1620s Philip IV’s minister the Count-Duke of Olivares set out to unify and centralize Spanish institutions. His modernizing view was that loyalty to a monarchy, not deference to local practices, was the mature political bond: “I am no nacional, that is for children!” His policies led indirectly to the revolt in 1640 of the rural Catalan segadors (reapers), who poured into Barcelona, killed the viceroy, and touched off a desperate declaration of an independent republic allied to France. The twelve-year insurrection that followed ended with the fall of Barcelona in 1652.

By the 1603 Union of the Crowns, James VI of Scotland had become also James I of England, an arrangement that lasted for a century as “Great Britain” but never proved stable or satisfying. His son Charles I, as king of England, Scotland, and Ireland, followed the fatal Olivares strategy of forcing the institutions of the stronger union partner on the weaker. Religious differences were decisive in Anglo-Scottish history, as they never were in Spain; Charles’s attempt to break the independence of the Church of Scotland led to its affirmation in the National Covenant of 1638. The covenant’s mass signing in Edinburgh, sometimes in blood, convicted Charles of failing to act as a “covenanted” prince under contract to defend true religion.

The Catalans’ struggle had always been political rather than religious, in contrast to Scotland. Their hope of “Catalanizing” Spain by encouraging other dissident nationalities to resist central autocracy and bring about a looser, more consensual state was to grow stronger in the following centuries and remains powerful today. In return, Madrid developed an intense suspicion of Catalans, who were perceived as inherently disloyal and even treacherous in their inclination to seek the support of Spain’s enemies—above all, France.

The later seventeenth century was a grim period for both countries. For Scotland, the end of the English Civil War and the restoration of the Stuart dynasty led to the attempt by the Catholic monarch James VII to suppress Scottish Presbyterianism and to the guerrilla wars of religion that culminated in the “Killing Time” of the 1680s. Catalonia continued to be ravaged by war, losing two provinces with a fifth of its population to France at the Peace of the Pyrenees in 1659 and suffering another huge peasant rebellion in 1688.

Worse was to come. King Carlos II of Spain, a Habsburg, died without an immediate heir in 1700 and precipitated the War of the Spanish Succession by leaving his kingdom to Philip of Anjou, the grandson of the Bourbon king of France, Louis XIV. The Catalans at first welcomed him as Philip V, then changed sides to support his challenger, the Habsburg Archduke Charles of Austria. Years of civil and international war followed. Philip V issued his Nueva Planta decrees, which abruptly canceled the traditional fueros rights of Aragon and Catalonia, abolished the old Catalan legislature, and imposed the absolute sovereignty of the Bourbon monarchy in Madrid. Philip’s armies invaded Catalonia and besieged the capital. The fall of Barcelona in 1714, after a heroic defense, became a tragic date still engraved in Catalan memory.

Now Scotland and Catalonia passed under incorporating unions. Scotland’s parliament dissolved itself and abandoned the nation’s independence in 1707, but wide-ranging internal autonomy remained. Catalonia, on the other hand, became a rebel territory under military occupation, its institutions redesigned and managed by non-Catalans. Castilian became the official language. “What was destroyed…was not the Catalan nation, but a long-standing political order that embodied the notion of liberty as enshrined in a reciprocal relationship between the ruler and the ruled,” Elliott writes.

In spite of this, he remarks, Scotland and Catalonia “had become by the end of the [eighteenth] century exceptionally dynamic societies.” There was no “Barcelona Enlightenment” as in Edinburgh, but both began to prosper. Incorporation opened the British Empire to the Scots, and the Spanish and Mediterranean markets to Catalan trading, shipping, and manufacture (although Cádiz managed to keep the monopoly of trade to the “Indies”—Spain’s vast American empire—in Castilian hands until 1778).

In this period and into the nineteenth century, Catalonia and Scotland were developing what Elliott calls “dual patriotism” to their native patria and to Spain and Britain respectively. For intellectuals, this could imply the vision of an overarching but rather abstract “Nation” in which the principles of reform and progress were being worked out, to be applied in the smaller but very concrete “nations” that composed the state. This seems to have been how some Catalan politicians, like Antoni de Capmany, approached the loyalty problem: a patriotism applied to two quite different political categories that could not be alternatives.

This was true of Scotland as well in the later Enlightenment period, when Scots welcomed some modernizing ideas and reforms from London but resisted English-inspired innovations that seemed to undermine things they considered essential to their national identity, in law and religion, above all. During and after the Napoleonic Wars, a militant British and Spanish patriotism did develop; when French armies drove the Spanish government back to its last redoubt in Cádiz, the Catalan deputies there spoke “the new language of liberal nationalism and popular sovereignty. When they spoke of the ‘nation’ they were overwhelmingly speaking not of Catalonia but of Spain.” But liberalism in Spain, which held power for a few precarious intervals in the political chaos of the nineteenth century, proved more likely to impose standardizing reform from the center rather than to distribute power to what Madrid considered the periphery.

As in Catalonia, Scottish movements inspired by the French Revolution were viciously repressed. But in spite of breakneck industrialization (urban growth was faster in Scotland than anywhere else in Europe), there was generally social peace between the failed radical uprising of 1820 (“Scotland Free or a Desert”) and working-class militancy at the end of the century. Both industrial economies relied on cheap labor, from Ireland or the Highlands or, in the Catalan case, from the poor and mountainous north. In Spain, it came to seem that Madrid had all the administration and politics, while Barcelona had the economy. In Britain, the contrast was less glaring, and it’s hard to agree with Elliott that “Scotland was never central to the economic development of a Britain in which England enjoyed economic as well as political preponderance.”

Political nationalism—the demand for Home Rule or a return to independence—did not surface in Scotland until the twentieth century, although, in response to Irish struggles for self-government, the Liberals and then the Labour Party had advanced schemes for “Home Rule All Round” that included a Scottish parliament. Nothing came of them, and the National Party of Scotland was launched in 1928 (soon to become the Scottish National Party, which is committed to full independence). If Catalonia felt oppressed and frustrated by its stronger partner in statehood, Scotland—until the mid-twentieth century—on the whole did not.

In both places, the nineteenth century brought a surge of cultural nationalism, rather antiquarian in Scotland but in Catalonia aimed at constructing a new patriotic consciousness through romantic accounts of the past that, as Elliott writes, “depicted Catalonia’s history as one of a never-ending struggle for freedom.” Barcelona streets were renamed after heroes of the city’s resistance, and medieval folk festivals were reinvented. Like many contemporary national revivals in Europe, this Catalan Renaixença looked back to a partly imaginary Golden Age of freedom and creativity. Elliott argues that the determined optimism of the Renaixença covered deep uncertainties about Catalan identity: the doubts of a business elite dependent on Madrid legislation to protect its industry, of an expanding bourgeoisie impressed by the grandeur of Spain’s own refurbished history, and of an urban working class given to outbursts of rioting in its struggle to survive wretched living conditions.

In 1892 the lawyer Enric Prat de la Riba was the driving force behind an ambitious Home Rule program that emerged, Elliott writes, “out of the deliberations of an assembly held in the Catalan city of Manresa.” The Bases of Manresa demanded full autonomy within Spain, a “supreme” Catalan parliament, and Catalan as the language of government. As Spain entered its own identity crisis in 1898 with the loss of its remaining empire—Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines—Prat de la Riba went on to call for the transformation of Spain into a federative union, an imperial composite on the model of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In Prat de la Riba’s opinion, “the state is a political entity, artificial and voluntary; the pàtria is a historical, natural and necessary community.”

A few years later, Prat de la Riba cofounded the nationalist Lliga party. But it was from the beginning financed and supported by Catalan business and industry and offered little either to the peasantry or to the urban working class then turning toward revolutionary socialism and anarchism. In 1909 an attempt to introduce conscription in Catalonia led to the “tragic week” in Barcelona, when crowds attacked churches, monasteries, and their clerical inhabitants. As martial law was imposed and workers’ leaders were executed, the Lliga lost much of what popular support it still retained.

Barcelona remained a city of ferocious class conflicts. There were at least 152 political murders in the three years leading up to September 1923, when Primo de Rivera’s coup d’état put all of Spain under military dictatorship. Official use of the Catalan language was banned and Catalan identity suppressed in favor of a tourist-poster Spanishness of bullfights and flamenco.

The dictatorship fell in 1930, replaced by Spain’s Second Republic. Discredited, the Lliga was pushed aside by Lluís Companys and his Republican Left of Catalonia; as Elliott says, “Catalanism as a political cause had finally broken free from its conservative background and shifted decisively to the left.” As the SNP was to find nearly a century later when Scottish Labour voters turned toward them, the transformation of an independence movement from a middle-class interest to a working-class cause is momentous.

The Generalitat, which had been the standing committee of the medieval Catalan parliament, was now resurrected, and in 1934 Companys declared Catalonia an independent republic within a Spanish federal state. He was arrested and imprisoned and the Generalitat suspended, until the new Popular Front government came to power in Spain in 1936. But only a few months later, in September of that year, Francisco Franco launched his rebellion, which was to ignite the Spanish Civil War. Barcelona, the last stronghold of the republic, surrendered to Franco in January 1939. Companys died before a fascist firing squad in 1940, with the words “For Catalonia!” Almost forty asphyxiating years passed before Franco breathed his last and Catalan again ceased to be an underground identity, as the Generalitat and Catalan autonomy were restored in the new royal democracy of Spain.

It was then that the paths of Scotland and Catalonia began to converge again. The disintegration of the British Empire with all its opportunities for Scots, coupled with the decline of Scotland’s heavy industries and the centralization of decision-making under the new welfare-state bureaucracy, suggested to a growing number of Scots that the basic bargain of the 1707 Union—independence in exchange for prosperity—no longer held. The creation of the European Economic Community in 1957 hinted that an independent Scotland could find an alternative home among small European nations, and in 1967 the SNP—as an independence party—began to win elections.

In the 1980s Prime Minister Thatcher, loudly contemptuous of Scottish values and utterly opposed to any degree of self-government, brought Scottish resentments sharply into focus. A Scottish parliament with limited “devolved” powers was created in 1999, but—as its critics prophesied—devolution whetted rather than satisfied the appetite for full statehood. In Scotland as in Catalonia, the two parties that had dominated politics (Labour and Conservative in Scotland, Socialists and People’s Party in Spain) were driven back by radical nationalism. To the horror of British ruling elites, the SNP won a relative majority in the Scottish parliament in 2007 and has formed Scotland’s governments ever since.

In 2014 Scotland held an independence referendum, on conditions negotiated very civilly by David Cameron’s Tory government in London and Alex Salmond’s SNP government in Edinburgh. The result was a small but clear majority for staying in the United Kingdom. Catalans asked, Why not here? Why can’t we be like the Scots and be granted a legal right to decide our future? But Spain’s post-Franco constitution, while generous with regional autonomy, rigidly excluded a right of secession.

In Barcelona, Pujol’s successor Pasqual Maragall governed from 2003 to 2006 with a left-wing nationalist coalition and in 2006 produced a new autonomy statute that defined Catalonia as a “nation” (its legality was instantly challenged by the Constitutional Tribunal in Madrid). The conflict with Madrid over Maragall’s statute set off the cascade of events that led to the tragic collision of 2017 and the deadlock that persists today. In 2012 1.5 million people marched through Barcelona demanding “Catalonia: a new state in Europe.” Any Madrid government would have found it hard to arrive at a stable compromise at this point, but the right-wing premier Mariano Rajoy panicked and behaved as if he were an eighteenth-century king facing armed rebellion.

Elliott attributes developments in both countries to the failure of the old parties to find answers to the challenges of globalism and economic crisis. But he also comments that much of radical nationalism “was nostalgia for a world that never was…narratives that prioritized certain sections of their past at the expense of others.” This is simply not true in the case of Scotland. The motives of Scots who vote for independence have little or nothing to do with Robert the Bruce or William Wallace, and are almost exclusively concerned with the future: the practical hope that Scotland on its own could construct a more fair, equal, and prosperous society than anything the old United Kingdom can offer.

When the smoke cleared from the Catalan independence referendum in October 2017, it seemed that a crushing 92 percent of the voters had chosen independence. But it was also clear that some opponents of independence—including many in the huge non-Catalan minority—had preferred to abstain from an “illegal” poll. Catalan self-government was suspended, but the legal and constitutional deadlock today merely ensures that another eruption will develop in the near or medium future.

It’s at this point that Elliott’s impartiality deserts him. His account of Catalonia’s contemporary independence movement is sharply hostile, presenting its main participants as shameless demagogues and manipulators. While he is critical of the “heavy-handed” police action during the referendum, he praises King Philip’s speech after the vote as a “powerful” rebuke to Catalan destroyers of Spanish unity. For most of the outside world, it was a disastrous and uncompromising rant: the king offered no hint of apology or concession; he merely condemned the Catalan leaders as violators of democracy and national unity who had placed themselves outside the law. The speech left Catalan nationalists even more convinced of the rightness of their choice.

There are also a few omissions in Elliott’s account, judiciously told and carefully researched as it is apart from its final section. He could, for example, have invoked the interesting category of nationalisms that arise when the smaller partner in a composite state feels itself more progressive and sophisticated than the “primitive” and underdeveloped metropole. In the Habsburg Empire, industrialized Bohemia felt that it was “held back” by reactionary, semifeudal Vienna. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Scots could take a scornful view of England, perceived as undereducated, economically backward, and servile to authority. And that was spectacularly the case with Catalonia’s perception of Castile.

Postimperial nations tend to be blind to the value of independence that is so obvious to those who lack it. English and French politicians were baffled by Irish and Algerian wishes to secede. John Major once observed that Scottish demands for self-government were “loopy: it’s just that the Scots feel left out of things up there. I should go there more often.” The European Union, piously opposed to unilateral secession in its member-states, forgets that at least nineteen out of the twenty-eight owe their existence to illegal separation from a larger state—starting with the Netherlands’ breakaway from Spain in the sixteenth century.

If Scotland one day becomes the latest independent European state, nobody doubts that a diminished but still powerful United Kingdom of England and Northern Ireland would survive. But if Catalonia did the same, would the fissile Spanish state and its democracy survive—or would the Basque country, Galicia, Valencia, and other “nationalities” follow the Catalan example, perhaps into some sort of Iberian Confederation? All we can know is that in Western Europe, a central authority that can only maintain itself by repression must change its ways or perish.

—March 19, 2019