Scotland and Catalonia—the two states that recently seemed most likely to secede from their nations—have much historical bitterness in common. Most Americans may know something about the history of Scotland—Hollywood captured the romantic version in Mel Gibson’s highly popular movie, Braveheart. Fewer know of the Spanish takeover of Catalonia, a thriving economic powerhouse in the 1400s that was based on textiles and other manufactured products. It took it a few centuries to make an economic comeback in the late 1800s, as power moved to Madrid. But again, it did just that, based on industry, while much of the rest of Spain remained agriculturally based.

A Brief History of Catalonia

Catalonia’s main city, Barcelona, thrived. The nineteenth century was the era of Art Nouveau, and its eventual dominance by local architect Antoni Gaudi. Signs of such vigor are everywhere still in Barcelona, whether or not you love Gaudi’s excesses.

When Franco turned the nation into a vicious dictatorship, Barcelona bore the brunt of his wrath. The region long had its own language, Catalan—and Franco outlawed it. Barcelonans seem to love to talk about the repression of their language, yet still, it remains the seventh-most common language in Europe. Much is written about Catalonia’s stand against Franco, with George Orwell giving the most clear-eyed and least romantic version of it in his Homage to Catalonia.

But the fact is that Barcelonans are, on average, richer than the rest of Spain. The 1992 Olympics vitalized the city, as few Olympics do elsewhere. Even the champion soccer team has raised Barcelona in international eyes, and cast a shadow over Madrid. (My mother is Spanish and we have forever been Real Madrid fans.) So, when Scotland voted on secession, many thought Catalonia could be next.

I toured Spain recently with my wife, and all the talk—both in Madrid and Barcelona—was a November independence vote in Catalonia. Unlike London, which will now have to make many difficult compromises even following the “no” vote, Madrid will not abide by the results, if it is for independence, and may not allow it to take place. The Basque region could be next. No one knows whether political strife will follow.

Headlines every day in the Madrid papers, and in the Barcelona papers, led by La Vanguardia, reported the latest comments by the politicians. After the Scotland vote, Artur Mas, head of the Catalonian government, insisted the vote would go on. Madrid says it is unconstitutional. It’s not clear what the showdown will produce.

Democracy in Action

For Mas, democracy is the issue. And so it was with Scotland. This is no small matter among rich nations. Democracy does not seem to be working very well in many places around the world. In the United States, a president can be elected with a smaller vote than the opponent he defeated. Republican governors gerrymander the voting to give the House of Representatives an easy majority. The president bombs Syria without congressional or UN approval. A recent survey shows that only a minority of Americans believe in the American dream, and the youth are particular pessimistic.

But one vital issue Scots and Catalonians have in common is that they are rebelling against governments that have imposed foolish and punishing austerity economics on their nations. The economic question is too often left out of the discussion. Slow economic growth and a lack of jobs in the West remain, I’d argue, the major issue. England was the cradle of the welfare state, but no longer. Now, financial services and a housing boom drive the economy, inequality is approaching American levels. Scotland wants control over its welfare state, and so does Catalonia.

Spain’s economy is utterly devastated. Its unemployment rate is above 25 percent. Its revitalization will depend on the more industrialized and trade-oriented Barcelona, one local commentator told me. But austerity has taken a severe toll. Catalonia’s unemployment rate is a few percentage points lower than Spain’s. But Barcelona has been forced by Madrid to cut back its welfare state markedly. Artur Mas is demanding loosened restrictions on the local deficit, which finances the social programs. Barcelona is also a more progressive reformer than is Spain in urging such corporate modernization in working time arrangements and human resources management.

Nothing was so striking in Spain recently as how proud some newspaper reporting and editorial writing was that German chancellor Angel Merkel and Spain’s prime minister Mariano Rajoy had a meeting. Merkel was clearly trying to line up an ally, as Italy and France have become more rebellious regarding the austerity demands of the EU led by Germany. Madrid took it as an enormous compliment to be treated well by Merkel.

The Power of Dissent

Poor economies breed dissent. But dissent can be good, which is why secessionist threats from Scotland and Catalonia are politically healthy. Powerful vested interests currently have too much political power across the United States and Europe. It took Occupy Wall Street to help awaken America, a spontaneous eruption that New York’s rich mayor, Michael Bloomberg, clearly hated. It was suppressed with military-style tactics in the end.

As I return to NYC, I hear the chants of protesters outside my window. I live near the UN, and the General Assembly is meeting today. But always room is made for dissent. It is in truth a beautiful thing.

Criticizing the financial naiveté of Scots—and they surely underestimated the difficulties of negotiating new currency arrangements, but that doesn’t make the task impossible—misses the point. They were asserting their distaste for a ruling body that required their changing their commitment to a welfare state. The same is true for Catalonia.

Walking through the streets of Barcelona in late summer, it was hard to detect how poorly the nation was doing. The sidewalk cafes (usually in the center of the main roads) were jammed. Not just the Ramblas, but avenues like Passeig de Gracia. It is among the most lovely aspects of the city, but it is a rich person’s prerogative. Madrid seemed less busy, the people a little more dour, but the city confident in its art and culture, I’d say.

The development of the nation state since the Middle Ages was one of the great human achievements. It made prosperity possible.

Would its devolution have the opposite effect?

In an age of globalization, less so. But my sense is that democratic stirrings are going to be more healthy than not, and may mitigate the tragedy of austerity economics. Rebellion is also coming from the right in France and Germany, and it is hardly comforting.

And as usual, the problem is mostly economics, with strong economies being the best cure-all. Democracy can contribute to prosperity. In my reading of history, it usually has. So take all this as a good sign, and remember it would not be happening if prosperity were alive and well, and mistaken austerity policies were not cast like a net over three hundred million people.

The Worst Form of Government…Except for All the Others

Yes, democracy can also be destabilizing. But that was always democracy’s risk.

The American founders were mostly frightened by the democratic masses, keep in mind. But we went forward. Now, I think suppression of democracy in the United States is keeping us back. I remember when Norman Mailer ran for mayor about forty-five years ago on a platform to have New York City secede from America. It made us think. And now Tea Party right-wingers are threatening to do so in other parts of the country. One of the ironies is that the red states take more from the blue than give back. So maybe we should let them leave.

Catalonia and Scotland are strong economies, with a commitment to high levels of equality. They are also small. If they change the world for the moment, it won’t be through might, but through an idea. They won’t succeed in secession but they can remind us what we’re about. 

Image credit: Pere Prlpz, Wikimedia Commons