For 50 years or so, innumerable school and university students in English-speaking countries have owed their first encounter with Spanish history to JH Elliott. His Imperial Spain 1469-1716, published in 1963, became the standard textbook on Spain’s early modern age of greatness. Revised and updated, it is deservedly still in print today.
Long ranked among Britain’s most prominent historians, Elliott, 88, has now written a timely comparative history of Catalonia and Scotland. He has lost none of his talent for fluent, lucid prose and sound historical judgment. At the start of Scots & Catalans, he observes modestly that when he embarked on his project, Scotland’s history was “unknown territory” to him, and that his knowledge of Catalan and Spanish history “tended to peter out at the turn of the 19th century”. You would not know it from this book.
Pro-independence sentiment in Scotland and Catalonia is testing the unity of two of Europe’s oldest states, the UK and Spain. A 2014 referendum failed to muster sufficient support for the cause of an independent Scotland. But the question has hardly gone to rest, not least because of Brexit— an English-driven vote to pull the UK out of the EU with which a majority of Scots disagreed.
In Catalonia the clamour for secession culminated in October in a chaotic event that separatist leaders termed a referendum. It was illegal under Spain’s constitution and Catalonia’s regional statute of autonomy. Catalan organisers estimated that some nine in 10 voters had backed independence, on a turnout of about 43 per cent. These figures were not necessarily reliable.
In general, the episode underlined the lack of broad support for independence, especially but not exclusively among non-Catalans who identify themselves primarily as Spaniards.
Ignoring these feelings, the separatists issued a futile declaration of independence that prompted Madrid to impose direct rule. Autonomy is now restored. But the confrontation sowed divisions in Catalan society, and poisoned relations between nationalists and Spain’s central authorities, more than was true for post-2014 Scottish society and for relations between Scottish nationalists and London. That said, Scottish politics takes place in an increasingly separate sphere from the rest of the UK.
Elliott does not hesitate to criticise Spain’s government and pro-unity forces for mis-steps that contributed to last year’s showdown. “These missed a promising opportunity to produce a ‘Spanish’ national narrative that would avoid the crude centralism of earlier times and instead would point to the success of post-1978 Spain in reconciling unity and diversity to the benefit of all its peoples,” he writes.
At the same time, the author pins the main responsibility for the disorderly course of events on the secessionists. “They had plainly put themselves outside the law . . . In arrogantly claiming to speak for all Catalonia, and systematically branding Spain as the ‘enemy’, they drove a wedge down the middle of Catalan society.”
Apart from its authoritative command of the facts, Elliott’s book convinces because it carefully locates Scotland and Catalonia in the wider history of the British and Irish Isles and of Spain. This approach enables Elliott to identify the differences between Catalonia and Scotland as well as the similarities. Knowledge of the distinctive English and Castilian contexts is essential to disentangling these differences.
From the 12th century Catalonia was part of a bigger realm, the Crown of Aragón. Unlike Scotland, whose army under Robert the Bruce secured independence at Bannockburn in 1314, Catalonia was never a sovereign state. Still, it had its own laws and representative institutions and was fiercely proud of them. When the region rose in rebellion in 1640 — the subject of Elliott’s masterful The Revolt of the Catalans — it was because Catalans suspected Spain’s rulers of subverting these liberties for the goal of a more centralised empire.
Similar tensions marked the 1701-14 war of the Spanish Succession. In Elliott’s words, Catalonia’s “disastrous choice” to back the Habsburg candidate for Spain’s vacant throne led to a harrowing 15-month siege of Barcelona and the loss of the region’s ancient liberties. “In many respects the principality was treated as occupied territory,” Elliott writes of 18th-century Catalonia.
Scotland’s trajectory was different. Its 1560 Protestant revolution meant that it shared a religion with England, though the Scottish version was Calvinist. Anglo-Scottish relations were never as bitter as those between England and Catholic Ireland. When England’s Tudor dynasty ended in 1603, the English accepted James VI of Scotland as their new king, James I. Famously, James hoped to create a “union of hearts and minds” between English and Scots. It did not happen.
Elliott writes of street brawls, mutual suspicions and stereotypes: Scots thought the English were haughty and superior, the English viewed Scots as lazy, poor and grasping.
Yet much changed after the 1707 Act of Union. Great Britain’s success as an imperial project allowed Scots and English to celebrate the union as a model of enlightened co-operation.
Scots were far more invested in the British empire’s commercial and military exploits than were Catalans in those of Spain. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Britain’s liberalism and relative domestic peace contrasted with frequent military coups in Spain and state coercion of Catalan nationalists and anarchists. Between 1875 and 1931 few Catalan politicians served in the Spanish government. Six of the UK’s 11 prime ministers from 1868 to 1935 were Scots by birth or origin.
The most severe repression of Catalonia occurred under General Francisco Franco after his 1939 victory in the Spanish civil war. With the return to democracy in the late 1970s came the predictable backlash. Catalonia acquired more self-rule than at any time since the 1469 union of the crowns of Castile and Aragón. The regional government exerted extensive influence over education and the media.
Jordi Pujol, Catalonia’s leader from 1980 to 2003, exploited the balance of party politics in Madrid to add to his region’s powers. As Elliott writes, these trends underlay the political ferment in 2010-17: “The programme of Catalanisation, or outright indoctrination, inaugurated by Pujol 30 years earlier was now yielding its fruits.”
In wider terms, Scotland and Catalonia each saw the EU as offering possibilities for national self-expression under a European roof, rather than inside a traditional state such as the UK and Spain. However, the EU showed no interest in encouraging Catalan separatism in 2017 nor Scottish independence three years earlier. Should Scotland break away from the UK, its path to EU membership would be anything but smooth, partly because Madrid would resist setting a precedent for Catalonia.
Like all Elliott’s books, Scots & Catalans is erudite and a sheer pleasure to read. Some Catalans and Scots may object to his argument that a sense of national “victimhood” permeates their thinking. Yet he also faults Madrid and London for a “failure of imagination” that caused them at times to antagonise needlessly the less powerful peoples of their diverse realms.
Scots & Catalans: Union & Disunion, by JH Elliott, Yale University Press RRP£20/$30, 339 pages
Tony Barber is the FT’s Europe editor
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