Written by Ian Inkster.

For one political system to draw lessons from what is happening in another is a tortuous notion and a difficult practice. But one thing can be said, it does require some comparators – comparing cheese with ‘stinky tofu’ might be reasonable, to compare it with chalk makes no sense. To draw lessons from foreign independence movements is at once conceptually difficult.

In terms of international law and governance structures it can be argued that neither Taiwan nor Catalonia have the attributes of nationhood, but under the right conditions these technical components are relatively easy to fix. Contrariwise, in terms of language and culture both are vehemently and noisily national

In the case of Catalonia, however singular its history and culture have been, only to be contrasted with much of the rest of Iberia, it has undoubtedly in the past been an integral part of the Spanish nation and Empire. So, it might be defined as having an independence movement, as might, of course, the Kurds or the Northern Irish. In the case of Taiwan, many would argue that to admit the case for ‘independence’ in that sense, is to bow to a notion of previously being an integral part of China, and many will not read Taiwanese history in that way. On the other hand, there exist conceptual comparators – in both Taiwan and Catalonia, those seeking separatism can rightly claim also to be seeking greater democracy as well as status amongst the comity of nations. Again, in both systems the democratic movements are set against their former political backgrounds as extreme authoritarian regimes, so they can argue (and this is more difficult) that their moves for nationhood are not mere right-wing, nationalist and populist urges, but part of a global process whereby capitalist institutions should give rise to safely operating market-based liberal democracy.

On Sunday 1st October I, my wife Lesley, and friends spent over 12 hours manning the polling booth in three polling stations in L’Escala, a small town in the very north-east corner of Catalonia. The voting was a referendum over whether Catalonia should become an independent national entity in the face of a written constitution that placed Catalonia firmly within Spain, and in fear of the actions of a Spanish government that had international right (if not a broader morality) on its side, as well as sheer might;  popular opinion throughout Spain (with many Catalonians in two minds or supporting solutions that did not involve formation of a new nation-state), and a very strong national police force. Most people reading this blog will have seen the result, the flaming confrontations in urban areas especially, the strong-arm of the youthful law against the faces of senior citizens.

A tractor used to block police charging into the polling station in Lescala, Catalonia. The bright flames are from fireworks used to celebrate the 8pm victory of closing the poll. Image Credit: Veronica Lambert-Hall.

In most of the smaller towns things were quieter, but no flat generalisation can be made. In our town, those of us who wanted to secure a right to a fair and complete vote were lucky, for the polling stations were within walking and running distance of each other, and each had only one ballot box.  This meant high mobility, and when rumours of a police attack on the stations arose two were quickly closed, their boxes were safely hidden away, and the third was quickly flooded with defenders of the right to vote. False boxes were filled with blank voting papers, a tractor and other barriers were used to block any police charge on the remaining station, and no violence whatever ensued. The general tactic was that everybody should remain in the polling stations for as long as they could, preventing any easy police raids.

There are no reason to believe that any votes were lost or destroyed or were not counted properly during that evening. The only sound that could have indicated violence was that of the firework set off at 8pm to mark the end of a successful day. The local police were observant but laid-back and skilful, and I do not think the atmosphere was such that could have prevented anyone at all from voting.

The following two days were very quiet here, the shops and restaurants empty in the off-season, even the general strike today has gone without visible effect. What arose on the day, amongst the rumours and worries were really just two points. The violence early in the day almost certainly increased the numbers of voters later in the day, and possibly skewed the vote further towards independence than it might otherwise have been. Secondly, the fact that the national Castilian authorities focused on closure of polling in the larger cities and towns may well have simply shifted the vote further towards independence, as it is generally believed that most urban areas (especially Barcelona) are more prone to vote to retain the status quo (or more accurately, to look for reform within the framework of the constitution). The smaller rural centres tending to seek a more populist and separatist solution to what they see as unfair treatment.

In terms of international law and governance structures it can be argued that neither Taiwan nor Catalonia have the attributes of nationhood, but under the right conditions these technical components are relatively easy to fix. Contrariwise, in terms of language and culture both are vehemently and noisily national, and these attributes are very hard to create overnight, as innumerable post-war treaties of great powers have proved time and again – the failure to create real nations by colonists and powers in Africa from the 1880s, the debacles of the aftermaths of both 20th century world wars (where the failure to satisfy German identities and borders after 1918 was a principal factor in the appeal of Hitler’s National Socialism), and in the echoing repercussions of the settlements of nationalities, ethnicities, and borders after the collapse of the USSR and the old Comecon, Eastern -European nations after 1989.

Recent history is fairly clear; whilst for many practical matters legalistic nationhood is of great importance, the heart of the stable nation does lie in its language, its culture and its sense of a coherent, continuous past in some recognisably geographical area. In such respects, the systems are comparable. Those who ignore such matters might look to the record – trying to do the opposite, to fix nations and their borders and identities in juridical terms only will do no-one good. A more cultural and historical perspective on nationality points to a spectrum of possible compromise between two obvious extremes in both cases.

Ian Inkster is a  Professorial Research Associate Centre of Taiwan Studies, SOAS, London; a Senior Fellow at the Taiwan Studies Programme and China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham and editor of History of Technology (London) since 2001. Image credit: CC by Rob Shenk/Flickr.



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