The three major secessionist movements in the western world – the Catalan, the Quebecois and the Scots – face a difficult year. They remain large players within their own areas: indeed, in some form, they all remain the majority party. Nevertheless, 2019 is, for all three, likely to be the year in which the sugar comes off the shortbread.
The Catalan movement is stuck. Though it commands a majority in the regional parliament, and though the most recent polls show it slightly ahead of anti-secessionist opinion, its leaders are either in exile – as Carles Puigdemont, the former regional president – or under house arrest on bail, pending court action. The present president since last May – Quim Torra – a hard line but unaffiliated secessionist, likes to bait non-Catalan Spaniards with such claims as 'Spaniards only know how to plunder': but there's little else he can do. For its part, the minority national government headed by the socialist leader Pedro Sanchez, has little leverage over the region.
Few Spaniards support Catalan secession, while many strongly oppose it, viewing Sanchez's cautious approach to the issue – relying on dialogue – as weak. A new far-right party called Vox ran a campaign largely on opposition to Catalan independence and more power to the national government in the Andalusia region last December – and, from nowhere, took 400,000 votes and 12 seats in the Andalusian assembly. That an unknown party could stage such a breakthrough in a region while calling for less power to the regions (and also strong opposition to immigration, and to LGBT rights) appeared to show the depth of a previously invisible gulf in Spanish society.
The Quebecois movement is more than stuck: it has receded. A high watermark of a 49% vote for secession in 1995 prompted the Canadian federal government to refer the issue to the constitutional court – which produced an opinion that, were a majority for secession to be achieved, that would not necessarily be followed by independence. Instead, it would require negotiations between the pro-independence party and the federal government in which the latter would have to respect the democratic nature of the vote, but would permit it only if negotiations led to an agreement.
Since then, the various pro-secession parties and movements have declined. Last year, a long-time secessionist, Francois Legault, won a majority of seats in the provincial assembly for his new movement, Coalition pour l'Avenir de Quebec (Coalition for Quebec's Future) – running on a platform which promised no more referenda on secession, and an adherence to what the citizens wanted for their government. In contrast to his previous views, he has said he now believes that Quebec should remain part of Canada.
Scotland's government remains also its most popular party: the Scottish National Party presently polls around 15% more than the Scottish Conservatives, in second place. The Scottish Labour Party has so far failed to capitalise on the leftist stance of the national leadership – in spite of the assumption that Scots like their socialism redder than the English.
But this year wasn't born to be sweet to the SNP. The Alex Salmond issue – charges of sexual assault, alleged, unproven and strongly denied – casts a shadow over the former first minister and leader, and has revealed a deep rift between him and first minister Nicola Sturgeon – an end to what had seemed a strong partnership. It shows, too, a division within the party between those strong supporters of Salmond, who regard Sturgeon's hesitation on a second referendum as cowardice in the face of the enemy, and those who believe that such a referendum would again be lost.
Beyond the allegations, the economic case for Scotland's independence continues to be weakened, not least by the decline of the oil industry. Though a new find in the Viking-Graben area of the North Sea east of Shetland revealed, at the end of last year, possible recoverable resources of between 15 and 50m barrels, this find – relatively modest by oil industry standards – is unlikely to halt a steady decline in the industry, and a consequent drop in revenue to the UK treasury.
Brexit, which Sturgeon had thought, in 2017, would be a fine platform on which to mount a second referendum more likely, this time, to bring in the 'right' answer, has proven a broken reed. Were the UK to leave the EU and Scotland to go independent, a hard border would necessarily appear between the two states – with a likely major effect on the 60% of Scots exports bound for the rest of the UK. It could, in time, build up exports elsewhere: but any decline in exports in the first years of independence would make these years harder than would already be – deprived, as again would be all but certain, of the effects of the Barnett formula, funnelling in up to nearly £11,000 per head in public spending each year to the Scots economy from the UK Treasury. A cash-strapped Scots finance department couldn't match that.
Surrounding all of this is very low growth in the European economy. The Eurozone grew by only 0.2% in the last quarter of last year: the outturn for 2018 was 1.8%. Most of the European economies are slowing, and Italy is in recession – since the economy has contracted in the two last quarters, the technical definition. Germany, formerly the region's power-house, grew by only 1.5% in 2018, with a contraction in the third quarter; France, too, grew by only 1.5% (0.3% in the last quarter of 2018). One of the few bright spots is Poland, with over 4% growth – but with a relatively small economy.
Slow growth lowers all boats. The greater uncertainties in Europe, and those of Brexit, are less likely to increase pro-independence sentiment as to lower it. The common sense view would be to remain with a large economy still with considerable strengths and – hopefully: we'll soon see – a reasonably civilised Brexit, rather than embark on an independence adventure which will require a tightening of the belt over years. Unionism is greater than clinging to nurse, for fear of something worse: but this year, that is likely to be its main attraction, even for those leaning towards independence.