Catalonia is ramping up efforts for an independence referendum following Scotland’s vote on 18 September. As Spain’s main economic engine, there is grave concern that the region – home to Barcelona – could conceivably leave the country. Unlike in the Scottish referendum, the Spanish government has been taking the vote seriously from the beginning.
What is most interesting in the debate about independence is the way it centres on economic logic. Scotland is believed to have voted ‘no’ almost entirely on the grounds that it ‘made no economic sense’ to leave the UK. Ideas of culture and nationalism were portrayed as barriers to common sense. Catalonia, however, is slated for considering independence on economic grounds. Unlike Scotland, it is the wealthiest part of Spain. It is criticised for threatening to dessert its country. That it has its own language and cultural make-up is dismissed, just as it was in Scotland.
Like the Scots, the Catalonians view themselves as a distinct people with their own national identity. And as the Irish well-know, national identity is a hugely important, and emotive, issue. For national identity to be swept aside as an irrelevance in a discussion about independence is grossly insulting. We may live in a globalised world, but that has yet to render borders immaterial. And while borders remain intact, in whatever shape, ideas of national identity will prevail, and thus, notions of independence and sovereignty.
Is it sad to view independence exclusively through the prism of economics? If not, should economics be central to all debates, like health? At what point does prolonging individuals’ life expectancy become economically counter-productive? Healthy life expectancy is important to the economy, but illness and disability are a burden. Perhaps for the benefit of the economy, all individuals with little or no economic value should be bundled into a low cost care facility where they can live out the rest of their days without luxuries they can no longer afford?
That is the danger of using economics as the most significant factor in a debate. It puts a price on everything. Yes, you could say the Scottish health system would have been worse off under independence. Similarly, you could argue that the Spanish health system will be put in jeopardy without the contribution of Catalonia. But then could you take the opposite view; a shrinking Barnett Formula leaves Scotland vulnerable to a reduced health budget. And Catalonia would have more resources to fund its own hospitals under independence, forcing Spain to solve problems across the rest of the country.
The point is it can be argued every which way. Economics is intangible, theoretical. It has no loyalty or regard for human life. It is the discourse of the day used to beat populations into one decision or another. In years to come, when economics has failed us, will we berate it the way we berate Catholicism or philosophy? Will we admit its weakness and resolve to make decisions across a range of factors which are of equal significance? Probably. But by then it could be too late.