Small town St. Andrews, Scotland and metropolitan hub Barcelona, Spain have been awash in the past months with the phrase “independence referendum.” It emerges in small talk, hangs from the windows and plays a role in the classrooms Knox study abroad students learn in.
“It ended up being me, my friend and a couple security guards from my building watching at like four in the morning and watching the closest vote of anything I’ve ever seen in my life,” junior Carly Berinstein said, speaking of the Scottish referendum vote count during the early morning of Sept. 19. “At one point it was 49.8 percent ‘yes’ and 50.2 percent ‘no.’ It was really intense.”
In their first weeks at St. Andrews, Berinstein and junior Emma Steiner witnessed history.
“This was one of the first independence referenda globally in a few decades,” Steiner said, via Skype. “It’s made all the more rare by the fact that the leader of the Scottish National Party, Alex Salmond, said that a referendum won’t be brought up for another few decades. I think even with the ‘no’ vote this is going to define Scottish politics.”
Arriving in Edinburgh, Steiner saw that “pretty much every window I passed by on the street had a sign saying ‘Yes’ or ‘No Thanks.’ It was kind of a shock when I came to St. Andrews and only saw a few signs. I think that it was a lot more intense in cities.”
The University of St. Andrews is naturally British-leaning, with much of its financial support and students coming from England and abroad.
“There was nothing until about two days before,” Berinstein said. “Then there were a lot of people wearing t-shirts and lots of people campaigning. I got the feeling that a lot the people at my school wanted to vote no, but the small groups of people on either side were really loud.”
In the days before the referendum vote, the students discussed the issues in class and hundreds of people attended a debate held at city hall. But after the decision came through that Scotland would remain in the United Kingdom, the town settled back into its normal routine.
“There was no protest on the street,” Berinstein said. “There was no celebration [or] shouting. It was sort of like ‘Okay! That’s the vote. The people have spoken and now we’re going to move on.’”
The mood in Barcelona is quite different. Barcelona is the capital city of Catalonia, an autonomous region in Spain that wants more than autonomy — they want a complete split from the central government in Madrid. A Catalonian independence referendum will come to vote on Nov. 9, but unlike the Scottish case, the central government is calling the referendum unconstitutional.
Junior Rachael Morrissey has firsthand experience with the passion that has arisen around Catalonian independence. With her first host family, Morrissey “would bring up the Spanish government, and they hate the Spanish government. When I spoke in Spanish, they didn’t like when I called it Español. They prefer to call it Castilian because of the historical meaning there, because Español sounds like something the whole country speaks and Catalonia wants to be [separate] from the country.”
Morrissey went out on National Catalonian Day of Independence and saw Catalonian flags flying. The streets were populated with people wearing t-shirts that read ‘The Time is Now’ and shouting ‘We want independence!’ The attendees created a giant V for victory on two major streets in Barcelona to represent victory for Catalonia come November.
Junior Julia Schroeder, another Knox student studying in Barcelona, shared her beliefs on why Catalonians are so fervent about independence.
“I think the reason isn’t that they necessarily don’t want to be a part of Spain, but because Spain hasn’t really welcomed them.”
When it comes to the international stage, Catalonia has found it difficult to get any traction. The movement has been overshadowed by Scotland and the world’s perception of Spain.
“Not many people know about Catalonia. It’s not like Scotland,” Morrissey said. “People think Spain is Spain and they don’t try to separate the various regions.”
“When I was taking Spanish class, I remember watching one video, one time, that mentioned the divisions in Spain,” Schroeder said. “Here I’ve realized it’s much more separated than I thought. The fact that there are four languages in Spain is crazy to me. I guess [it’s] learning that Spain is a real place and not something I daydreamed about.”
Morrissey agreed, “I’ve learned that you can’t group people into a single country. There’s so much diversity here. Depending on who you talk to they’ll say they are Catalonian, not Spanish, and they are very passionate about that. I thought I was coming to Spain when I realized I’m really learning about the Catalonians and their culture.”
Not everyone is sold on the independence movement.
“I’ve talked to other people who just want the right to vote and vote ‘no,’” Morrissey said.
One of Schroeder’s professors cautioned the students on potential recklessness.
“Spain is in an economic depression right now, so it’s obvious that it’s fueling this. My professor thinks that if we were in a more financially stable state we wouldn’t want the independence as much. But I also feel like Madrid is holding onto them because they are in an economic depression and they need their business.”
Unlike the Scottish independence movement, which would have followed a two-year plan if the ‘yes’ voters won, Catalonia doesn’t have a plan post-Nov. 9. Morrissey and Schroeder expressed excitement over the coming referendum and hope for the best for Catalonia.
“¡Viva la independencía!” Schroeder said, laughing.