Our research so far reveals some key themes in how people think and feel about independence:
We are different
Across the three cases, participants often spoke of their sense of distinctiveness from the rest of the state (the UK or Spain). But this sense of identity also varies a lot within, and across, cases.
In Wales and Catalonia, for some, identity is strongly linked to language and culture. This was often expressed through references to cultural symbols, the nation’s history and the landscape, and there was a clear sense of belonging to and love for the country. These feelings were underpinned by a range of different lived experiences: some had been born in these nations and lived there for most of their life, others had been born outside the nation or had lived abroad. Participants also talked about the Welsh and Catalan languages, which were seen as something to be celebrated and protected.
To others in these places, these cultural aspects of identity are less important. In Scotland, some felt strongly Scottish on the basis of having distinctive values; others also defined themselves as British or referred to other identities. Across all three cases, some participants stressed a sense of identity that was open to everyone living in their community, wherever they came from and whatever language they speak.
Does a distinctive identity shape how people think about independence?
Our research so far shows that this awareness of difference does not lead to the same views on whether or not the nation should be independent. For many, a strong sense of distinctiveness does not matter for how they think or feel about this; other considerations are more important. For others, their identity leads them to think differently about independence: either to support independence or to oppose it. There is therefore no simple relationship between the nature and strength of participants’ identity, and how they think and feel about independence.
Our Past/Our Future
Our research in all three cases shows that people think about independence through their life experiences, and their views about politics and society. This leads people to feel very differently about independence.
In all three cases, some people think that independence will transform society and create a different and better future. Some also see independence as the only way of taking decisions that meet the nation’s political, economic and social needs, free from interference by the central state. These views reflect some participants’ frustration with the existing political arrangements, and the attitudes of the state towards their nation. There is also a sense of disillusion with politics and politicians who don’t understand the nation. Some spoke of the economic potential of being an independent state, and the opportunity it would bring to take a different and more pro-active approach to economic growth.
Others see independence as a very risky project. These participants were concerned about what the implications of independence would be for the economy and society; many spoke of their concern about specific policy areas that were important to them, such as healthcare and economic growth. Some also questioned whether a different kind of politics would be possible with independence.
For some, their country’s past also shapes how they think about its future. Perceptions of cultural suppression and economic exploitation often make them feel more sympathetic to independence. From this perspective, independence is seen as a way of moving on from the past, and of doing things differently – and better.
Participants in the three cases often weighed up their feelings about independence. Whilst some had a clear view for or against independence, others felt much more torn about what it could mean for their nation’s future.
They spoke of their hope that independence could change their country for the better, but also of the uncertainty and political and economic risks of going it alone.
There was often a tension between these two views, a struggle between the head and the heart. Participants spoke of their emotional commitment to independence – often based on a sense of identity and pride in the nation – but also of the difficult decisions that would have to be taken in practice. The uncertainty about how independence would be achieved, and the difficulty of predicting its long-term repercussions, led some participants to be unsure about whether or not they could support this goal. Others felt that, on-balance, the risks could be worthwhile.
Across the cases, participants spoke of their experiences of debating their country’s constitutional future. In Scotland and Catalonia in particular, many talked about the difficulty of debating the topic with their families and friends; different viewpoints often made this hard and sometimes people preferred to avoid the topic entirely.
Others expressed their frustration that politicians and the media made it difficult to have an open and balanced debate about the topic. They felt that the issue was often manipulated, and reduced to a simplistic debate between ‘for’ and ‘against’ independence. One problem is the lack of objective information about independence, including the potential advantages and disadvantages. Who can be trusted to give impartial information about what this would mean for the future?
In Catalonia, many participants focused on the events surrounding the 2017 referendum. Some were shocked and outraged by the response of the Spanish state to this, and it encouraged them to continue to campaign for independence. Others were deeply frustrated, especially by the refusal of foreign countries – and the European Union in particular – to put pressure on the Spanish state to allow the referendum to go ahead. Reflecting on the years since the attempted referendum, many participants spoke of their disappointment with the current state of the debate, in terms of the strategy of pro-independence parties and the lack of progress on negotiations to hold a new legal referendum on independence.
This experience has had a different effect on different people: some continue to feel strongly in support of Catalan independence, others no longer care. In Scotland, similar feelings were articulated. The UK government’s refusal to grant a second referendum on Scottish independence inspires some to continue campaigning, but others are disillusioned and independence is no longer a priority for them.