Sesto Calende, Italy
Until we arrived in Sesto Calende, a small town in Italy’s Lombardy region, we knew nothing about the forthcoming referendum on 22 October seeking greater autonomy from Rome for the region. We were, though, well aware of the planned referendum in the Spanish province of Catalonia which has been attracting international headlines.
The reasons for the difference are not difficult to fathom. The referendum in Catalonia – which may or may not be held on 1 October – is about independence from the Spanish state, based on the idea of Catalonia as a distinct nation with its own language and culture. This has so frightened the government in Madrid that they went to court seeking to have referendum declared illegal, and won. Since then the national government has been using a variety of methods to enforce the court judgement, including the use of police to seize stockpiled ballot boxes and papers, threatening the arrest of public officials and closing down websites.
Here in Lombardy things could not be more different. The regional administration have made it very clear that they are not seeking independence. Language, culture and nationhood don’t really figure. What they want is greater “autonomy” about what happens to the region’s taxes. Many people in the prosperous north resent the taxes they generate being transferred by Rome to the south, often perceived as indolent. And the national government, unlike its Spanish counterpart, appears to be treating the Lombardy referendum with indifference. Our friends here say there has been minimal national media coverage, and the regional administration has been running an extensive poster campaign – often on public transport – to drum up interest.
It will be interesting to see which approach delivers results in the long term.
There will be no going back to business as usual after the Scottish plebiscite, whatever the result.
Short of a huge display of apathy on 18th September, the vote will force the Scots to decide whether they are separatists or unionists. Thanks to the yes-no nature of the voting question – with no third option of “devo max” that might have persuaded more nationalists to settle for staying in the union – the choice is stark.
Whichever side wins the vote, the result will leave a large and disaffected minority. A majority for separation sets in train a process which ends with the unionist minority becoming citizens of a foreign country. If there is a majority for remaining in the UK, where does that leave the separatist minority whose passions have been inflamed by the campaign?
These are uncharted waters for the UK. Can history help?
Comparisons with Ireland in the early years of the last century are risky. The polls do not suggest any concentration of separatism or unionism in easily definable regions of Scotland. There is no evident Scottish equivalent of the six counties which eventually became Northern Ireland because there was no settlement by foreigners of a particular part of Scotland. Though sectarianism exists in Scotland, it is not driven – as was the case in Northern Ireland up to 1972 – by the discriminatory behaviour of a malevolent devolved government.
And yet could the conditions for civil strife arise in post-plebiscite Scotland? Like the rest of the UK, Scotland contains people alienated from society by joblessness, poverty and lack of opportunity. Could they form destructive and violent support to a few fanatics within whichever minority loses on 18th September? As Ireland’s Easter Rising of 1916 showed, a very small number of people can set history off on a new, and painful, course if the rationale for discontent is there.