Greater Unities

Gabriel Groz

Scots and Catalans: Union and Disunion, by J. H. Elliott, Yale University Press, 360 pp., $30.00

At the age of 88, J.H. Elliott has written the history of early-modern Spain and its empire a dozen times over. Since the publication of his first book in 1963, a monograph on the 1640 Revolt of the Catalans, Elliott’s work has received nearly universal praise, both from his fellow historians of Spain and from European governments and academic organs, which have bestowed upon him a long list of honors that includes a knighthood and membership in several Spanish orders. In his retirement from his position as Regius Professor at Oxford, Elliott is the rare living historian whose work is a necessary component of any undergraduate’s education. No student encounters early-modern Spain without experiencing it through Elliott’s secondary scholarship. Nor is this paradigm likely to change any time soon, especially after the 2006 release of Elliott’s monumental synthetic history of the British and Spanish American empires, titled Empires of the Atlantic World (Yale, 2006). Which leads us to his most recent work, the subject of this review. Some fifty-five years after The Revolt of the Catalans was published, Elliott has returned to Catalonia as the starting point for yet another book, this time an explicitly comparative history with a sexy title: Scots and Catalans: Union and Disunion, released by Yale University Press in August 2018.

 As the nationalist threats to the perpetual peace once promised by the European Union show no signs of abating, histories of European nationalisms are the flavor du jour, especially among a certain subset of the public that continues to be shocked by the failure of history to simply end already. The time would thus seem ripe for a topical book on the recent origins of Scotland and Catalonia’s secession movements and referendum campaigns. This is, after all, a past that is recent and vivid. One can recall the dramatic events of summer 2017, when Catalonia’s declaration of independence from Spain—born in the aftermath of a referendum that was deemed illegal by the overwhelming majority of Spanish and international jurists—propelled Spain into a full-blown constitutional crisis. This was a moment that laid bare, in an almost perfectly Foucauldian sense, the violence inherent in the system: Madrid’s sovereignty over Catalonia may have been litigated in the courts, but it was proven and secured in the streets by the Guardia Civil, the same police unit that, uncomfortably, carried out many of Franco’s massacres and purges in the thirties. Two years later, the Spanish police have stopped bludgeoning secessionist voters and attacking poll stations, but things are by no means back to status quo ante. Carles Puidgemont, the former Catalonian president, remains in exile in Belgium, while many of his comrades are still jailed. The Catalonian future is yet to be seen.

 In Britain’s case, the Scottish referendum debate was far less raucous; no heads were bashed. But it was no less consequential, all this in spite of the Scottish National Party’s failure to win the referendum that they themselves planned. The long-term effects of the Scottish independence movement on the trajectory of the United Kingdom, even in its defeat, cannot be overstated. As Britain desperately prepares for its withdrawal from the European Union, one cannot help revisiting the national agony over the 2015 independence referendum as a kind of first act for things to come; after all, Scottish voters decided to remain in the union just one year before their English neighbors put the Brexit Yes vote over the fifty-fifty mark. The European Union is, by contrast, overwhelmingly popular in Scotland; with the UK’s exit impending, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s SNP First Minister, is widely acknowledged to be planning for a second independence referendum. A positive result seems plausible, especially in a no-deal Brexit scenario. This is to say that, in a post-imperial, post-Brexit United Kingdom, the status of Scotland remains an open question as well.

 Both cases—the Scottish and the Catalonian—are important not solely for the potential they possess to fundamentally alter two major world economies, but also for the normative challenges that independence and secession pose to several crucial assumptions of modern political logic. The Scottish and Catalonian secessionists (or independence activists) are unmistakably nationalists—but a different sort from the right-wing national conservatives who have taken power in countries like Poland, India, and the United States. The SNP is social-democratic and culturally liberal, and, as has been noted, sees a European future for an independent Scotland; despite the region’s notoriously entrenched xenophobia, Catalonia is a stronghold of the Spanish Left, and Catalonian nationalists have positioned themselves as the moral successors to the Republicans of the Civil War era. The questions that the two cases pose, then, are basic and thorny. What is the status of the nation state in the 21st century, and what is the character of contemporary nationalism? What is the future of democratic Europe? Can the existential terms of a federal constitution be revisited?

 Readers of Elliott will expect in Scots and Catalans a side-by-side history of European separatist nationalism with a politically relevant “takeaway” that addresses normative questions like these: in short, a history of Western Europe’s separatist nationalism along the lines of what Timothy Snyder has done for the history of Eastern Europe’s renewed Christian nationalism. But Elliott is not writing takeaway history. Scots and Catalans does not present a new “narrative” interpretation of the meaning of European nationalism writ large, or theorize the parallel developments of Scottish and Catalonian secession in terms of abstract notions of sovereignty, right, or federalism.

 Instead it catalogues the sequence of events—by decade after analogous decade—that, in their successive order, produced the political and institutional arrangements that define the present in Scotland and Catalonia. This is in and of itself a considerable achievement on Elliott’s part, given the difficulty of navigating between two historiographies and sets of archival sources; it is also novel, as an historical comparison of Catalonia and Scotland has never been done before. But Elliott’s method and construction in Scots and Catalans is traditional in a way that may overwhelm even the committed reader. In prose that is reminiscent of the Oxford style of his fellow early-modernist Jonathan Israel, each of Elliott’s sentences is a citable unit in its own right. This does not impede comprehension—Elliott is a gifted writer, famous for his prose—but flow is not the goal here. His work is comprehensive catalogue, not selective narrative. It is concerned with the hard facts of Scottish and Catalonian history, not the theoretical and historical-political potential that the two cases pose.

 Caveat lector, part two. Though Elliott’s book concludes with a characteristically detailed section on the recent referenda, the focus of Scots and Catalans is squarely on the events of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries: the complicated political negotiations, ethno-linguistic alliances, and economic contingencies that preceded the recent nationalist upsurges in both countries. In his engagement with what amounts to a thousand total years of history, the precision that Elliott achieves is astounding. For its rigor and definitiveness, Scots and Catalans represents the height of what comparative history can accomplish. The result is a product of immense reference value.

 But reference value is not enough. Academic historians can and will consult Elliott’s work on the facts; but that is hardly the be-all and end-all of history writing. In this tortuous dual history—one that, to real credit, resists an easy or trite epitome—we still need a conclusion. What is the meaning of the comparison that Elliott has so painstakingly laid out? What ought we make of the comparative history he presents?  


 A significant and growing subfield of the historical discipline, comparative history can be broadly seen as possessing two main purposes. The first we can call “expository,” the second “explanatory.” The expository potential of comparative history is more easily producible—and, in general, less interesting. A work of economic history, say, that exposes the (hypothetical) similarities between the Incan and pre-modern Chinese corvée labor systems reveals a superficially interesting point of commonality—but what does that tell us? Comparison without systematic explanation often lacks significance.

 Explanatory comparative history, which asserts the primary responsibility of a set of common, often entangled factors for the appearance of a phenomenon in the history of one or more societies, owes its existence in large part to Marc Bloch, the French-Jewish historian of feudalism and resistance fighter murdered by the Nazis in 1944. In a seminal conference essay delivered in 1928, Bloch posited the comparative method as an effective means in the historian’s logical toolkit that could prove a phenomenon’s existence and confirm its structural importance. Despite extensive subsequent critique, most notably by the Chicago social historian William Sewell, Bloch’s original notion of the logical power of comparative history has remained highly influential, informing dozens of major comparative historical studies.

 Elliott was not the first to apply Bloch’s comparative method to early-modern Scotland. From among the body of existing comparative histories of Scotland, no single individual has been so influential as has the Cambridge intellectual historian John Robertson, whom Elliott cites in the preface to Scots and Catalans as a major influence on his own work. Robertson’s comparison was between early-modern Scotland and Naples—until 1816 a constituent kingdom within the Spanish Empire. In a polemical intervention, Robertson strove to prove the existence of a single Enlightenment by looking for its common intellectual underpinnings in the two disparate European outposts.

 By the early aughts, the Enlightenment—both as a category of historical inquiry and as a chronological sortation—had come under vigorous attack by a diverse set of critics from across the historiographical and ideological spectra. Some claimed that a singular, pan-European Enlightenment had never really existed, pointing instead to a set of localized Enlightenments, plural. Others acknowledged the existence of a cohesive Enlightenment but decried its hypocrisies, emphasizing the Enlightenment’s connections with empire, racism, and sexism.

 Robertson rejected both attacks, entering the fray to make a case for “the” Enlightenment in both senses of the word—as a meaningful unit of analysis and as a worthwhile source of inspiration for modern politics—with a book titled, straightforwardly, The Case for the Enlightenment: Scotland and Naples, 1680-1760. The common structural causes behind the genesis of Enlightenment thought in the universities and libraries of Naples and Edinburgh, Robertson contended, were the peculiar dynamics of Sicily and Scotland within the composite monarchies of Spain and Britain, respectively. Both were “kingdoms ruled as provinces,” with ancient claims to independence and a native upper-middle class that had been exposed to classical republican thought. And, crucial to the cultivation of both countries’ philosophical luminaries, the intellectual elite of Scotland and Naples shared in common access to the sources of Epicureanism, an important influence on both Naples’s Giambattista Vico and Scotland’s David Hume.

 Robertson’s comparative history had a clear argument and logic to explicate. But Elliott is not so much argumentative as he is declarative. His chapters have themes, like “Incorporating Unions,” but these are matters of fact rather than charged interpretations. Robertson proves a point; Elliott presents what might be confused for an extremely erudite kind of show and tell.


 Elliott begins Scots and Catalans with a context of sixteenth-century Scottish sovereignty, moving swiftly to the kingdom’s involvement in the rise of the Stuarts, with the peculiar status of James VI and I (1566-1625) as king of both Scotland and England. Elliott’s treatment of the early-modern period is accessible and fair, especially in his discussion of the Revolution against Charles (1642-1651)—no small accomplishment given the often-partisan character of seventeenth-century English historiography—in which Scotland played the decisive role. The 1707 Act of Union, which merged the two monarchies to create the United Kingdom, and the rise and fall of the subsequent Jacobite restoration movement, led by the Stuart Bonnie Prince Charlie, are explored with subtlety. Scotland’s rise to prosperity over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is given extensive space, as well; Elliott emphasizes the integral role played by Scotland and the Scots within the burgeoning British Empire—and the extent to which Scotland benefited from Britain’s growing imperial project, with the rise of industrial Glasgow and increased nationwide prosperity. Scotland’s economic decline in the second half the twentieth century is also explored, with a particular emphasis on postwar deindustrialization; a combination of economic distress and devolution agreements with London, Elliott argues, created a nationalist feedback loop. The genealogy of Scottish discontent is thus recent, rather than ancient; much of the nineteenth century saw a productive union. Disunion emerged as an option as a consequence of Britain’s own declining stature as a former empire.

 On the Catalonian side, Elliott begins with the feudal origins of Catalonian autonomy within the medieval Crown of Aragon, before moving on to a discussion of the failed Catalonian Revolts of 1640-1652, the aftermath of which witnessed the region’s further integration within a consolidating Spanish state. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries both saw moments of crisis and prosperity, of localization and centralization: the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1715, in which the Catalans took the French side, saw a crackdown on local autonomy, while the second half of the century witnessed a Catalonian cultural renaissance and improved living conditions. Likewise, Catalonia exited the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 scarred and depleted, even as its industrial base rebounded to thrive in the century’s last decades. In the twentieth century, Catalonia flourished under republican Spain (1931-1939), and defended the Republic on autonomous grounds during the Civil War, only to experience severe linguistic and cultural repression under the first decades of Franco’s corporatist regime. The region’s recovery in the latter decades as part of the so-called Spanish Miracle is also given significant attention, as are the efforts to enhance local autonomy for Catalonia after Spain’s democratic transition in 1978.

 The myth of primordial independence, then, is corrected by this history of centralization and decentralization, with no easy pigeonholing; there were moments when Catalonia prospered as part of a united, albeit devolved, Spain. It is largely as a consequence, Elliott contends, of Spain’s mixed fortunes in the global economy of the 21st century, and a devolution campaign similar to Scotland’s in the mid-1970s, that independence retains its magnetic pull. But, as Elliott rightly maintains, secession is by no means a consensus position in Catalonia. There are millions still who support union with Spain; the opposition boycott of the independence referendum speaks to this. Neither union nor disunion is a foregone conclusion, in Scotland as well. As the examples of both recent and distant history demonstrate, Scottish unionism has won the day a dozen times over.


Elliott’s comparative history of Scotland and Catalonia effectively illuminates the long-term origins of independence movements in those countries. There are commonalities to be found, when the picture is painted with broad brushstrokes. In the more distant past, the growth of centralizing English and Castilian states led to a centuries-long cycle: first rebellion, then resistance, then accommodation and incorporation, in both Scotland and Catalonia. In the more recent past, a period that, for this history, includes the present, a combination of nationalist mythologizing, economic anxiety, and political contingency precipitated the referenda crises of 2015 and 2017. The sourcing for Elliott’s account of these developments could not be more thorough. It is as close to a definitive history as one could ever hope to write. 

But Elliot’s comparison doesn’t conclude. We are left with an abundance of historical data, yet are unsure what to do with it. Part of Elliott’s central thesis about the contemporary success of separatist nationalism is that historical narrative—read, partisan mythmaking—is intensely powerful. Catalonia had never been independent, and yet its contemporary nationalists were able to leverage a story of an ancient constitution to powerful effect. What is Elliott’s story? We have information everywhere, but it’s unclear what we ought to think.

But maybe this is precisely the point, even if we have to take pains to tease it out. Elliott responds to the historical mythmaking of twenty-first century partisans with a kind of anti-narrative. If the historical processes that formed the modern nations of Catalonia and Scotland are contingent rather than essential, that is, more dependent on the particular fortunes of individuals and factions than on some generalizable nationalist law of history, there is nothing predetermined about the future. In the histories of Catalonia and Scotland there are moments of union and disunion, ebb and flow. The pendulum swings both ways. It is the responsibility of the historian to open the past as a resource. Elliott does not make it easy, but the careful integrationist may yet find in Scots and Catalans the conditions for creating a more equitable federation.