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Incoherent Moral Hypocrisy of Separatism from Catalonia to Singapore.

[Posted by Lara Keller 1/11/2017 Last Updated 15/11/17 ]

Like the painting of “not supporting the Syrian Revolution” as a sort of anti-imperialist progressive movement, in a less important sense, the support for Catalan Independence Separatism is being promoted abroad as “true democracy in action”. Both these rhetorical obscenities are essentially incoherent, immoral and deeply hypocritical.

A recent article by Ian Jack in the UK Guardian Newspaper is useful in discussing the Catalonian Independence movement (see https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/28/britain-caught-brexit-storm-scotland-england-stick-together ). It states that a think tank called “These Islands” has been set up to argue against Scottish Independence and to keep the UK united.

Nigel Biggar is a prominent member of this think tank – a retired professor of moral and pastoral theology from Oxford University – he states there are 3 criteria for a morally just separatist movement:

1. Are the grievances of the separating nation serious?
2. Are the grievances long standing rather than temporary?
3. Are the grievances current rather than historical?

Examining each of these in turn as they apply to Catalonia:

1. Not Serious = Catalonia is the wealthiest region in Spain. All of Spain has enjoyed democracy and freedom of speech since Franco died in 1975.

2. Temporary = Spain endured a financial crisis in 2008 and a subsequent recession that the economy is now slowly recovering from. The conservative People’s Party have been in power since 2011, and has pursued an unjust policy of austerity, but this is bound to change as governments change.

3. Not Current = Dictatorship died with Franco over 40 years ago. The Spanish Civil War was 80 years ago.

The real core grievance appears to be that Catalonia pays more in tax to Madrid than it receives in government services. In all countries richer areas support poorer areas. There is much made of Catalonian culture. Chauvinistic comments about non Catalan Spanish being lazy (echoes of German attitudes to indebted Greeks here) or revulsion to bull fighting as if Spaniards are all obsessed with it outside of Catalonia.

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The Catalan independence movement is a very broad coalition. It claims the cake of independence can be eaten twice. The poor Catalans will get much better services and austerity will end, while richer Catalans will get lower taxes and live like their contemporaries in Denmark. The assumption is that Catalonia can easily exist without the Spanish economy, rather than the reality that the region has done well out of the Spanish economy and is integrated into the Spanish economy.

I have not seen any convincing arguments that Catalan Independence is about democracy. It is about a large minority (38%) in a prosperous region trying to unilaterally reset the borders of continental Spain that date to 1561, with probably unrealistic economic self advantage as the real core  reason.

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If we discard morality, then the other motive for separatism is plain self-interest. The Scottish Independence lobby site IndependentScotland.org, gives the self- interested case for a profitable separatist movement in “10 Reasons to vote YES for an Independent Scotland” (see http://www.independentscotland.org/articles/14270/why-vote-yes-for-scottish-independence.htm ). Naively optimistic points 4 and 5 get to the heart of matter, “4.Securing Oil Funds in North Sea” and “5. Scotland has the resources and finances”. Point 5 is helpfully illustrated by a barrel of cash, and a link to the libertarian comedian Dominic Frisby (no seriously) article in the UK Independent Newspaper “Why an independent Scotland could become the richest country on Earth” ( https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/why-an-independent-scotland-could-become-the-richest-country-on-earth-9096120.html ).

According to the CIA survey mentioned in Frisby’s article the top 10 wealthiest countries by income per capita (in Purchasing Power Parity terms) in 2016 were Liechtenstein, Qatar, Monaco, Luxembourg, Singapore, Brunei, Kuwait, Ireland, Norway and United Arab Emirates. Frisby also slips in the assertion that small countries have a higher level of equality.  He puts this success to the common factor which is their small population size, and subsequent lack of bureaucratic exploitation. So small and separate is not only beautiful but prosperous and equal as well. Frisby touches on the obvious problem with this argument that the United States is wealthy, but counters that it has been wealthier when states were more autonomous and the dollar was on the “gold standard”.

This article is empty rhetoric: (1) Income per capita has nothing to do with equality, it is just an average calculated by dividing national wealth by population. None of these countries in the list apart from Norway have a reputation for income equality. (2) There are many small poor countries. (3)  Statistically the top section of any list is not necessarily indicative of patterns that apply to the whole list. The top are likely to be exceptionally lucky. Clearly a large country is going to be an average of the fortunes of its many regions.

A deeper more interesting problem with the argument of small countries being wealthier due to self-made merit is more interesting.  Most of the top-ten small wealthy countries are either tax havens or oil-gas producers. They exploit the stricter tax regimes of other countries, or the hydrocarbons under territory then can lay claim to. For example Norway and the UK claim oil rich areas of the North Sea beyond their territorial waters, which could be argued to belong to Europe as a whole. Ireland has become a multi-national’s tax shelter, where many companies in Europe have relocated their headquarters to Ireland, because it has very low corporate tax rates.

Singapore is another country on the list, that is used to promote the advantages of separatism, having broken with Malaysia in 1965. It is also promoted as the superiority of benign dictatorship over democracy. A strange choice for the self-confessed libertarian Dominic Frisby. Singapore is a mainly ethnic Chinese city state off the coast of Malaysia.

Emerging from the colonial rule of the British Empire and separation from Malaysia, Singapore had the geographical advantage of being a strategically placed port on a major shipping route, and the business advantage of being part of an established large regional ethnic Chinese trading network. Independence also coincided with the beginning of globalization and the transfer of manufacturing by Western companies to the Far-East.  Singapore also developed extensive oil refining facilities as Asian demand for oil products soared. The truth is that Singapore was doing well in 1965, and was in a perfect position to take advantages of changes in the economics of the region.

Critically it was established by the long-term competent relatively benign (rather than the usual exploitative corrupt) dictatorship of Lee Kuan Yew, that actively discouraged corruption to create a stable legal system.

The problem with Singapore is that it is a dictatorship that is run for the benefit of a clique. Lee Kuan Yew famously described ordinary citizens as “digits”. This regime composed of the disingenuously named ruling “People’s Action Party” and the multi-national business elite. Effective opposition does not exist because critics are bankrupted for “defamation” and if this does not silence them they are imprisoned . It is a wealthy country, but most native Singaporeans do not share in it. It is one of the most expensive places to live in the world and also one of the most unequal.

There are positive lessons that can be learned from Singapore for the so called “liberal” Western democracies, but these are not the things promoted by the regime and its apologists. The regime is described by informed detractors as a “stingy nanny state”. An active state means the acute housing shortage caused by limited land has been tackled by extensive social housing. Pollution and congestion has been greatly reduced by a combination of rationing the number of cars and organizing abundant public transport. Public health is actively promoted, resisting the overabundance of junk food and alcohol that undermines the West. For example alcohol is 2 to 3 times more expensive in Singapore than neighboring countries.

There are essentially three classes in this “stingy nanny state”. The “servant class” of ordinary native Singaporeans who endure a highly competitive work environment together with being squeezed by expensive social housing, and the high charges and patchy coverage of other state services. The  native Singaporean population is declining, because the birth rate is very low and emigration is increasing. The “peasant class” of foriegn migrant labour is now reaching  around a third of the population. They keep wages low, and do not have any rights. Then there is the “elite class” composed of the ruling party, highly talented and educated Singaporeans, and foreign professionals who often take permanent resident status. China is looking to Singapore and the regional hinterland it exploits, as a model of a stable and exploitative class structure to emulate. China already treats much of its population like foreign migrant labour, only allowing temporary residence in industrial cities.


Separatism is a false reactionary road. Small is not necessarily beautiful, equal or successful. The real progressive challenge in Spain for Catalonians and other Spaniards is to change the Spanish Government. The same applies to the Scotland and the rest of the UK. The real progressive challenge in Europe for all ordinary Europeans is to reform the economic structure of the European Union. Where Germany, it’s wealthiest state, is destroying the EU tree it is complacently sitting on. If Europe was better at distributing its resources, then there would be less pressure on component countries to distribute resources between its component regions. The West needs to be wary and selective of what lessons it takes from states like Singapore and China.


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