Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.

In Barcelona’s El Born market, the visitor is treated to an exercise in nation building that would make Alex Salmon proud. Now a museum, the old market hall’s floor has been excavated to show the outline of old city streets: rough stones piled perhaps five feet off the ground trace grand merchant houses and butcher’s shops that stood before they were razed following the Bourbon victory in the War of Spanish Succession, to provide clear fields of fire from the citadel constructed to the city’s north west to, as the phrase of the time had it, “overawe” Barcelona’s populace.

Crisp modern displays explain the “Borbonic repression” of Catalans, their institutions, culture and language. Their struggle had commanded the hearts of Europe, even prompting unsuccessful military intervention by, among others, England’s Whig administration; their failure would usher the Tories back to power in London for the first time since the revolution of 1688-1689.

The romantically inclined might find this historically incomplete story of freedom-loving Catalans’ futile struggle for independence against austere Counter-Reformation Castile echoed in later conflicts and finally in the notorious Civil War of 1936-1939. A conflict won, once again, by the forces of Catholic reaction led by the generalisimo Francisco Franco.

Needless to say, no army of occupation, conscripts’ fingers hovering over triggers, grim-faced officers hovering over them sets road blocks on the Ramblas, any more than the Queen’s dragoons patrol Glasgow’s George Square.

This time the dispute is about money.

Cataluña, to use its Castillian name this time, is one of Spain’s most prosperous regions. Independence-minded Catalans see themselves as more advanced and efficient than the rest of Spain’s inhabitants and resent bailing out what they consider to be the corrupt and backward Madrid elite.

Since democracy returned to Spain in 1978 however, Catalan nationalism has been a conservative, business-minded force. So conservative indeed that in the 1990s, the Catlan Convergencia i Unió (now Convergencia Democratica) party saw fit to support the government of the conservative Partido Popular. No leader of the SNP would contemplate doing the same thing for a Tory administration.

Their difficulty lies in producing a conservative constitutional revolution. Unable to obtain enough support for independence on the centre-right they have been forced to make a pact with the decidedly left-wing stream of republican Catalan nationalists, who these days go by the name of CUP. Together with the CUP, Convergencia won a slender majority of seats in a snap regional election called last November, after the supreme court in Madrid ruled an independence referendum unconstitutional.

At this point, the CUP, very much the junior partner in the nationalist coalition, turned the screw, and prevented the region’s parliament from nominating Arur Mas, Convergencia’s leader, as the region’s president. The ostensible reason was Mas’s role covering up allegations of corruption by the previous Convergencia leadership, involving suitcases of cash being deposited in secret accounts located in the tiny Pyrennean principality of Andorra. Though Mas did not succeed in being appointed president, his replacement, Carles Puidgemont, is very much Mas’s man.

Divisions between Convergencia and CUP extend to the constitutional question on which they are supposedly united. The more radical CUP want to begin the process of independence immediately. Convergencia would prefer to negotiate terms of independence, and, sensing they lack a democratic mandate, seek support in a referendum before going any further. Pro-independence parties won only 47.8 per cent of the vote: as the “unionist” opposition has noted, they called a plebiscitary referendum, which they then lost.

That is not perhaps a problem for the radicals of the CUP, but the attack tells against the conservative Convergencia. To go for independence without a referendum would be illegitimate even to themselves; but to hold an illegal referendum is equally difficult.

To be sure, the flags scattered on balconies and behind windows and planted atop hills are Catalan independence ones – red and gold stripes fringed by a white star on triangular field of blue – but the silent or indifferent majority is still for staying put.

With a power vaccuum in Madrid (where an inconclusive election has yet to produce a governing coalition), now might appear to be the nationalists’ chance, but it’s one they are unlikely to be able to seize. The lesson here, as in Quebec and Scotland, is that this kind of luxury nationalism, undertaken to fulfil a sense of identity, not to protect people from colonial oppression, struggles to get across the line. With no Bourbon troops to impose daily humiliation, the nationalists risk losing their opportunity for ever.

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