Although it's caused little more than a ripple, the announcement from the Spanish foreign minister that his country would have "nothing to say" about Scottish independence could scarcely be more significant. Since the late 1980s, the SNP has countered scaremongering about "isolation" with the promise that Scotland would remain firmly inside the European family after independence, and indeed would be a much less half-hearted participant in EU affairs than the UK has been. The latter point has become an even easier sell since David Cameron's petulant and pointless veto of a European treaty at the end of last year. But of course the success of the strategy has always hinged on the public's faith that an independent Scotland could freely choose to remain within the EU, and unionist parties have naturally been keen from the start to find ways of undermining that faith. The SNP's impeccable pro-European credentials would be of little use if enough doubt could be sowed about just how welcome an independent Scotland would actually be in the club. And the favourite piece of unionist scaremongering down the years? That Spain would veto our EU membership, on the grounds that it would encourage "separatism" in two of its own autonomous regions, Catalonia and the Basque Country. A Foreign Office source gently whispered that idea into the ears of a few journalists just last month, and with a typical display of the "Westminster is God" mindset, the London media lapped it up and earnestly reported it as if it was a direct quote from the Spanish government!
But it really doesn't matter what is said from now on - we have an authoritative statement from Spain, which can be used as an all-purpose response whenever this hoary old myth is raised. At a stroke, there can be no more room for doubt in the minds of the Scottish public that we can choose a European future. The mechanics of securing EU membership may still be open to debate, as indeed is the very desirability of full membership as opposed to the EU-lite option of staying within the single market via EFTA and the EEA. But the old unionist fantasy of Scotland being 'punished' by the civilised world for its confounded impudence, and set adrift in the North Atlantic without food, shelter or warmth, is now dead for ever.
So great news for us - but spare a thought for the Catalans and the Basques. Spain's pragmatic promotion of the idea that there are no parallels between its own regions and Scotland is essentially based on a piece of sophistry, ie. that 'separatism' is somehow consistent with the UK's constitutional doctrine, but not with Spain's. OK, the UK may not have a written constitution that explicitly states that the unity of the nation is "indissoluble", but the now universally-accepted principle that Scotland can choose its own destiny is a relatively new one. It came about as UK Prime Ministers from Harold Wilson onwards simply accepted the realities of a modern, democratised world that had moved on from colonialism. Whether Spain realises it or not, it's simply playing catch-up on this, rather than defending a timeless and quintessentially Spanish constitutional principle.
After all, what message does a constitutional provision that the nation is 'indissoluble' send to Catalan or Basque nationalists? Basically, that constitutional nationalism is a literal impossibility, and ultimately that non-constitutional methods are the only way of achieving what ought to be perfectly legitimate democratic objectives. It's the rough equivalent of Article 6 of the old Soviet constitution, which made clear that voters could choose absolutely any party they wanted, as long as that party was the Communist Party. The EU has long since moved on from the days where it would even flirt with the idea of admitting a one-party state (although Franco's Spain did apply to join the Common Market), so why on earth does it tolerate a member state which arrogantly tells people that the future of their own nation isn't a matter for them, and has been settled for all time by the text of the constitution? It presumably boils down to the fact that nobody in Brussels has been forced to confront this issue yet. But a short, sharp shock may be coming for the EU from the direction of Barcelona, and once it happens the rules of the game will surely have to change. In future, it must be a condition of EU membership that states adhere to all democratic principles, not just the easy ones. Nobody would deny that accepting the right of 'sub-national peoples' to decide their own future is a hard thing for large states such as Spain to do - but without that acceptance, democracy is a sham.
I'll leave you with a picture I took in Catalonia about eighteen months ago - if you look closely you'll see the word "Independencia" lovingly scrawled along the side of the pier. You don't see things like that at Ardrossan Harbour!