The first minister of Scotland has released the White Paper, a 600-plus-page book sketching forth the country's future should the "yes" vote triumph next September. The Scots are going back to the polls after giving the Scottish National Party (SNP) a clear majority in the last elections. This time it is a referendum on independence; the government, legitimized by that result, having prepared a plan for an independent Scotland.
The referendum on September 18 2014 has its legitimacy of origin in parliamentary elections, where the citizens gave Alex Salmond's SNP government a mandate to set in motion a process aimed at independence. And it has a legitimacy of exercise, in that it derives from the same party that obtained that mandate, presided by the same candidate who thus became first minister -- the man who has managed the whole process, and who has committed himself to manage the result of September 18.
The Scottish citizens know why they are going to vote on September 18: because they themselves decided this in parliamentary elections, giving a clear majority to a party with an unequivocal independence program. They know, too, just what they are going to vote on, and what the consequences of their decision are, though in this last case there cannot but be a dose of uncertainty, there being no applicable experience in processes of secession. This means, then, that the Scottish referendum is going to be a clean one, which is going to be presided from start to finish by the principle of democratic legitimacy. The exercise of direct democracy will only set the seal on what has been an impeccable exercise of representative democracy.
You resort to the moment of direct democracy after you have walked the road of representative democracy
It is in this last point that the Scottish process differs from the Catalan sovereignty drive. In Catalonia the citizens have not yet been asked, in parliamentary elections, to confer a mandate to start any independence process. There have been mass demonstrations with secessionist slogans, and opinion surveys that show independence to be an option with considerable support, but there has not yet been an electoral debate centered on independence such as would enable the electorate to make a decision on it.
In other words, the Catalan regional parliament lacks the legitimacy required in a matter of this nature for setting an independence process in motion. To demand that a referendum be called, without previously having a clear mandate to do so, is to put the cart before the horse. Legislative elections are the only basis of legitimacy on which to build a process of secession from Spain, as in any other European parliamentary democracy. A clear mandate after an express debate in parliamentary elections is the condition sine qua non for setting up a process toward independence.
In this terrain you can only resort to the moment of direct democracy after you have walked the road of representative democracy. To obtain legitimacy to ask the people a question, you have to have debated it previously in an electoral process, and then you must hold a parliamentary debate based on the result of the elections. Only in this way can you fix upon the object of the question you wish to put to the people. The political leaders have to shoulder the responsibility of leading the process, and not shift this responsibility onto the citizens, whose moment comes at the end.
In Catalonia none of this has been done. At no time, since the Constitution came into effect, have the citizens been asked to pronounce on their independence from Spain. In the most recent parliamentary elections there was an express proposal in this sense from the secessionist Catalan Republican Left party; but the result obtained, though expressive, in no way suffices to legitimize the activation of a process toward independence.