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Political Research Exchange

Are Scottish and Catalan Pro-Independence Movements Populist? Comparing the Nature and Intensity of Populism in Political Communication

Comparative Politics
Political Parties
Comparative Perspective
Jose Javier Olivas Osuna
Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia – UNED, Madrid
Jose Javier Olivas Osuna
Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia – UNED, Madrid

Most studies on populism focus on either right-wing or left-wing populist movements in the Americas or Europe, including Eurosceptic right-wing parties (e.g. Mudde 2007, Lochocki 2017), American nationalism (e.g. Bonikowski and DiMaggio 2016, Skocpol and Williamson 2012), personalistic Latin American populisms (de la Torre 2010; Philip and Panizza 2013) and Southern European left-wing populism (Stavrakakis and Katsambekis 2013; Ramiro and Gómez 2017). With the exception of the study of the far-right secessionist Lega Nord (McDonnell 2006, Zaslove 2011) and Vlaams Blok (Jagers and Walgrave 2007), little attention has been paid to the analysis of pro-independence movements from a populism angle.

This paper develops a new methodology to quantify the nature and degree of populism and compares the discourses of Scottish and Catalan pro-independence leaders and parties between 2014 and 2017. First, based on the analysis of the most popular definitions of populism (e.g. Mudde 2005, Laclau 2005, Müller 2016, etc.) it creates a comparative framework by dissecting populism into five dimensions: antagonistic depiction of the polity, morality, idealised construction of society, sovereignty claims, and leadership. Second, following this categorisation, it conducts a systematic content analysis of the political manifestos, official communications and press articles by the main pro-independence parties in Scotland (SNP) and Catalonia (ERC, Junts pel Sí, Junts per Catalunya) and its leaders (Nicola Sturgeon, Alex Salmond, John Swinney, Artur Mas, Carles Puigdemont, Oriol Junqueras). Finally, it compares frequency of populist and non-populist features relative to the length of the test analysed.

The contribution of this paper is two-fold. On the one hand it shows that although Scottish and Catalan pro-independence parties share the goal of political self-determination, their discourses widely diverge when analysed through the lens of populism. The frequency of populist features observed in the speeches and written communications of Catalan pro-independence parties is approximately four times higher than that observed in equivalent SNP documents. Not only the degree, but also the nature of populism varies. For instance, populist references to the antagonistic nature of the polity have a lower weight in the case of Scotland, and Catalan pro-independence leaders rely much more on a negative moral interpretation of their political opponents than the Scottish ones. This work helps reject the hypothesis that all nationalist movements are populist or use profusely a populist discourse.

On the other hand, the methodology introduced here paves the way to further quantitative and qualitative comparative work on populist movements. This approach, although compatible to some extent with that of the authors who understand populism as a ‘thin ideology’ (e.g. Stanley 2008, Mudde 2007), does not consider populism as a discrete variable. This analysis illustrates how parties may display different levels of populism in their communications (Alanidis 2016: 92-93, Moffit 2016: 154) and provides contributes to the stream of research which focuses on populism mainly as a non-binary discursive style (e.g. de la Torre 200, Jagers and Walgrave 2007, Deegan-Krause and Haughton 2009).

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