Arriving in Scotland a few years ago, I was greeted by a poster boasting that Glasgow has “the latitude of Smolensk and the attitude of Barcelona”. It was a vivid example of the mixture of comradeship and admiration with which Scots look towards Catalonia. Barcelona, the Catalan capital, has many things that Glaswegians covet: better weather, better food, better football. In a striking homage to Catalonia, the Scots even chose an architect from its capital, Enric Miralles, to design their new parliament building.

Now, however, Catalans have a reason to look enviously towards Scotland. On Monday it was confirmed that in 2014 Scotland will hold a referendum on independence. The Catalan government would dearly love to hold its own vote on independence, but is being determinedly blocked by the Spanish government in Madrid.

Spain is attempting to thwart the movement for Catalan independence through the use of a legalistic Catch-22. The central government says Catalan nationalists must respect Spain’s constitution. And that constitution makes it illegal to hold a referendum on independence.

The British are taking an approach that is simultaneously more pragmatic and bolder. Prime Minister David Cameron could easily have insisted that only the British government had the legal right to organise a referendum. Instead he has agreed to allow Scots to organise a vote on their nation’s future – on condition that independence should be the only question on the ballot.

On the grounds of both justice and prudence, the British government’s approach seems wiser. Mr Cameron, like Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, is a conservative and a patriot. Both men would be appalled to preside over the break-up of their nations. But the British government has recognised that, by winning power in Edinburgh, the Scottish Nationalists have earned the democratic right to hold a referendum on their longstanding goal of independence. There is no point in trying to find legalistic ways of thwarting them.

The British government’s approach, while risky, is also psychologically astute. Telling people that there is something that they are absolutely forbidden from doing is a sure way of stoking their desire to do that very thing. This principle – first established in the Garden of Eden – applies just as surely in modern Catalonia. By contrast, it may be slightly deflating for Scottish Nationalists that a recent opinion poll showed stronger support for Scottish independence in England than in Scotland itself.