Well, it was ‘against the law’ right enough, and the point about constitutions is that they proscribe what you can’t do as well as clarifying what you can. The constitution – and remember, one day we’ll need one – limits a citizen’s actions as well as validating his rights. The state of Spain and its government has a duty to uphold the constitution on behalf of all citizens. Spain has a justified position to maintain and has every justification for resisting the demands of a political movement agitating to breach the national law.
But of course it isn’t about the law at all. The constitution is being used as a political shield to hide the government’s failure of courage to engage constructively with the Catalonian leadership.
Now, let’s not be naïve. Trying to assuage the highly charged demands of the nationalists will be like dealing with the SNP – they will take whatever they can meantime and will not stop agitating for their ultimate objective. That’s just how it works – on both sides. They will compromise but never drop their principal position, be they nationalists for independence or unionists wedded to the UK.
Politics is a process. It just stops occasionally to draw breath and then starts up again.
Rajoy has been in denial rather than in discussion – the same place the British Tories were over Scotland before someone pointed out that the polls showed a decisive win for No if a referendum was held. That gave the green light to the Edinburgh Agreement on the basis that ‘We’ll agree to play you as we have a ten-goal start.’
I wrote the other day how fear drives much of what our politicians do (and don’t do). And it appears that fear of getting caught up in a complicated argument that he might not win proved too much for a limited and fearful hardline right-winger. The result has been estrangement and resentment, easily fuelled by populism into a powerful sense of being denied a fundamental right.
Yet it has been open to Rajoy to separate out the issues. The deeply-rooted wave of Catalonian desire for self-government is one aspect of events that won’t go away but the demand for a referendum is another. Behind the mass street demonstrations and noisy celebrations of identity the opinion polls have been showing independence as a minority interest – usually around 45 per cent Yes, but down to 41 per cent in July.
With significant numbers declaring they would not vote at all because it is not legal and a potential No vote among those who would, the ground looked set for a Castilian win.
In fact, if you were dealt Rajoy’s hand, you might smile at your cards. You can watch as they struggle to get enough votes. You can point to the abstentions and you can play your ace: it is unconstitutional.
The problem does not go away but then it never was going to. But you have maintained the dignity of the state, you have allowed a democratic expression, albeit a flawed one and you have parked the problem. Even a Yes vote can be challenged on the same grounds and will be supported by the EU and the UN. It’s uncomfortable but it’s perfectly do-able. It does little more than lay the ground for further talks on devolution without resolving the issue.
Instead, it is clear that an old falangist impulse took hold in Madrid. Catalans ceased to be Spaniards and were viewed as enemies of the state (shades of the British mindset over all Scots in the indyref). They were not only to be stopped but taught a lesson. Under the old fascist front of the law came the violation of rights. This was authoritarianism Franco style. This was manifestly not how the civilised nations of modern Europe do politics. It wasn’t just Spain that was humiliated by helmeted riot police out of control against the defenceless, it was Europe.
Images of women being hauled by the hair, pensioners bloodied and students repeatedly battered by clubs stains the impression of what politicians like to describe as Western values and ‘our way of life’.
Put it this way. Would Putin be smiling in the Kremlin? Or put it another way. What message is sent to every disaffected loser contemplating a terrorist act to express his anger?
The slow, measured – and in some cases invisible – response from the EU institutional leaders was another let down for democrats everywhere. Shuffling off responsibility for a member state is dismal politics when Article 7 allows for suspension from membership if the state abuses the rights of citizens.
No one who watched the scenes on social media which gave a much stronger flavour than those I witnessed on television could be in any doubt that this was repression of a kind we have seen in Russia or Venezuela and it demanded unequivocal condemnation. Sadly, the first reaction from the much of the British left was silence or, in the case of Brian Wilson and Duncan Hottershall, outright criticism of the voters. It took too long and thousands of online entreaties before Jeremy Corbyn swung into action and then it was initially to condemn violence rather than endorsing democratic rights. Some Labour figures stuck to the illegality line forgetting that there wouldn’t be a Labour Party without people challenging the law.
The British government failed too in its bromides about rule of law and close allies. Given the situation in Scotland, the least we could have expected was a strong complaint that police violence was a mistake when democratic means are available. Much that London cares…Scotland and Catalonia are afterthoughts as they strive to stay in power against the gale of Brexit.
It seems obvious now that the collective government of western nations through its states and alliances, needs a new approach to the fracture of sovereign nations. A way is needed of allowing localised expression of political outlook and cultural identity to be channelled without bringing to bear all the might of the state against people. It seems to me the EU itself is the template for a new order because it already presumes that sovereign states are prepared to share rights and responsibilities among themselves, weakening the absolute power of the indivisible state. The existing nations already recognise differences in scale by allocating weighted voting rights so the larger countries have more say. Such a system can be extended to give voting rights to micro nations too – nations which may not wish to have a full range of national powers such as defence, if this is to be arranged on a pan-European basis. As a member of the Eurozone Spain already outsources much of its macro economic policy to Brussels.
Ironically for a Scottish Nationalist, I’m presaging the end of the nation state as we have known it. The EU has already altered the meaning by the pooling of sovereignty while leaving unscathed the separate identities of each country. By doggedly holding to an 18th century design, Spain is putting history before progress. You can’t batter people into agreement with riot police. The rejection of the restrictions of the past opens the way to imaginative solutions – do you need to be a sovereign state to be successful? Is there still collective dignity in sharing – properly sharing – powers between Barcelona and Madrid? If a co-operative solution was possible, might it work in the UK? When you look at so many of the problems facing our world, they have their genesis in the unyielding national state.
We’re already inching along that path with some tax powers in Edinburgh along with social security. Why not start again and agree that everything in theory can be transferred and only those powers that by agreement are best left conjoined, do so? We may for example share currency but diverge on public spending and taxation.
There will always be a difficulty even after a Yes vote because a very large number won’t accept it. Indeed we can anticipate a concerted drive to derail independence. A creative atmosphere and a genuine desire to reach an accord could deliver the goods that would satisfy a majority – that’s always been true in Scotland, in my view.
But, no doubt like you, I know the cold reality in Spain is nightsticks and big state propaganda to retain power and here it is unionist sabotage and No Surrender at any cost. Compromise is weakness. The only way to get the country you want is to throw out the old order. In other words, you have to fight for everything you get.
The disgraceful scenes in Catalonia confirm that while Europe postures on progress, government offices of Europe are still shrouded in 1930’s darkness. To grip on to power, they are ready to grip the throat of the population.