How do you make the world sympathise with lawbreakers and subversives? Act the way the Spanish government has over the referendum in Catalonia. In sending in the police, nightsticks-a-swinging, Madrid has supplied a textbook example of how not to deal with secessionists.
The scenes in the Spanish region are horrific, both in their violence and their contempt for democracy. Madrid has the law on its side but constitutional provisions fade limply when set against images of bloodied grandmothers. Catalan separation has never had a stroke of luck as fortuitous as this brute overreaction.
The current impasse is not the first between Madrid and the pro-independence forces of Barcelona. Catalan politics is dominated by parties which support varying degrees of increased autonomy, though the lurch to hardline nationalism in recent years has been driven in part by the national government’s obdurate stance.
For its part, Madrid points out that the constitution mandates ‘the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards’. The Constitutional Court suspended the referendum legislation pending judicial review and has previously ruled against such plebiscites. That earlier referendum was allowed to go ahead with little incident but it was advisory and the vote Carles Puigdemont’s government has attempted to hold today would be binding.
But Barcelona’s assertion of a binding result and the achievement of independence are very different. As the scenes being beamed across the world verify, central government very much has the upper hand and could have stood in the way of formal moves to set up a separate state. Mariano Rajoy’s administration could have allowed the vote to go ahead and wait for the Constitutional Court to nullify it. Instead, they chose heavy-handedness and have made Spain look like a thug-run police state of the former Soviet variety. An internal dispute has been blown up into an international incident.
The nationalists of Catalonia are as belligerent, divisive, and grievance-mongering as nationalists the world over. It is to the shame of Rajoy’s government that they have been allowed to claim the moral high ground and more, the status of victims.
There are more than enough facile comparisons being drawn between Catalonia and Scotland. Let’s not add to them. But we can say this: The Edinburgh Agreement between the UK and Scottish governments, far from perfect, now looks like a model of cooperation and collegiality. David Cameron conceded too much to Alex Salmond but a little power trip for parochialists is surely preferable to the mayhem in Spain. And although the result was much closer than it ought to have been, nationalism was defeated in the end.
The balance of public opinion in Catalonia is different and the movement for independence perhaps past the point of return. Still, Madrid has ensured any eventual split will be ugly and acrimonious — and it will be they, not the secessionists, who are to blame.