Catalonia’s descent into madness

Media are often fond of the narrative of “faults on both sides” in political controversies. It makes them sound wise and impartial, while avoiding the need to make difficult and possibly unpopular judgements about right and wrong.

And of course there’s always some element of truth to it: everyone makes mistakes, and no political movement is composed entirely of saints.

Nonetheless, it’s a narrative that should generally be resisted. Questions of right and wrong, even if they can only be uncertainly answered, are often a key part of the story. When the interests of truth and justice support one side’s case rather than the other’s, readers deserve to be told that. If it confounds some of their preconceptions, well, so much the better.

But when it comes to Catalonia, “faults on both sides” is just irresistible. This really is a case where both sides have served their respective interests incredibly badly. There is so much blame to go around that deciding which side is more deserving of it seems hardly worth the effort.

Let’s start with the Catalan nationalists. In 2014 they held an “unofficial” referendum, which produced a “yes” vote to independence of around 80% on a turnout of something like 40%. Since most opponents of independence had evidently ignored the vote, that didn’t tell us a great deal about what the majority wanted.

A better opportunity for that was an early regional election, held the following year. The pro-independence forces received 48% of the vote, but won a narrow majority of the seats, and duly formed a government committed to a second referendum.

That referendum was held on Sunday, amid scenes of violence and chaos as police and security forces loyal to the central Spanish government tried to prevent voting. It’s reported that more than 800 people were injured across the region, although most injuries are said to be minor.

The first thing to be said here is that 48% of the vote does not convey a mandate to unilaterally pursue independence. As I said at the time, “If the Catalans were solidly behind independence, there was nothing stopping them from showing that by giving Mas’s ticket a big majority. They chose not to.”

Lacking overwhelming popular support (all the signs are that pro-independence sentiment declined in the following two years), the nationalists should have gone back to the drawing board and pursued a course of negotiation and peaceful persuasion. Instead they went ahead with a referendum that met entirely predictable resistance.

Once it was clear that the second referendum could not be held peacefully, its value as a gauge of public opinion disappeared. Obviously, very few opponents of independence would brave Sunday’s mayhem to show up and vote “no”. And sure enough, very few did; according to the Catalan government, only 7.8% of voters said “no”, plus another 2.9% who voted informal.

Turnout, at a claimed 42.3%, was quite impressive in the circumstances. But it was still very much a minority of Catalans who voted for independence – and we are none the wiser about how representative they are of the general population.

The only real value of the vote was as a provocation: by tempting Madrid into using force, the nationalists were trying to demonstrate the hollowness of Catalan autonomy and boost support for independence, both locally and internationally. And the government of prime minister Mariano Rajoy played right into their hands.

To quote myself again – this time from 2014, but the moral is the same:

Without comprehensively trashing Catalan autonomy, it’s hard to see how [Rajoy] can prevent some sort of vote being held. And by trying, he is just reinforcing the thing that most drives Catalans (or anyone else in the same boat) to support independence: the sense that they are being disrespected, that their voices are not listened to.

But the Madrid government has not just been tactically stupid; it has also shown hostility to fundamental democratic values. It may be true (indeed I think it is) that the majority of Catalans are not persuaded of the case for independence. But it is still vital to recognise that it must ultimately be their choice, no-one else’s.

It’s one thing to condemn this particular referendum as stupid and counter-productive, and quite another thing to say that no referendum can ever be legitimately held in Catalonia. The latter position is a typical product of the traditional centralism of the Spanish right that has done so much damage in the last century and more. For all the talk of this being a Spanish “internal affair”, foreign observers should never be seen to endorse this denial of the right of self-determination.

Although Catalonia has historic grievances, its independence is not a no-brainer in the fashion of South Sudan or even Kurdistan. Catalans and (other) Spaniards come from the same ethnic stock, speak closely related languages, and most of the time get along quite amicably. If their governments were to negotiate in good faith, it is very likely that a compromise that they could both live with could be reached.

But good faith is precisely what is currently missing on both sides. The Catalan government is ignoring the rule of law and treating its voters as pawns; the Madrid government is repudiating democratic principles in the service of both domestic political advantage and a blinkered centralist ideology.

Faults on both sides, indeed.


10 thoughts on “Catalonia’s descent into madness

  1. Well then permit me to resist your narrative. Because I can’t see a moral equivalence between a regional government holding an unsanctioned vote and a central government deploying riot police to assault its own citizens.


    1. Thanks David. I don’t have any problem with them holding an unsanctioned vote; the problem is that they held a vote whose only purpose was to have voters assaulted by riot police. They used their own citizens (indeed their own supporters) as pawns, and I think that was unconscionable.


  2. Methinks it is very hard thing to get a handle on, the intense tribalism that still persist in Europe, if raised in Australia.
    It does exist however, and after touring European countries and experiencing immense regional pride from people, can understand why it persists.
    I am sure a proud Scot chokes on his haggis every time the git Boris Johnson appears on the news as one of their elected representatives.
    I expect Catalunyans might feel the same way about some Castillians; Franco made centuries old rivalry worse by trying to force Castillian language and culture on the rest of Spain.
    The polling on Catalunyan independence seem very similar to that which the Scottish independent movement were achieving prior to their referendum. Cameron’s official poll produced an unsatisfying narrow defeat of independence (a voluntary ballot). And it does not seem to be over there..
    Is that what the Spanish central govt was really afraid of? If so they have really f…ed up, haven’t they?


    1. Thanks Wally – yes, I think the Scots/English dynamic is very similar. In both cases the historic grievances only became important due to a combination of political differences and economic trouble. The English handled it the right way, and sure enough, when people are assured that they can leave if they want to, they decide they’re happy enough staying put.


      1. Only some things are in common between the Scots and Catalans, not least being that Catalonia is the dominant economy and commercial and industrial heartland of Spain, indeed one of the significant trading and port cities on the Mediterranean. The reason why Madrid/Castile is so aggressive against any kind of further independence is that Catalonia without Spain is entirely viable but not Spain without Catalonia. That and lingering Franco-ism. The king was very poorly advised to make that speech–which only inflamed the situation instead of attempting to bring some calm. Of course he is a Castilian and has now trashed his neutrality or any chance as being a voice of impartial reason. Now there is talk of Madrid trying to impose direct rule, which is kind of beyond nuts–but very close to Franco Fascism. The EU is also taking an extraordinarily narrow view in supporting Madrid–paranoid about separatism catching fire elsewhere, not to mention the fragile banking system.
        But if everyone wants stability then this is not the way to go about it. If Madrid pursues this hardline then there will be a new generation of Orwells and Hemingways. Who would be on Madrid’s side? Will Merkel send in some jets to bomb .. Figueres or maybe Sitges that den of gay insurrection? Actually I wonder if Macron may not step in to try to calm things and bring about a resolution (which at this point would have to be a formally agreed referendum–which until this blowup would have been against separation); perhaps along with Manuel Vals (former PM of France) and Anne Hidalgo (current mayor of Paris) both of whose parents were refugees from Franco Spain.

        But there don’t appear to be any leaders anywhere. Catalonian nationalism has been around for centuries but I think Brexit has added to the fever. Trump too–California has complained that with their ≈3 million Democrat majority they have less say than Idaho or Montana with their puny populations (of rednecks and deplorables who get more federal welfare support funded mostly by CA). When central governments are becoming more and more dysfunctional and more and more intransigent, is it reasonable to expect successful and progressive states to just keep accepting the “stupid”?


      2. Thanks Michael – yes, the Spanish government (including now the king) has certainly got itself into the most dreadful mess. But this isn’t 1936; the Catalan govt has no armed forces and no arsenal from which to issue arms to the workers (and probably no workers who would know what to do with them if it did). As I keep saying, at a minimum it would need overwhelming popular support in order to act unilaterally, and it just doesn’t have that – altho it might get it if things keep going the way they are. But of course Rajoy doesn’t have a majority either, and I don’t think the Spanish parliament is going to just sit back and watch things deteriorate endlessly.
        On the point of Scotland, yes, Catalonia matters more to Spain than Scotland does to the UK; that’s part of the reason for Madrid’s different response, but only part of it. Spain could manage without Catalonia if it had to.


      3. But most of that is not relevant if Madrid (supported by the EU) continues in this fashion. Seeing the pointless brutality of the Guardia Civil the world has already moved to Barcelona’s side. And of course the Basques, Galicia and even Aragon (often in liasons with Catalonia) are looking on … in fact this lot would make a political, geographic and economic cohesive unit that would truly devastate (central & southern) Spain.

        As to whether “this isn’t 1936”, are you sure? Spain, and in truth much of the developed world, still hasn’t recovered from the GFC, and there is political instability all over the planet with some buffoons in charge (or not in charge) of some important nations. There is an absence of a steady hand in the US, UK, Japan, Germany, Spain & Italy (and France is on the fence) and Brazil and Russia, which is a breath-taking slice of the world’s economy and power. (I’d include Australia but we simply don’t matter in the scheme of things–except to ourselves, on which basis we are firmly on that list.)

        Perhaps we’ll muddle thru –which I suppose would be testament to the robustness of capitalist democracies–but it’s hard to find a single leader who is doing the right thing. Do you have any confidence that that is going to change in any of those cases I just listed? That these various scenarios are “unthinkable” is not the least comforting, nor any protection against them happening–to the contrary we (and not just Trump who is merely the most obvious symptom) are tweeting while Rome burns. As if the whole thing is a kind of Truman Show.


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