The Catalans united can never be defeated

The Herald, by Iain Macwhirter

It was hard not to be inspired by the sight of those beaming Catalan Mayors waving their sticks of authority as they celebrated their country’s declaration of independence in Barcelona on Friday. Project fear? They don’t know the meaning of the word. The Catalan parliament has been dissolved, the EU has refused to recognise their new country, Spanish police are on their way to beat them up, and their political leaders face long jail sentences. Yet the people on the streets don’t seem worried.

This tells you something about independence movements: when people are really serious about it they don’t bother about the kind of bread and butter issues that so obsessed Scotland before the 2014 referendum, like fiscal black holes or what currency to have after independence. Around a thousand firms already have left Catalonia including the big banks, CaixaBank and Sabadell. The stock market has crashed and many Catalans may find themselves out of work. But it doesn’t seem to bother the independistas. When it really is a question of “Libertad” or freedom, those technical issues cease to be important. Catalans face financial ruin by weeping tears of joy.

The Spanish state (like BBC interviewers) appears to be gearing up for a conventional street confrontation, even a civil war. After all, Catalonia was originally integrated into the Spain by force in 1715, and again in 1938. But the Catalans are much too sensible to try to take on the military might of the Spanish state. They will instead allow Madrid to tie itself in knots as it tries to take over and run the province. There will be passive resistance and there will be marches and strikes. If Spain prosecutes and imprisons Carles Puigdemont, as it has threatened to do, a dozen others will appear in his place. It’s no easy matter to run a government when the various arms of the state, like the civil service, police, and judges, are unwilling agents.

As Madrid imposes central authority its moral authority will wilt and it may come to be regarded by the international community as almost a colonial power, or like the Serbian government after the break up of Yugoslavia. At least, that is the game plan of the Catalans, who appreciate the power of historical precedent. Already, TV reports are running grim footage of Catalonia being suppressed by the dictator Franco in 1938. If Spain appears, in the eyes of the world, to be emulating the fascists in 2017 then it will rapidly lose its claim of right over Catalonia. Already Mariano Rajoy has undermined Spain’s case in three ways: by having been the first to resort to violence, by refusing to authorise a referendum, and by abolishing the democratically elected government in Barcelona.

What the Spanish state is trying to do is old fashioned, even a little quaint. In the age of liberal democracy, staging what is potentially a military takeover of a rebellious region seems anachronistic, almost absurd. Governments just don’t behave this way any more. The Spanish state is reportedly planning to take over the Catalan public broadcasting service, Catalunya Radio and the television company, TV3 – a curiously analogue form of repression. In the age of social media it is almost irrelevant who controls TV and radio. All it will do is provide is an authoritarian spectacle, a totalitarian photo-op, which will be endlessly retweeted to malign Rajoy.

Countries faced with their own internal divisions, like the UK and France have been quick to disown the Catalans and the European Union has refused to recognise its independence. This is only to be expected. But the unease in Brussels is palpable. The President of the EU Council, Donald Tusk, has said the matter should be resolved “by force of argument not by the argument of force”. In other words: jaw jaw.

And this is why it is going to be difficult for the Spanish government to restore central authority by force. The Catalans are not going to play that game. Throughout this crisis, the independistas have avoided violence, either rhetorical or actual. The streets of Barcelona are not littered with barricades. There are no paramilitary nationalist groups organising on the sidelines. Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan president has repeatedly called for dialogue with the Spanish state over the constitutional impasse.

It is most unusual for revolutionaries – and that is what the Catalan nationalists are – to behave like this, especially after the repression by the paramilitary Guardia Civil and after some of the movement’s leaders have been imprisoned. But this is a very post-modern revolution, and its leaders have a shrewd understanding of how power operates in democratic societies. To conduct this kind of struggle requires an extraordinary level of self-discipline, if not turning-the-other-cheek.

Had there been any hint of violence from the huge and excited crowds after their parliament was extinguished, the Catalans knew they would be playing into the hands of the Madrid authorities and the European Union. Violence or extreme civil disobedience would have legitimised the crack down under the Spanish unitary constitution. The Catalan question is a battle of rights, and who wins may largely be determined by which side conducts itself most in accordance with the conventions of liberal democracy.

The Spanish constitution does not recognise right of secession, and Madrid has every right to uphold that principle in law. However, the democratically elected government of Catalonia (now dissolved) believes the right of self determination is a higher law. So long as they can demonstrate, beyond doubt, that the people of the province, freely and without coercion, demand the right to be an independent country they will ultimately prevail. This is because, in the modern age, it is not possible to govern without consent.

A state may have the right to uphold its constitution, but it does not have the right to crush dissent by force. There is no solution to this problem that does not happen by democratic process. The will of the people has to be the final arbiter, and the Catalan question will ultimately have to be resolved in a referendum, as in Scotland, Quebec or any of the hundred odd countries that have become independent since the Second World War. Madrid’s refusal even to talk about a referendum, or indeed about restoring the 2006 Statute of Autonomy, has placed it firmly on the wrong side of history.

Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, hopes that he can legitimise direct rule by holding regional elections on December 21. But he has to get there first. It is not that easy to impose elections under duress, when political leaders are in jail or being prosecuted in the courts for sedition. The Catalans will insist that the elections cannot be free and fair when their democratically-elected parliament has just been dissolved. Nevertheless, they should approach the elections constructively for they present an opportunity to get the international community involved. An independent authority, the EU or the UN, will surely have to oversee these elections to ensure they are indeed fair. This could provide a showcase for the independistas to demonstrate that they do indeed speak for the people. As the old slogan says: the Catalan people united can never be defeated.