Homage to Catalonia

The images of brutal Spanish riot police using rough violence on civilians in Barcelona and Girona on Sunday who were simply trying to express their democratic right of self-determination in a botched referendum were totally abhorrent.

There were faults on both sides of the political spectrum for their reprehensible failure to resolve differences through dialogue before things came to this sorry pass, and the incident calls into question the absolute poverty of political leadership in Europe. Such violence cannot be tolerated, and there is no place for this in our society.

I am not a fan of referenda. These instruments are clumsy and they divert citizens needlessly onto emotional subjects – usually related to nationalism – when there are far more important public issues that should demand our everyday attention. Too often this form of simplistic monochrome democratic tool dumbs down intellectually complex political questions into a convenient “yes” or “no”, so that the result can be exploited by the politicians responsible for reasons of expediency to achieve their own selfish goals without serious debate.

Referenda effectively are an abjugation of responsibility on the part of politicians, allowing them to claim that they are “asking the people to express their democratic will,” when the truth is that the individuals concerned are too cowardly or incompetent to take the political decisions themselves, even though they are paid to do precisely that by the taxpayer.

Of course there is no question that a citizen can at the same time be a proud Catalan, a Spaniard and a European. But the behaviour of the Spanish security forces in handling the chaos on Sunday during the attempted plebiscite led to emotional scenes of Catalan Firemen and farmers trying to protect their own people, and this will not have endeared the Central Government to the Catalan citizens at the receiving end of this state brutality.

It was Mahatma Gandhi who said “Violent nationalism, otherwise known as imperialism, is a curse. Non-violent nationalism is a necessary condition of civilised life.” By behaving no differently from the fascist dictatorship of Franco in the last century, the central government in Spain has sent out a chilling message about the legitimacy of the use of violence. What will be the impact of this behaviour on the British position when negotiating the future of Gibraltar in the context of Brexit and Britain leaving the EU? How will the ETA separatists in the Basque country react to this pugnacity?

In the aftermath of the events of last weekend the Catalan President Mr Puigdemont is most likely to demand secession for Catalonia from Spain. He has exhausted his credibility, and given the failed outcome of his flawed confrontational strategy he basically has nowhere else to go. The Spanish Prime Minister Mr Rajoy is likely to move towards the dismissal of the regional government of Catalonia, and placing the region under the control of Madrid until new regional elections can be held. His hands are tied by the Spanish Constitution, and his options are limited but he has a difficult hand to play.

So there seems to be no immediate solution to the imminent confrontation, and to the contrary there may be an escalation. But although political positions have been deeply polarised by Sunday’s violence, the situation is actually totally out of kilter with what most Spaniards would like to see for the future peaceful development of their highly successful democratic country.

I therefore remain hopeful that new leadership will emerge from the maelstrom of this crisis that will appease the interests of all parties, and bring about a pragmatic and peaceful solution through intellectual debate that respects the right of individuals to determine their own future, whilst respecting the rights, hopes and fears of the majority of all their fellow citizens. Spain does not want conflict, and Spain’s friends watching with concern on the sidelines wish to see democracy to emerge stronger from this crisis, hopefully with more capable and charismatic political leaders who will see us through the current situation without any further violence.