The reaction of the Spanish central government has been disappointing, even if hardly unexpected – Spain is an indivisible whole and no change can ever be contemplated. Formally, the judiciary and the executive in Spain are entirely separate, and the government deny any involvement in judicial decisions, but the announcement that the leader of the Catalan Government, Artur Mas, is to be charged and tried for organising last November’s ‘illegal’ referendum has come within days of the election results. It may just be coincidence, but it doesn’t look that way.
The Spanish government’s position has been clear throughout. The law about the unity of Spain (which dates from the days of Franco) is part of the constitution of Spain. It is unchallengeable and irrevocable. There can be no referendum on independence, nor can parties use an election victory on an independence platform to claim a mandate. All routes forward are blocked, legally and for ever.
There are echoes there, albeit centuries later, of the way a small country much closer to home was incorporated “henceforth and for ever” into its larger neighbour; and the same problems arise. Nothing, in the context of humanity, can ever be ‘for ever’; change is an essential element of human culture. The rich and the powerful have always pretended that they can fix things in a certain way and keep them like that in perpetuity – but they simply can’t. It’s an attitude which depends, ultimately, on the fiction that power belongs to the centre, not to the people.
In Spain, the view of the centre is based on an axiomatic statement that Spain is a nation and Catalonia is a region of that nation – a region with its own language and history, to be sure, but no more than a region nevertheless. From that perspective, Catalans who believe otherwise are simply wrong. But the fact that that that would still be ‘true’, even if every last one of them voted for pro-independence parties, underlines that such a position is ultimately unsustainable in a modern democracy, because there is no way of maintaining it against the will of the people other than by the use of force.
In the short term, I don’t doubt that the Spanish government will continue to use all the legal powers it can muster to resist and disrupt the independence movement. That includes the use of criminal proceedings against people who dare to take a different view and try to pursue their objectives in a peaceful and democratic fashion. But it’s ultimately counter-productive. Winning a court case here or there might look like a victory at the time, but it simply builds the momentum for the change which now seems to be inevitable.
Could a more enlightened approach have built a negotiated settlement which led to more autonomy within a continued Spanish state? Possibly. Just as including a third option on the ballot paper in Scotland might have seriously blunted the independence movement there. But that goes to the heart of the reason why the centralists will ultimately fail. They only seem capable of taking a short term view. Today’s victory is always enough, and they’ll worry about tomorrow’s battle when it comes. The Catalans have always been playing a much longer term game. And the end game is now approaching.