Tuesday, 24 October 2017

What constitutes a majority?

One of the arguments used by opponents against the result of the referendum in Catalunya is that only 42% voted, and although 90% of those voted for independence, that latter figure represents only 37.8% of the electorate.  That, they argue, is not a definitive mandate for such a major change. And, at first sight, that sounds eminently reasonable.
The first problem with it, however, is that it wasn’t only a 42% turnout.  42% is the number of votes that eventually got counted; reports suggest that the actual turnout was more like 55%, but the ‘missing’ 13% of ballot papers were seized and destroyed by the Spanish police.  There is no reason to suppose that the support for independence amongst that 13% was any different from that amongst the 42%; the problem with deliberate disruption of a democratic ballot is that the outcome, as a result, can never be precisely known – which was exactly the objective of the Spanish authorities.  It is, however, probably reasonable to estimate that the actual support for independence was 90% of 55% - or 49.5% of the electorate.
The second issue is about inconsistency.  Whilst there was a much higher turnout in the Brexit referendum (72%), the proportion of the electorate voting for the winning side was only 37.4%.  I accept that (under the rules of the referendum) that was properly considered an acceptable winning margin.  But if the support of 37.4% for Brexit is considered an acceptable democratic result in the UK, why are some of the same people arguing that 37.8% support for independence is wholly inadequate in Catalunya?
The answer that they would give, of course, is that it’s not the low figure in itself which is the problem, but the low level of turnout.  It is unlikely, but theoretically possible, that had everyone voted, the non-voting 45% would unanimously have opposed independence (although it’s certainly likely that the majority of those would have voted against independence).  On the best possible outcome for the unionist side, that would have given ‘no change’ a victory by the slimmest of majorities – 50.5% to 49.5%.  However, in reality, a 100% turnout is impossible.  At any point in time (for any electoral register) there will be some people who have died since the register was compiled; others who are too ill to participate; and yet others who are abroad or for some other reason unable to take part.  A 90% turnout would be exceptional, which means that the independentistas would still have won, even if everyone able to vote had been allowed to do so and had chosen to do so.
Now of course there’s a lot of supposition in that; there has to be given the circumstances of the vote.  The best way to resolve it and ascertain the will of the people would be to allow a properly-run ballot in which both sides were free to put their position and in which the people make the ultimate decision.  But holding such a ballot presupposes a willingness to accept that the people of Catalunya (like any other part of the world) have the right to decide, and the Spanish nationalist parties simply refuse to accept that the Catalans have any such right.
What they are prepared, not only to allow, but apparently to insist on, is new elections for the Catalan parliament, which for some unexplained reason they expect to result in a majority for the Spanish nationalist parties.  In a free and fair election, that looks unlikely to me.  In the first place, the last elections produced a narrow majority for the independentistas, and in the second, I’d expect that the actions of the Spanish nationalists have strengthened the support for independence rather than weakened it. 
But it seems to me highly unlikely, given their behaviour to date, that the nationalists running Spain will allow a situation to develop where, as a result of their own actions, they are faced with a Catalan parliament even more determined to seek independence.  And that makes me doubt that they will really allow a free and fair election.  A decision to proscribe any party advocating independence and imprison its leaders might produce a result more to their liking, but it amounts to the sort of political repression which most of us thought Spain had long ago put behind it.  It does, though, look like the likeliest option at this stage.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Surely the key to all this is the EU. If the Catalans saw no future for an independent Catalonia within the EU they might be rather less keen on fighting for a future outside of Spain.

For the EU to decide on how it wishes to handle newly created independent nations it needs to hold a referendum, just like in Catelonia. Each EU citizen of a fully paid up member country should be allowed a vote.

Matter solved once and for all.

kp

John Dixon said...

Thank you once again for demonstrating the simplistic unionist viewpoint, in which the right of any people to govern itself - as set out in the UN Charter - is always dependent on the permission of someone else.

Danny Sheehy said...

But isn't that the way of "democracy" everywhere?

Anonymous said...

So let me try to get this right. After Franco all of Spain came together to reunite its regions and peoples. Hard work turned the country into an economic success, although some regions have clearly prospered more than others. Catalonia, one of the more prosperous regions, has decided it wants to declare independence from the rest of Spain. It wants to have total control over how it distributes its modern-day wealth.

Somewhat similarly, Plaid Cymru seeks independence for Wales only after the region has improved its economic performance. Until such it is happy for the population to continue to live off the largesse of those paying taxes in England.

I agree we must allow people to govern themselves. But surely we must also stamp down hard on political opportunism.

kp






John Dixon said...

I could spend some time and energy filling in the gaps in your rather simplistic history of events in Spain, but that would be irrelevant to the point. And I'm certainly not going to spend any time or energy defending the position of Plaid on the timing of independence when I've already made it perfectly clear that I completely disagree with it. I will concentrate on just one part of what you say here:

"I agree we must allow people to govern themselves. But surely we must also stamp down hard on political opportunism." Who, exactly, is the 'we' who 'allows' people to govern themselves? Ho do 'we' distinguish between a 'genuine' desire for self-government and 'political opportunists'? The statement leaves unsaid more than it says. My position, however, is really very simple: forget history, forget economics, forget identity - if the people of any particular part of the world want to take responsibility for their own affairs, they have an absolute right to do so, and no-one has the right to say that they can't. There are consequences to any such decision, and we can hold an interesting debate on whether they should exercise that right or not in the light of those consequences, and even in which circumstances they should make that choice. But for anyone who believes that 'sovereignty' belongs to the people not the state, there is no basis for anyone else telling them that they can't exercise that right of self-determination. All lines on maps are ultimately artificial; drawn by humans. And what humans draw, they can redraw. The political history of humanity is the history of the drawing of those lines, mostly in a savage and bloody fashion. I'd like to believe that we've reached a stage of human civilisation where we accept that and let the people's wishes lead. The obstacle to that is people who imbue some sets of artificial lines with a special meaning and significance and demand that they can never change.

Anonymous said...

JD 14:50

Entirely agree with your main thrust. And in its lowest form I'm sure we both agree it is the 'family unit' that has ultimate responsibility for their own affairs. Everything that is built on top of this should in no way remove this ultimate responsibility (and this perhaps explains why I am so anti state/big government meddling in all its forms).

A group of families coalescing around a single point of interest, be it an assumed history, identity or language, or indeed for selfish economic reasons is perfectly fine. But if such coalescing does harm to or potentially destabilises other family units it is not fine.

And this is the balance we have been toying with since time immemorial.



John Dixon said...

And we're not far apart on that, I suspect. There are some big questions though about how to decide what destabilises or harms someone else, and about who takes that decision anyway. But that's perhaps too big a subject for this comment. Inter alia, it has to do with the whole question of international law, and how that is legitimised and enforced. And it also touches on the question of how resources are shared fairly in the world, and indeed who decides what is 'fair'. The problem with debate on a specific aspect is that it involves trying to look at one aspect in isolation, when reality is a good deal more complicated. In the specific of this particular post, if the majority in an area like Catalunya decide that they want to take control of their own futures, then I don't see any legitimate reason for anyone to try and stop them. There are consequences for others as well as themselves, of course, and I'd expect them to behave towards others in accordance with agreed international standards (leaving aside the question of how those standards are agreed). But given that they see the situation as being less about leaving Spain and more about joining the world, then in practical terms, there isn't a problem in that respect.

I could perhaps have qualified the 'absolute right' in my previous comment with a number of caveats, including adherence to international laws and norms, but that - as I noted in this comment - opens a whole lot of other issues outside the immediate question of their right to seek and obtain independence if that's what the majority decide. Giving another state or territory a veto on the exercise of that right cannot be justified; what might be justifiable if we were going to get into international law is for the 'international community' (another term begging definition) to place restrictions on what they might do with that independence (such as banning them from invading someone else).

Anonymous said...

All too often, unionists - of all kinds - seem to base their views on the idea that what is, must always be. They simply cannot imagine something different, which is odd given that just the most cursory glance at a history book will tell you that peoples, states and empires come and go with remarkable frequency. It is also irrational given that one way or another, all things must come to an end. The Spanish constitution seems to be based on the idea that Spain will remain forever in its current form. Well, I have news for those who support the current Spanish constitution; regardless of whether or not Catalonia achieves independence, there won't always be a Spain. That is a fact.

John Dixon said...

Anon 23:38 - I absolutely agree; all human arrangements are, by their nature, temporary. Some last longer than others, but none last forever. Most of the currently existing ones are the result of war and bloodshed; the old order has difficulty accepting both that there is another, peaceful route and that the choice belongs to the people.