Sunday, 1 October 2017

Catalonia: another simple solution sure to fail

In the early part of last century, the American commentator HL Mencken pointed out, “there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong”.

In Spain, elements in the troubled region of Catalonia have felt for a long time that they would be better off outside the Spanish state.

I say ‘elements’ because a great many Catalans are far from convinced that this is the right solution for their region – even if it is, in fact, a nation. Many on the left, for instance, are concerned by a separatist movement they see as xenophobic and conservative; many in the centre of the political spectrum see themselves as Spanish as well as Catalan, feel there’s no contradiction between the two and believe Catalonia would enjoy a more secure future linked with the other Spanish regions than on its own.

So which side commands a majority of Catalan opinion?

Opinion polls are only worth so much, as we have learned to our cost in numerous elections around the world. Even so, they’re about the only indication we have of where an electorate’s view stands, outside an actual election. The Centre d'Estudis d'Opinió (Centre of Opinion Studies) is a body that is run by the Catalan regional government, so one wouldn’t expect it to be biased against the views of that government, and yet even it has found a majority against independence in every poll bar one since late 2014, and in three of the last four, including both polls carried out in 2017.

The regional government is currently held by nationalists. They have decided that they wanted a referendum on independence in the hope that it would endorse their separatist views. In response, the central government in Madrid made it clear that it regarded such a referendum as illegal and ordered the Catalan government not to hold it.

Let’s pause a moment at this point.

Here’s one approach the Madrid government could have taken. It could have announced that it would not regard any referendum result from Catalonia as binding. That would have laid down that in no circumstances would a vote for independence have had any effect on the central government or lead to any change in the law concerning Catalonia.

The referendum could have gone ahead. If the opinion polls had proved accurate, the result would have been a rejection of independence, massively discrediting the separatist movement. The regional government might have fallen; the question of independence would have been off the table for many years to come.

Had the referendum delivered a vote for independence, the Spanish government would simply have confirmed that it was non-binding. They would have faced a reinvigorated separatist movement but, having made their own position powerfully clear beforehand, they would have had a strong, pre-declared position from which to build a new view of the Catalan situation resulting from the vote.

That’s a complicated solution to a difficult problem. It leaves many issues undecided, requiring the government to come up with solutions later, pragmatically, in the light of circumstances. Instead, Spain decided that it wanted a well-known, neat and plausible solution.

So it opted for repression. It sent in the police. On the day of the referendum, they were shown battling with protestors in the streets, inflicting some serious injuries. The optics, as marketing people call them, were terrible: here were Spanish police, acting on orders of the Spanish government, using often violent power to prevent people voting.

When you’re acting in the name of democracy, that’s a pretty lousy image.
Unarmed civilians in fear of the police
Not a great advert for democracy
Governments seem to like resorting to the use of force. It can be domestic, as in Catalonia, or foreign, as in Iraq, Libya or Syria. It’s always a simple solution, easy to reach for, close to hand. And it usually ends in tears, as it did in Iraq, Libya or Syria.

In Catalonia, the bloodshed on the streets will have only one effect. It will unify and galvanise the opposition to Madrid. Those who opposed Catalan independence before, will come under increased pressure to change their view. If they refuse, they will be accused of treachery, of betraying the sacrifice of the dozens who suffered injury from police violence, all in the name of Catalan freedom. Some at least who opposed separatism, will change sides and back it.

Blood shed in Catalonia:
shameful behaviour to would-be voters, a boon to the separatists
In other words, from the point of view of the Madrid government, the situation will be as would have followed a referendum result backing independence. Or, rather, far worse: whatever the result, the separatists will claim they have been cheated and will draw additional strength from the powerful emotional cohesion that the spilling of blood gives to a cause.

The Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy chose a solution, police repression, that was well-known, neat and plausible.

And, as Mencken could have told him, wrong.

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