In Scotland 2014, the U.K. Government accepted that the question had to be put, and engaged along with all the political parties and groupings in the campaign. It was very hard to campaign effectively for a ‘No’ vote with the same enthusiasm as those who wanted Scottish independence. Unless you were a traditional ‘unionist’ you couldn’t help feeling you were being forced into a fight to the death to answer a question you hadn’t asked and didn’t feel the need to answer. Though fight we did and we won.
In the Catalan referendum, once again the Spanish Government refuses to recognise its legitimacy. As I write, it is still not even absolutely certain it will go ahead. Polling shows only 41% in favour of ‘Si’, throwing into doubt the legitimacy of the outcome if there are more ‘Si’ votes than ‘No’ but large scale abstentions. In the previous consultative referendum which was also opposed by the Spanish Government only 36% turned out. If you believe in a unified Spain but with Catalonian autonomy what are you to do In a referendum which has no authority in law - vote ‘No’ or abstain. There was no question of that dilemma in the Scottish poll.
After the last poll, Catalan political leaders faced suspension from office, and the current President, Mr Puigdemont, says he is prepared to go to prison if necessary to ensure this poll goes ahead. Madrid has still a few cards to play in trying to halt this. They are scrutinising local spending on a month to month basis to ensure that national funding is not used to finance the poll and have even threatened to suspend Catalonian autonomy and impose direct rule in the short term until a more positive relationship of cooperation can be established.
Those against independence have argued that the recent terrorist attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils have shown the need for a united response from both Spanish and Catalan governments and should signal a new era of cooperation. Those in favour argue that the response has shown the ability of Catalan security forces to handle such a situation independently. There are even attempts to exploit the terror to win support, suggesting any moves to embrace national unity in the face of such attacks is to give in to the terrorists. Some suggest the attacks were timed to exploit the political unrest leading up to the October 1st poll. The Catalan newspaper, El Periodico is suggesting that President Puigdemont knows full well that the referendum will probably not secure independence but wants to exploit the conflict and unrest it will generate.
If the constitutional status of the referendum is very different from what happened in Scotland, the political and economic arguments seem very much the same. The nationalists are talking up the social and economic benefits that would flow from a ‘Si’ vote and independence. Last week I was part of Catherine Howley’s brilliant Spanish Civil War tour of Barcelona. I chatted to her between stops on what she made of the forthcoming referendum. As an Irish woman she didn’t want to get too involved in what is a Catalan decision but she did say that the nationalists are raising false public expectation of what could be achieved in an independent Catalonia. This is also the view of the radical, left wing, feminist Mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau. ‘Deja vu’ all over again!.
The same nationalists who want to be seen as progressive social democrats abstained alongside the ruling conservatives when the Madrid Parliament passed a recent socialist motion to exhume Franco’s body from the ‘Valle de los Caídos’ (Valley of the Fallen) memorial in Madrid. Now it would be unfair to suggest that abstention represented a sympathy for Franco - it was more complicated than that - but it does show a lack of progressive political insight to fail to see the significance of siding with the conservatives on such an issue.
It is a final irony that Spain, including Catalonia, continues an almost total consensus of silence on its own recent past of Civil War - no Civil War museum; no version of a ‘truth and reconciliation’ commission; little content in the school curriculum- but is loud, brash, confrontational and visible in its engagement in the politics of Catalan independence.