On 6th September 2017 the Catalan Government approved an independence referendum; a simple majority would be enough for the Spanish region to formally separate from Spain. The vote took place on 1 October 2017, in direct violation of Spanish law. Although declared unlawful, Catalonia sought support from its Municipalities, causing a constitutional crisis. In this months column, I wanted to find out why Catalonia wants self determination and where this crisis goes from here. On the night of the vote, as I returned from work, switching on my television set, I was unsurprised to hear the result. 2.2 million out of the 5.3 million electorate exercised their democratic right; 90% of those voted for independence, according to officials. Over 700,000 votes were lost in the confusion, disorder and violence of the day; something I shall talk about a little later in this article. First I want to draw your attention to the reasons behind this vote for self governance.
Catalonia used to be an independent region, with its own language, culture, customs and laws. This uneasy understanding existed until the reign of King Philip V (1700-1724,) when the Spanish war of Succession, in the early 1700s, ended in the defeat of Catalonia in 1714 and the final remaining autonomous regions in 1715. Thereafter, until 1931 all successive monarchs tried to impose their will, without success. Admitting defeat, the ‘National Catalan Government’ was restored, briefly, until the tenureship of General Franco, when there was a violent move to return the region to Spain, resulting in thousands of deaths. In 1977 democracy returned and a degree of autonomy was once again granted to Catalonia.
Between 1977 and 2010 appeals for Catalan independence increased. In 2008 as economic turmoil gripped the World, calls for Catalonia to break free of Spain grew ever stronger. Catalonia was and remains the richest area of the Country and its citizens, in their view, were becoming increasingly frustrated at having to subsidise the rest of Spain. It was only a matter of time, before the Catalan Government took matters into its own hands, as it did so last month. Spain’s Prime minister Mariano Rajoy, issued a show of strength, rarely seen in west European states, using force and determination to stop the plebiscite in its tracks. PM Rojoys party, although in power nationally, remains forth in the popular vote in Catalonia; confrontation was inevitable, as Catalans went to the polls to cast their vote in this historic referendum.
In Great Britain, we have had our fare share of referenda. In 2014 Scotland went to the polls in a vote to determine whether or not they should remain part of the United Kingdom. 56% voted to remain in the Union and the Scottish National Party’s bid to break away from the UK failed; although the vote remained closer than anyone thought. The biggest upset was the Brexit referendum, determining Britain’s place in the European Union. David Cameron had promised a vote, to allow the British public a say, in whether we remain in the EU or not, should he win the election of 2015. In June 2016, the vote took place and by a small margin, the UK voted to leave the EU; the consequences of which, we will be living with for many years to come, good or bad! Further afield the Australian Government is in the middle of a postal ballot, to determine the fate of gay marriage. The future of lives, will be decided by the population of this polarised country; a place I hope to call home one day. The trouble with referenda, is it only reflects a particular view at a given point in time and not the policies of a party over the life time of a parliament. We elect our MP’s to enact policies they have advocated, we don’t expect to vote on every issue at hand, in a national referendum; that would defeat the whole idea of a democratically elected Government.
There are of course substantive, generational, life changing contentions, that should be settled by the general public; both Brexit and Scottish independence were two such issues, of national and international importance; the results are now Britain’s destiny, set in stone. The Catalan vote for independence is a little more complicated, compared to that of Scotland; Catalonia has never been an independent state, in the literal sense, and their vote for independence has been brought about by Catalan nationalism, a political movement within its borders. Catalonia is the industrial heartland of Spain and the richest region; it is easy to see why this area wants its own autonomy, but the reality of their situation is, there is no precedent for granting independent status and the national Spanish Government of Mariano Rajoy resisted this vote emphatically.
There were violent scenes from Catalonia as people went to the polls. Some of those interviewed were emotional, having been given the opportunity to vote for their own future, for the first time in their lives. An old couple were cheered, by a growing crowd as they slowly made their way to the ballot box. It must have been a tremendous day for them and others who cast their vote. At other polling stations, the mood was ugly, as voters were removed from buildings and others blocked from entering; using force to disrupt and control, what the Spanish Government saw as an illegal act. Around 900 people were injured in a shocking day of unrest on the streets. One local resident, married to a Spanish lady here in Gran Alacant, was so concerned about the events, he uttered the words ‘civil war,’ believing that unless PM Rajoy got to grips with a rapidly deteriorating situation, the whole country could descent into anarchy and civil unrest.
I am a political novice where Spain is concerned, writing this article has allowed me to discover some interesting facts and historical information, that I would not have otherwise known about. I don’t want to delve too deep into the politics of Spain and Catalonia, that is not my purpose or aim; my views come from the perspective of an onlooker. The scenes played out to a World wide audience on television sets were shocking to witness; old men and women removed unceremoniously, dragged by the hair and thrown like rag dolls into the streets; utterly horrifying in a western country; this need not have happened.
A referendum is not legally binding; had Prime minister Rajoy allowed this vote to take place peacefully, without fear of reprisal there may well have been a very different outcome. The 90% figure, in favour of independence was due In part, to the ‘no independence’ voters staying at home, boycotting the election. Those determined to get out and cast their ballot were pro independence supporters, naturally in this situation. An orderly vote could have passed into history rather quietly, as both sides of the Catalan argument ended in a period of reflection, dialogue and negotiation to settle their differences. As it stands today, after the violence witnessed no one is sure where this issue goes from here. The Catalan Government has since declared independence, suspended, delayed pending talks nationally; a positive step promoting talks between both sides! One thing is for sure however, this issue will not go away and a peaceful solution must be found; ultimately, in the long run, Catalonia deserves to be heard!