Yesterday, a referendum was held in Catalonia, in the north-east of the Iberian Peninsula, to decide whether the region should become independent of the Spanish State. To try to prevent this legitimate expression of speech, the Spanish State has used every device it can, finally unleashing its National Police and Civil Guard — whose reputation for brutality is notorious — to prevent people casting a vote. It’s the sort of thing one does not readily associate with a modern State which allegedly, conforms to the rules of membership of the European Union
Should we be surprised to have witnessed the scenes of extreme violence and brutality inflicted on the citizens of Catalonia this Sunday? No, we should not.
I remember Spain under Franco. It was a Police State. The Civil Guard, Spain’s paramilitary police force, were universally loathed. And so they should have been; they were the cudgels of the State, answerable only to Generalissimo Franco.
In Franco’s Spain free speech was non-existent. There were spies everywhere, acting as a conduit back to the Guards — the ‘Benemeritos’, as they are called in a new book by Ronald Mackay, to be published in November. One was not even permitted to utter the name ‘Franco’. One had to use one of his many colourful and boastful official designations. In Spain then, so long ago, I learned that free speech was the most valuable thing we had.
The Benemeritos, under Franco, would not have hesitated to use the sub-machineguns and rifles they always carried, against the crowds in Catalonia yesterday. And let us be under no illusions, it was only the fear of the world’s opprobrium that held them back and restricted them to using baton rounds and nightsticks. Estimates of the injured civilians range between 400 and 800 and the likely toll is higher. Those counted are just the ones who were severely harmed. Still, they are lucky; fifty years ago, they would be dead.
Many of us, who knew Spain under Franco, were overjoyed when he died and passed the controls of power to King Juan Carlos; who immediately ordered free democratic elections. The old swine must have twirled under the sod. But for the rest of us, it signalled a new beginning, for this most passionate and mysterious of European nations.
Violence in Catalonia
It seems to have been a hope betrayed, and not just by the violence in Catalonia. Spanish democracy long since fell to corruption and gerrymandering. It seems to be a characteristic of the Spanish State. Indeed, as far away as the Philippines, where corruption is also a problem, academics have pointed accusingly to the traditions left behind by the Spanish colonists and note that wherever the Spanish once ruled, corruption flourishes.
Old dogs don’t learn new tricks and the Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, is a case in magnificent point. He has, for years, consolidated himself in an authoritarian political enclave that is disturbingly reminiscent of the Falangists who supported Franco. And yesterday, in Madrid, while the Benemeritos were carrying out their State-sponsored suppression of free speech, crowds gathered to sing Falangist hymns. Make no mistake, this is a dangerous precedent.
Were the paramilitaries, thousands of whom were literally shipped in, suppressing an armed insurrection? Were they defending Spain’s borders against a foreign attack? Has Catalonia descended into anarchy? None of these things. Their intent was to prevent people from speaking their minds. That simple. No other reason. They were sent by an authoritarian State which does not wish the world to hear what 13% of its population want to say, and is prepared to beat and imprison them to that end.
When last did we hear of this in Europe? Oh, I can tell you. Behind what we called the ‘Iron Curtain’ in the satellite States set up by Stalin after WW2. And we even saw it again in Russia, when Boris Yeltsin, an unlikely hero of freedom if ever there was one, defied the tanks sent to the Duma to arrest him and turned the tables.
I remember each one of these, from the mid-sixties on and the children who now think themselves so knowledgeable should take note: your freedom of speech is the only thing you have. Do not be so quick to dispense with it, for you do the State’s dirty work for it.
But for many decades we have not seen the likes of the humiliation perpetrated in Catalonia. This was a hundred times worse than the French riots of 1968 or anything else we have seen. This was not disgruntled malcontents desiring to attack the State; this was the State attacking the people it is supposed to serve, for the infraction of desiring to exercise their right to free speech and expression. It is the largest expression of authoritarian State violence that Europe has seen since 1945.
Catalonia has sliced open the deceit of not only Spain but also Europe itself. Has the leadership of the European Union spoken out against the outrage? No. In fact, rather the opposite. It has whined platitudes about ‘abiding by Constitutions’ a slimy and cavilling attempt to dissemble — as is the tradition of the EU. Were anyone in the UK in any doubt as to the wisdom of Brexit, I suggest they reflect. Europe is a remorselessly centralising institution that considers democracy a nuisance it could do without; its project, to make Europe a Greater Germany, might have been stalled, but waiting in the wings is a ghastly alternative that could only have been dreamed up by a French functionary — which is what Emmanuel Macron is.
What will happen now, in Catalonia? The result of the ballot, which did take place, was over 90% in favour of secession. It is likely that the Catalan government will take steps to act on this.
The ball is therefore landed firmly in Rajoy’s court. It should not be forgotten, at this point, that the Spanish Civil War of 1936 began in Catalonia and, although history does not repeat itself, it rhymes.
Rajoy has shown himself to be both ruthless and unsophisticated. At every turn, his response to defiance has been to implement more extreme measures. If the Catalan government declares independence, then he will have no choice but to do so again. He might try to arrest the leaders of the government, but that is not without risk and might not be easy to do. The local Catalan police turned out yesterday to protect the voters from the Benemeritos, as did fire departments all over the region. An arrest, too, would just add fuel to the fire.
There is no chance of economic sanctions, since Catalonia is a net contributor to the Spanish economy — clearly one of the reasons Rajoy wants to hang on to it.
All that would be left for him would be the suspension of Catalan autonomy and direct rule from Madrid. This would have to be enforced by a powerful force not only of Civil Guard, but also the army. As the crisis proceeded, Rajoy, who knows no other strategy than to keep head-butting the wall harder and harder till it falls down, would be obliged to declare martial law.
Are we seriously deluded enough to think that the people of Catalonia, having come this far, will just lie down and let themselves be crushed into the ground by the State’s hired thugs? Not a chance.
Rajoy, today, has a choice. He can supplicate forgiveness and promise a second, binding referendum, which would be properly conducted and open to international observers. And agree to the outcome, whatever it is. That might buy him time and defuse the bomb.
Or he can go for civil war. He can attempt to whip the people of Catalonia into submission. He might even succeed in the short term, but in the longer he will foment a torrent of terrorist attacks spread throughout Spain and into Europe, and a ratcheting-up of pressure until open warfare is being fought in the streets. The edgy truce in the neighbouring Basque country, bought at no small cost in blood, might break; that conflict would inevitably spread into France.
The failure of the European leadership to immediately condemn Rajoy and his belligerent tactics and, even, worse, to attempt to condone them, speaks volumes.
I learned when I was a teenager that the only way a State can be made to relinquish power is by force. They never do it willingly. They always try to accrue more. And they always support other States — as long as they are not actively at war with them — in their attempts to grab and to keep power.
But if democracy means anything it is that sovereignty resides with the people. Whether we cede that to representatives to wield on our behalf or do it directly, the moral authority behind the State is the will of the people. But large States in particular are rarely unitary or homogeneous. Consider the United States, for example. Does the Federal Union have the right to wage war to force member States to obey its laws? Well it did so once, resulting in the bloodiest civil war in Western history, the consequences of which are still being felt, 150 years after its end.
The US Civil War was fought for two completely different reasons. The South fought to keep its slaves — perhaps not the most noble of causes. But the North did not fight to ‘free the slaves’, it engineered a war to punish the South for daring to secede — an even more ignoble cause. The State never gives up power lest it is forced to.
Spain was united, by force, 300 years ago; prior to that, Catalonia was an independent State. Ever since, it has been trying to escape the clutches of Madrid. Catalonia has its own culture and language and by any measure, qualifies as having the right to self-determination. Madrid’s efforts to deny this are nothing short of Imperialism. And the European Union should, of course, have condemned them at once. Why did it not do so?
Because the EU aspires to be the United States of Europe. It wishes to become a supra-national State with, at its centre, not the most beautiful Constitution the world knows, that exists to preserve the rights of the individual, but a bureaucracy that is in every measure, fanatically dedicated to suppressing those rights. The EU would make George Orwell, the author of the original Homage to Catalonia, smile most wryly. It is everything he predicted; a monster that would, unquestionably, had it the power, use Rajoy’s tactics itself. It does not condemn them because a large number of Eurocrats would gleefully use them.
They never had any chance against the UK, with its lingering military and economic power; the UK voted to leave in the nick of time. But look how the EU has tortured Greece — tricking it into joining the Euro debacle and then pauperising it for doing so. These are the actions of the State and States do not readily condemn their own. Rajoy will not be sanctioned — even verbally — by the EU, until the bodies begin mounting up. Both sides know that, but the trouble is that Rajoy is not able to change course, even if he wished to; he has let the genie of Spanish Imperialism out of its bottle, and used it to gain power. Now the genie wants payback — the suppression of Catalonia; its Calvary.
Rajoy’s pride and civil war
Rajoy is not adept enough to swallow his pride and make peace with Catalonia in a manner that would keep him in power; his intransigent approach makes civil war likely. And when it breaks out, we shall see the true colours of the European Union establishment. If they do not immediately round on Spain and isolate it, sending in peace-keeping troops to protect the Catalan population against Madrid’s agents, then we will know what the EU really is: the enemy of the European peoples.
Also published on Medium.