These last few days, I spent some time talking to my Spanish wife and her friends about events in Catalonia. None of them are Catalan. But the way in which the government handled the task of trying to stop a referendum that was deemed illegal has turned them all into Catalans.
None of them supports Catalan secession. But their reaction to the TV images and the viral videos of police violence was uniform: “We thought that this sort of thing was a thing of the past for Spain. It all brings back the horrible memories of the Franco regime.”
The Catalan situation brings to the fore an age-old conflict – that between the established rule of law and people’s desire for what they see as their own liberation. The whole of Western democracy is underpinned by the principle of respect for the rule of law. Without that, we risk descending into chaos. But does respect for the rule of law have limits? Democracy and respect for the rule of law rests on one fundamental but often unspoken assumption – that those laws that we must respect reflect the contemporary social will. That they represent what our broad societies believe to be right.
In other words, laws work not only because they are written down but because they have the tacit support and consent of our societies. When that support breaks down, then it is time to re-evaluate.
All liberalising movements throughout history started out on the wrong side of the law. The French Revolution, the Suffragettes, the struggle for independence from colonial rule, the civil rights movement – all of these, and many more before and after, were movements that essentially said one thing: the law is outdated; it does not reflect the wishes and desires of the people of today. And all those movements were met with unyielding resistance from an establishment that believed that they had the law on their side and were therefore justified in putting down the insurrections by any means necessary.
The Catalans are challenging the rule of law which, some of them feel, is no longer fit for purpose. In doing so, they are threatening the foundations of the post-war democratic world order. This puts the Spanish state, the European Union and other European countries in a difficult situation from which there is no easy exit. They cannot deny the right to self-determination. But neither can they be seen to encourage or condone illegal actions and the potential breakdown of one of the largest European nations.
Neither has a federal structure helped Spain. Post-Franco, the Spanish constitution gave regions a significant degree of autonomy over their own affairs. Catalonia has as much autonomous power as Scotland does. But in neither case has this stopped the rise of independence movements.
If the movement towards breakdown of nation states is to be reversed, simply focusing on empowering regions may well be insufficient. It may need to be accompanied by a parallel and visible disempowerment of central government. Achieving that will not be an easy task.