Catalonia, Spain and the Right to Decide

Philosophers have long argued over who has the right to self-determination and by what means. For nationalists, the answer might be obvious – it is the nation. Yet we know that nations are created, reshaped and contested over time. Primordial constructions of the nation, based on blood and descent, are sociologically discredited. So for some of its residents, Catalonia is a nation while others see it as a region of Spain. Other thinkers argue that self-determination applies only to existing states, except in the case of overseas colonial rule (it is called the ‘salt water’ doctrine). This only helps those whose history has given them the chance and Catalonia is not a colony. Others again say that self-determination is only available to peoples who have a serious grievance or have suffered oppression but this is surely too narrow since most existing states would not meet it. Catalonia, like other parts of Spain, suffered under the brutal Franco regime but since the 1970s enjoys democracy and individual freedom.
 
In recent years, the arguments among philosophers have shifted towards democratic justifications, based on the will of the people. Sir Ivor Jennings argued in the 1950s that this was impossible because, before the people can self-determine, someone has to decide who are the people. In fact, there is, in most cases, an answer to that question. Where enough people believe that they are a nation and political movement has gained sufficient support to be credible, then there is a case for asking them what political future they want. If they are overwhelmingly for or against independence, the issue is settled. If they are divided on the matter, a compromise is appropriate. 
 
This is a matter of democratic principle and justice rather than law. The constitution of any given country may say something else. In that case, there is an argument for changing the constitution.
 
This was the reasoning the Canadian Supreme Court applied in 1998 when asked about the secession of Quebec. It stated that Quebec did not have a right under the Canadian constitution to secede but, if it so decided by a clear majority on a clear question, then Canada had an obligation to negotiate. The UK Government adopted a similar position with regard to Scotland in the 2012 Edinburgh agreement that paved the way for the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. In both cases, the word of the constitution was read in the light of its democratic foundations. In the case of Scotland, a rather narrow vote was followed by a compromise.
 
Faced with demands for an independence referendum in Catalonia, the Spanish government and courts have hidden behind the strict words of the constitution and refused to give it a more generous interpretation. The governing Popular Party had, furthermore, attacked an earlier compromise, giving Catalonia more power and persuaded the Constitutional Court to strike down parts of the new devolution statute and subject it to a very restrictive interpretation. 
 
The response in Catalonia has been a strong demand for the right to decide (including many who would decide in favour of staying in Spain). Finally, the Catalan governing parties decided on their own referendum, to be followed by a unilateral declaration of independence.
 
There are many problems with the Catalan strategy. The secessionist parties cannot hope that a unilateral declaration of independence will be recognized internationally and it has never been clear how the Catalan government could actually govern (including collecting taxes). There was always going to be a confrontation.
 
What is a cause for concern, however, is that the Spanish authorities have gone beyond establishing this fact, to forcibly denying Catalans the right formally to express their wishes. This breaches the modern, democratic, notion of the right to decide. The enforcement of its view only exacerbates matters. Going to the polls on Sunday was, at worst, an act of peaceful civil disobedience in pursuit of a principle. Using heavy-handed police tactics to prevent citizens from expressing themselves is an attack on democratic dissent. If the Spanish government argued that Catalonia does not have a grievance, it has itself undermined its own argument. The sense of historic wrongs is a strong one in Spain, which has a turbulent political history. The Spanish Government has given Catalan nationalism another one.

Comments policy

All comments posted on the site via Disqus are automatically published. Additionally comments are sent to moderators for checking and removal if necessary. We encourage open debate and real time commenting on the website. The Centre on Constitutional Change cannot be held responsible for any content posted by users. Any complaints about comments on the site should be sent to info@centreonconstitutionalchange.ac.uk

Michael Keating's picture
post by Michael Keating
University of Aberdeen
2nd October 2017
Filed under:

Latest blogs

  • 22nd January 2019

    The UK is increasingly polarised by Brexit identities and they seem to have become stronger than party identities, a new academic report finds. Only one in 16 people did not have a Brexit identity, while more than one in five said they had no party identity. Sir John Curtice’s latest analysis of public opinion on a further referendum finds there has been no decisive shift in favour of another referendum. The report, Brexit and public opinion 2019, by The UK in a Changing Europe, provides an authoritative, comprehensive and up-to-date guide to public opinion on each of the key issues around Brexit. CCC Fellow, Dr Coree Brown Swan contributed a chapter on "the SNP, Brexit and the politics of independence"

  • 22nd January 2019

    In the papers accompanying the draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill published at the end of 2018, the UK Government says that it is “exploring opportunities to co-design the final proposals with the devolved administrations.” There are clear benefits in having strong co-operation and collaboration across the UK in the oversight of our environmental law and performance. Yet the challenge of finding a way forward in terms of working together is substantial since each part of the UK is in a different position at present. Given where things stand today, it may be better to accept that a good resolution is not possible immediately and to revisit the issue at a later stage - so long as there is a strong commitment to return and not allow interim arrangements to become fixed. Colin Reid, Professor of Environmental Law at the University of Dundee examines the issues.

  • 17th January 2019

    Richard Parry assesses a memorable day in UK parliamentary history as the Commons splits 432-202 on 15 January 2019 against the Government's recommended Brexit route. It was the most dramatic night at Westminster since the Labour government’s defeat on a confidence motion in 1979.

  • 17th January 2019

    What is the Irish government’s Brexit wish-list? The suggestion that Irish unity, as opposed to safeguarding political and economic stability, is the foremost concern of the Irish government is to misunderstand and misrepresent the motivations of this key Brexit stakeholder, writes Mary C. Murphy (University College Cork).

  • 17th January 2019

    Brexit is in trouble but not because of the Irish backstop, argues the CCC's Michael Keating.

Read More Posts