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.