Something will happen in Catalonia on 1 October but nobody knows quite what. This is the date chosen by the Catalan government for a referendum on independence from Spain. It is not their first attempt. In the 2000s, there was a series of unofficial referendums in Catalan towns. In 2014 the Catalan government staged its own referendum, not recognized by Spain and boycotted by unionists. The Yes vote was predictable but not meaningful. This was followed by ‘plebiscitary elections’ intended to produce a pro-independence majority. It did produce a pro-independence majority of seats but not of votes.
Now they are set to try again. This time, the Spanish government , supported by the main opposition parties, is determined to stop the vote happening. Catalan ministers responsible for the 2014 effort have been prosecuted and, in some cases, barred from office. The same fate beckons for current ministers. A series of court cases has sought to obstruct the process, affecting civil servants, town halls and even firms producing ballot boxes.
For its part, the Catalan government insists that the process will go ahead, to be followed, in case of a Yes vote, by a declaration of independence. They have been putting in place ‘state structures’ including a tax and revenue agency and the outlines of a diplomatic service, all fiercely contested by Madrid. Catalan civil servants are caught between their duties to their ministers and to the Spanish law and even the loyalties of the Catalan police could be tested. The Spanish government, for its part, can count on the Spain-wide Guardia Civil.
The confrontation is all the stranger because Catalan nationalism has historically been more in the Home Rule than the separatist tradition. For over a hundred years (except under the Franco dictatorship), it sought to play off the Spanish parties to get more self-government within Spain. Basque nationalists, historically more independence-minded, have now adopted the traditional Catalan position, dealing with the socialists at home and the conservatives in Madrid and proceeding cautiously on a new measure of autonomy.
Support for independence has been growing in Catalonia for the last decade because of complaints that it pays too much into the Spanish coffers, and because a reformed devolution statute was undermined by the Constitutional Court in 2010. Some polls have put it above 50 per cent, but mostly it is in the mid-40s. Closer examination reveals that most Catalans would actually settle for less – a new financial settlement; more autonomy; recognition as a nation; and guarantees for their language. It is the refusal of Spain to concede that drives many people from what in Scotland is called ‘devolution-max’ to ‘independence-lite’. So Catalonia might have to come out of Spain in order to forge a more equal partnership.
A clear majority of Catalans now support a referendum to resolve the issue, including many of those who would vote No. The ‘right to decide’ has itself become the central issue rather than the details of the independence prospectus. So the debate about the economic and social aspects that were such a feature of the Scottish referendum campaign has been largely absent.
The Spanish parties’ attitude is rooted in a Spanish nationalism that sees Spain as a single nation and insists that an independence referendum is unconstitutional and therefore illegal. Many Catalan legal scholars dispute this and argue that the constitution could be interpreted to allow a consultative vote, if not a binding referendum. The Canadian Supreme Court’s reasoning in the case of Quebec is cited; they said that there was no right of secession in the constitution but Canada would have to respond to a democratic vote. The Constitutional Court, however, has become highly politicized and shows no sign of accepting such an argument. Alternatively, the constitution could be changed to allow an agreed referendum on the Scottish model, an idea that appeals to some Spanish socialists but not the governing conservatives.
One problem is that Spanish and Catalan nationalisms rather than being too strong, are too weak to make concessions to each other. The conservative government of Mariano Rajoy lacks a parliamentary majority and their Popular Party is given to using opposition to Catalan demands to boost support elsewhere in Spain. The Catalan government is a coalition of the left-wing nationalist Republican Left and the former Democratic Convergence, once the dominant party but now haemorrhaging support following corruption scandals. The independence majority in the Catalan parliament is secured with the support of the far-left Popular Unity party.
The vote may or may note take place on 1 October. If there is a Yes majority, the Catalan government hopes for international recognition, starting with European states. This looks unlikely, given the position of Spain. They also hope to start governing, building on their own state structures but this would require people to pay their taxes to Catalonia instead of Spain. A convincing mandate would also require that unionist parties campaign and that their voters turn out. Otherwise, the event would just be another demonstration, like the impressive ones that put millions of people on the streets every 11 September, Catalonia’s national day.