The lessons of the Scottish independence bid in Spain’s oppression of Catalan autonomy

The Spanish constitution celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2018, a year after the referendum on the independence of Catalonia.

Four years on, we are seeing a return to dialogue between Madrid and Barcelona as governments emerge from the pressures of the pandemic. All of this framed by new developments with exiled Catalan politicians and Spain’s desire to prosecute Carles Puigdemont has reinvigorated the debate over the Spanish constitution and its guarantee of the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation”.

Madrid’s understanding of secession is of course important for Scotland’s future. Countless times we were told that Scotland would never be allowed back into the EU because a Yes vote from Spain would set a political precedent for Catalan independence. Despite this warning, Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell has already publicly stated that the government will not, by default, veto Scotland’s return to Europe – it would welcome an independent Scotland as long as the independence would be obtained legally.

Charles Puigdemont

His words were carefully chosen and informed by Spain’s criminalization of Catalonia’s 2017 independence referendum; the inference is that Scotland must either obtain permission from Westminster or a legal warrant from the Supreme Court.

What has proven persistent for me as a foreigner is the need to understand why the Spanish constitution is so detrimental to self-determination. Unlike Scotland, Catalonia faces a political straitjacket which, regardless of support for independence, barely supports such movements. Recognizing why this manifested requires looking at its origins.

The end of the dictatorship of Francisco Franco is immediately responsible for the constitution which now stifles democracy in Spain. While many Spaniards describe the end of the regime as a democratic triumph (“Franco died in his bed, but democracy was won on the streets”), the so-called transition was in fact just a reshuffle of power with many Francoists who remained in power. Office.

Carlos Arias Navarro’s government in 1975 was tainted with corruption, and the broader political atmosphere was certainly not one of activism. The period known as el desencanto (the disillusionment) was a time of utter fatigue and despondency in the Spanish body politic. Consequently, the drafting of the constitution was not influenced by a deep grassroots movement – ​​which is why many now view the text as anachronistic and narrow.

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The constitution must also be seen in the post-Franco context of el pacto del olvido (the pact of silence), arguably the most demonstrable failure of Spanish constitutionalism in the 1970s. The bilateral agreement was designed to censor the memory of the thousands of victims of the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship, carried by a paranoid establishment determined to manufacture political cohesion. Because this pact promoted censorship and pardoned Franco’s criminals, it eliminated any sense of atonement for the brutality of the previous 40 or so years.

I remember a Catalan man telling me that the day Franco died (November 20, 1975) was also his father’s birthday. A quick return from the bakery – cake in hand – turned into a threatening encounter with authorities who questioned why such joviality was on display in the streets just moments after news broke of el caudillo’s death .

A central tenet of Franco’s fascism was the complete erasure of non-Castilian Spanish culture. The Catalan community suffered violent criminalization of its language and heritage, but was set against the rest of Spain when Franco decided to centralize much of the industry there. His people faced a painful reminder of this authoritarianism when the government of Mariano Rajoy launched cyberattacks on polling stations and used physical force to block voters in the 2017 referendum. 155 of the constitution allowed Madrid to suspend the Catalan parliament, following the criminalization of voting.

During my stay in Spain, I became aware of how Spanish politics could be provincial, and sometimes quite insular. As a Scot, it was no surprise how many times I was asked about my position on independence. What was surprising, however, was the willingness of locals to discuss this topic with great openness and yet react antagonistically when I asked similar questions about Catalonia. If I questioned a Spaniard from Extremadura, for example, about the Catalan right to self-determination, he often reacted in an antagonistic way, armed with arguments which, from what I could see, were the product of the failure of the “transition” to democracy and Spanish constitutionalism.

Many felt disenfranchised from the wealth and power Catalonia enjoyed, wondering why the region would demand independence given its relative prosperity. Yes, it is true that the Spanish economy is increasingly centralized in metropolises like Madrid and Barcelona, ​​damaging rural areas and emptying provincial towns of young talent. And, I think it is important to recognize the regional consequences of the Spanish recession and the framework of semi-autonomy. But it is rather the proof that the unity of Spain does not work healthily. Nevertheless, the perception of a petulant and unrewarding Catalonia is reminiscent of the cultural erasure it suffered under Franco’s dictatorship.

Although Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez is in favor of constitutional reform, he only intends to protect the unity of Spain. He described the document as democracy itself, the fabric of the Plurinational State and the guiding principle of his government. His desire to revoke the inviolability of the King of Spain could see his administration as the third to start the complex process of reform that requires an absolute majority in parliament, the dissolution of the courts and the holding of a referendum. The deep roots of Spanish constitutionalism and its ties to Francoist oppression mean transformations as an independence mechanism that leaves reform an elusive hypothesis.

By aggravating the limitation of Catalonia’s autonomy in referendum legislation, the Spanish constitution makes independence essentially impossible: the only path to separation is through the institutions of Spanish democracy, the same ones that were established by a constitution which dictates the irrevocable unity of the country.

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