British Struggle to Understand Spain’s Reaction to Catalan Referendum

They managed two referendums in three years. Why can’t the Spanish let the Catalans vote?

The British struggle to understand why, if they could manage two referendums in three years, Spain is so desperate to prevent the Catalans from voting on Sunday.

Across the spectrum

Calls on Mariano Rajoy’s government to allow the referendum to go forward span the political spectrum.

Both The Times of London, a center-right newspaper, and the left-wing The Guardian have warned Rajoy that his “strong-arm tactics” can only galvanize the independence movement.

The former argues that Madrid can win the argument “without the use of force or disproportionate threat, counting on the common sense of the Catalans who by and large understand the benefits of being an integral part of Spain.”

The latter concedes that Rajoy’s legalistic approach “rests on clear court decisions” but calls his indifference to Catalan demands “disturbing”.

Past and precedents

The Economist worries that Catalonia’s independence bid might set a precedent for other would-be separatists, from Scotland to the Donbas region of Ukraine. (Which is precisely why Scottish commentator Carolyn Leckie believes the vote much go ahead.)

Neal Ascherson argues in The Guardian that European history is already littered with precedents. Catalonia’s defiance of Spanish law, he writes, isn’t so different from the way Belgium, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Ireland came into being.

Ascherson does worry about the short term:

When I first saw Barcelona, it was in Franco’s time. Slinking about a grey, quiet city, I was taken to safe houses where Catalan intellectuals showed me forbidden writing in their own language. Today, 40,000 people roar that language as they besiege a law court. This could all end very badly. But the global tide is with them. And sooner or later, it will bring the Catalans to the harbor they need.

Not voting is worse

Richard Russell, who lives in Barcelona, laments that the binary nature of a referendum forces the abandonment of nuance and doubt from the debate — but it’s better than the alternative:

Without those votes, the split in public discourse may well have become more polarized and more entrenched.

Henry Mance makes the same argument in the Financial Times. There is something worse than a referendum lost, he writes — “it is a referendum not held.”

There is something more farcical than the foreign secretary writing a 4,200-word essay on Brexit in The Daily Telegraph — it is the Spanish police arresting those trying to organize a ballot. There is something more tragic than a nation divorcing from its allies — it is a country that cannot even handle such discussion because they would violate the constitution.


Mance contrasts Spain’s hypersensitivity to Catalan nationalism with Britain’s relaxed attitude about self-determination:

We have upheld the principle abroad, in Kosovo and East Timor. We have upheld it at home, in Scotland. We justify our oversight of the Falklands and Gibraltar on the principle that the local population wants it.