As the UK plans a referendum on Scottish independence, those of us watching from Spain can only look on in envy at the orderly and civilised process led by the Secretary of State for Scotland. Here in Catalonia, Northern Spain, similar demand exists for an independent state, but the two sides have chosen indignation and confrontation instead of a serious debate.
The last two years have been tough for all EU governing parties and Spain has unique problems, with its sky-high unemployment levels, corruption and a rickety banking system. But this month Catalans will go to the polls in a general election called for entirely cynical reasons.
Catalonia is ruled by a Liberal Democrat sister party, Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (who is in permanent coalition with Unió to form CiU). However, in its reaction to the economic crisis, the Catalan government has proved itself unworthy of the Liberal label.
While there is obviously an urgent need for public sector cuts in all regions of Spain, CiU has chosen to hit public health and education particularly hard. Meanwhile, one of its first acts when elected was to abolish inheritance tax, costing 102 million euros per year. CiU has time and again demonstrated its ‘true blue’ conservative instincts to entrench privilege for the rich.
The proposed independence referendum gives CiU the perfect excuse to deflect questions on its own record in government. President Artur Mas has been able to shed the image of a ruthless cutter and protector of privilege and present himself as the voice of a repressed nation. So far so cynical.
From Madrid we have a mixture of reactions. Some have chosen to stick their heads in the sand – a referendum of this nature isn’t permitted in the constitution and therefore cannot happen. Others have taken a hard-line approach, with sections of the army voicing their willingness to send in the troops if necessary. Neither reaction is helpful. In the long-term Spain cannot deny its people the right to self-determination.
Adding fuel to the fire is that in the Spanish government, run by the Partido Popular, we have the worst kind of unreconstructed right-wingers. The PP seems obsessed with trying to reverse the liberal reforms enacted by the previous Socialist government. While they just lost a case brought before the Constitutional Court to reverse right of gay couples to marry, they still have a change in the abortion law within their sights.
All this means there are few people making a positive case for Spain. While many Catalans have allowed themselves to get carried away with the idea that with independence all their problems would be solved, few cool heads are on hand to point out the economic and political risks inherent in such a move. Business leaders pointing out that an independent Catalonia, obsessed with authoritarian language politics, will be unattractive to foreign investment are largely ignored.
It’s sad to see Spain’s political class continuously failing to serve the interests of the people. Either they’re manipulating the hopes and fears of the voters to deflect attention from their own failings, or they are ducking difficult decisions that might actually do the country some good. I live in hope that we can emulate the Scottish desire to have a full debate on the real pros and cons of independence before a monumental and irreversible decision is taken.
* Martin Petts is chairman, Spanish Branch of Liberal Democrats Abroad