Matthew Parris Matthew Parris

How not to handle an independence referendum

The October referendum on Catalan independence could become a tragic mess

If David Cameron seeks any testament to his handling of Britain’s difficulties with Scottish separatism, the mess that Spain is making of a very comparable demand from Catalan separatists could stand as grisly evidence of how not to do it.

The government of Catalonia in Barcelona has defied Madrid by announcing an October referendum on independence. The Spanish government calls the referendum illegal and threatens to suspend Catalonia’s autonomous administration should it go ahead, if necessary by force. ‘Send in the tanks’ is the shorthand for Madrid’s apparent threat, and somebody is going to have to climb down or the prospects are dire.

Within Catalonia, the polls consistently point to a diminution of independence fever, and a clear majority are now against separation. I too have sensed the issue going off the boil, though much of my family there are Anglo-Catalan and most of them favour independence. Separatists are now trying to pump up the tension. Madrid, backed by an irritated public opinion across most of Spain and keen to teach the Catalans a lesson, pumps up the tension as well. This is a model of how to mishandle the passions, dreams and antipathies of nationhood.

The stand-off follows years of wrangling. The history of Catalonia, once a principality and older than Spain itself, is impossible to summarise in a short column, but its claim to nationhood is strong and the oppression of its language and culture over the centuries is undeniable. Almost all Catalans speak Catalan, and for many it is their first language.

Because Catalonia is richer than most Spanish regions, its people contribute disproportionately to public funds, although they now have considerable autonomy; but not fiscal autonomy. And the mismanaging (by both sides) of Catalan grievance and aspiration has pushed Madrid and Barcelona apart, leaving the obvious compromise — home rule with a large measure of fiscal autonomy — beached in the middle as both sides gravitate to the extremes.

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