Spain’s unionist prime minister has just given us an object lesson in how not to hold a country together

If ever a political leader has worked hard to dismember his own country, it is the Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy.

Provoking a crisis, pinning all on a regional election and refusing all concessions was a reckless gamble that stood no chance of achieving a new consensus. A narrow majority for remaining in Spain would have been little better. You don’t achieve national cohesion out of a zero sum game.

His crassest mistake was to criminalise the leaders of the biggest secessionist movement in Catalonia without even the excuse that they were apologists or protagonists  for violence like the Basque militants ETA and the Batasuna party. He can’t even release the Catalan politicians from gaol and allow their leader Carles Puigdemont  back in the country to resume his presidency. That’s in the hands of the independent courts, not his.

Although it spills over into Catalonia, the  Basque country remained  quiet through the political turbulence. Why? Because its people were exhausted by decades of intermittent violence and a continually faltering peace process. When Eta finally  hung up the guns due to a mixture of state pressure and popular demand, Madrid felt vindicated. The Basques seem satisfied with extensive tax autonomy.

This is what the Catalan majority  might have settled for. But a Madrid strapped for cash refused. Would an award of  sweeping tax powers now be too little, too late?

The election results makes a deal  fiendishly difficult. The combined independence movement retains its overall majority but with two fewer seats.

Combined unionists won the largest share of the vote and provide the largest party but no party won more than a quarter of the seats. The smallest and most militant seccessionists hold the balance of power.

Those of us with long memories of the Troubles shook our heads at the sight of baton-wielding Spanish police breaking into party offices and arresting duly elected Catalan government leaders.

For all its bitterness,  elected leaders opposed to violence in Ireland were imprisoned only at the height of the war of independence, when Arthur Griffith was among those  caught in the net.  ( I grant that Parnell’s earlier detention in Kilmainham in 1881 was doubtfully legal).  The first Dail was able to meet unmolested in the Mansion House. In more  recent times, local politicians from Hume to Paisley and Robinson  were arrested out of rioting and banned demonstrations – with the latter two actually serving short prison sentences.

After 1974, British policy increasingly differentiated between the advocacy of violence and its practice, with Sinn Fein eventually becoming the big beneficiary, despite the – shall we say- scepticism towards their tactic of separating themselves from the IRA.

If the Catalan crisis persists, the threat of violence may well be raised.

Spain like Great Britain is an amalgam of old kingdoms and regions which founded an empire. But there the comparisons run out. The key constitutional difference is that the historic British entities outside England retained an implied right of secession which has not been seriously challenged since Irish independence in 1921.

Unlike the UK Spain suffered centuries of stagnation punctuated by fitful small scale revolt and unstable government , culminating in the horrific civil war from 1936 to 39, which together with its vengeful aftermath claimed a million lives. Class and ideology were the main drivers. Surprisingly perhaps, the secessionist reflex was less prominent.

Unlike the UK. newly democratic Spain after the death of the dictator Franco outlawed regional seccession in its 1975 constitution, to guard against the novelty of democracy leading to the collapse of cohesion. All seemed fine, bolstered by a post- civil war culture based on “forgetting.”

But inevitably, wheels turned. Unemployment opened up strains between the centre and the richest region Catalonia.

In the rest of Spain, Rajoy’s hard line enjoyed a general support unimaginable in Britain today, as the history of our devolution shows.

After suffering a massive reverse, Rajoy has refused to call a snap national Spanish election. Will he hold on to direct rule for Catalonia in the hope that a regional government can’t be formed? The moderate majority now say they’ve abandoned unilateral independence and wish to negotiate with Madrid,  but they’re at the mercy of the extremists who refuse a deal.

Unionists at home will be gripped by the next gamble Rajoy must take, whatever he does. Has he learned from his mistakes, or learned nothing and forgotten nothing?

They’d  be very unwise to take any sort of inspiration from the Spanish prime minister.  He’s  been the biggest loser so far. His own party won only four seats. They were eclipsed by their right wing rivals. Pro-union Catalans rejected  the prime minister who  had blighted their common cause and their hopes of compromise with fellow Catalans.

Our own history shows that the chances of compromise are often faint and appear in quite a small window, before  they are submerged in a tide of violence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London