With one bound Carles was free. By some osmotic process the Catalan crisis has metamorphosed into comic opera. Carles Puigdemont, the former (as he must surely soon be, in Spanish law) President of Catalonia, having spent the past week like a novice standing on the edge of a diving-board deliberating whether to take the plunge, was finally nudged by his hardline colleagues into declaring Catalan independence today.
“Catalonia’s parliament has voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence from Spain,” reported the Financial Times. Er – up to a point, Lord Copper. The “overwhelming” vote amounted to just 70 deputies in a parliament of 135. The recorded vote was 70-10 only because most anti-separatist parliamentarians walked out of the chamber before the decision on the motion: “We shall constitute the Catalan Republic as an independent, and sovereign, democratic and social state of law.”
So, the real majority was just five votes. But, more extraordinarily, the vote was conducted anonymously, by secret ballot. That presents something of a dilemma for painters, sculptors and balladeers seeking to commemorate this great moment in Catalan history. What names should be inscribed on monuments? Painters depicting the historic moment in the parliamentary chamber will be unable to put faces on the principal actors. Imagine if the Founding Fathers of the United States of America had coyly sought refuge in anonymity.
So, to enhance democracy and independence, five unknowns have the right to rip Catalonia out of Spain. The mandate for this was a referendum in which it is certain every Catalan separatist took care to register a vote; that produced a turnout of 43 per cent, 90 per cent of which voted for independence. That means just 38.7 per cent of the Catalan electorate favours independence – even less than the support for Scottish independence in the 2014 referendum.
What kind of parliament permits anonymous voting? The principle of open governance is the reason why MPs at Westminster go through the cumbersome process of trooping through division lobbies to have their individual votes recorded in Hansard. After a deputy asked for the vote to be secret and the Speaker, Carme Forcadell, had agreed to this, Xavier García Albiol of the PP denounced the separatists as cowards, afraid of Spanish criminal law. A couple of them must have been very timid indeed, since two ballot papers were found to be blank.
The awe-inspiring proceedings ended appropriately with the separatists singing Els Segadors. This was Catalonia – the Musical. Broadway producers must be eyeing events in Barcelona speculatively. There is no doubt about how government ministers in Madrid are regarding those same events. Direct rule will now be imposed on Catalonia and it is vital this is done sensibly. During the illegal referendum, footage of Spanish police beating pensioners with truncheons as they tried to access polling stations brought the separatists undeserved sympathy.
Now the separatists will launch civil disobedience campaigns as they proclaim the “Catalan Spring”. They will seek to portray the constitutional intervention by the central government as a “coup”, invoking visions of tanks, Falangists – why not throw in the Inquisition too? The central government must dispel that illusion of victimhood by acting soberly and with the absolute minimum of force necessary to maintain order. Its strategy must always be to appeal over the heads of the noisy separatists to the pro-Spanish majority in Catalonia.
Regional elections in about six months’ time, when passions have had time to cool and order has been restored, as proposed by the Madrid government, is the obvious way to give voice to the anti-separatist majority and send to a restored regional parliament a majority of deputies prepared to vote representatively and openly. Catalonia has been given an enormous measure of self-government and under that dispensation has prospered. It has no genuine grievance.
That equitable settlement has now been disrupted by Carles Puigdemont and his grandstanding associates. Their behaviour is buffoonery and deserves to be ridiculed. The comic-opera scenes in the Catalan regional parliament do not belong to the realm of serious politics but to the overblown rhetorical extravagances of history’s most absurd tableaux in the style of the Tennis Court Oath, with potential tragedy lurking behind the comedy.
An anonymous vote of independence is surely an historical first. Catalonia’s original decline began in 1410 with the death of the last Catalan king, Martin I of Aragon, who allegedly died from laughing excessively at a joke his court jester told him. Now historians have a clue to what that joke may have been: “Sire, I see the Estates assembled and they vote for sovereignty, but no man durst reveal his identity…” Stop it, you’re killing me.