Whom the god wish to destroy, they first make mad. There’s no proof of course that the Spanish Prime Minster Marianno Rajoy is actually off his rocker, but if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, the chances are it is a duck. Mr Rajoy had the Law on his side. Spain has a written constitution, agreed to by all the regions, including Catalonia. That constitution affirms the integrity of Spain and prohibits secession. Spain also has a Constitutional Court which had declared that the proposed referendum might be considered to be at most a glorified opinion poll. Nevertheless the Catalan Government chose to go ahead with it, and the Catalan Prime Minister, Carles Puigdemont, provocatively announced that if there was a majority for secession, Independence would be declared within a couple of days: a fine piece of gesture politics.
As we all know, Mr Rajoy responded foolishly and brutally, reviving memories of Franco’s Fascist regime. Mr Puigdemont must have been rubbing his hands with glee. He had laid an elephant trap for the Government in Madrid and the elephant had tumbled into it. Mr Puigdemont has, it’s reasonable to assume, got just what he wanted: a violent response from Madrid. The man bringing on an illegal referendum now stands before the world as the assaulted party, his supporters victims of police brutality. Given that opinion polls have consistently indicated that there is probably a majority against Independence in Catalonia, Mr Puigdemont has – equally probably – found a way of converting what was a minority view into a majority one.
What should Mr Rajoy have done? Well, he might have picked up the telephone and spoken to David Cameron. It’s often said that the United Kingdom doesn’t have a written constitution. This is not quite true. Bits of our constitution are indeed written. The Scotland Act which established a devolved Parliament and Government in Edinburgh is a case in point. According to the Act constitutional matters are reserved to Westminster. So when the SNP surprisingly got a majority in the Scottish Parliament, and the First Minister Alex Salmond not surprisingly demanded a referendum on Independence, Mr Cameron might lawfully have denied him. However , instead of behaving as Mr Rajoy has, he sensibly gave way and made the Referendum legitimate by passing a measure through Parliament in Westminster. He went further still, allowing the Scottish Government to choose the date, to choose the wording on the ballot paper , and to decide who was, and who was not, eligible to vote. In short, he did everything possible to ensure that the Scottish Nationalists could have no reasonable complaint. Far from loading the dice against them, he loaded them in their favour.
The Unionist case during the campaign was led by Scottish politicians. Mr Cameron made it clear that he hoped Scotland would vote “no”, and his Government pointed out that an independent Scotland would not get everything the Nationalists wanted. In particular It could not share a common currency with the rest of the UK. By and large however the argument was conducted within Scotland by Scottish politicians on Scottish terms. In short no legal obstacles were erected against the Nationalists.They were given their head, conducting the Referendum on their own terms; and they lost. If Mr Cameron had been less accommodating, they might have won. If he had acted as Mr Rajoy has, tens, perhaps hundreds,of thousands of Scots would have been converted to the cause of Independence.
So if Mr Rajoy had called him, Mr Cameron might have said, “cool down – give them enough rope and let them hang themselves .” Instead, however, of lifting the telephone, Mr Rajoy headed straight for the elephant trap. Bonkers.