Distressing scenes in Barcelona, where the Guardia Civil, sent by Madrid to thwart the wishes of Catalan seperatists, behaved with an arrogance that had all the hallmarks of the “justice” meted out by Francisco Franco in the later phases of the Spanish Civil War.

When the forces of the state are used in support of a government position opposed by a large section of its people, democracy itself becomes the victim. You cannot call yourself the defender of law and order while simultaneously sanctioning the use of rubber bullets and batons against the civilian population.

As things are, even those several millions of Catalans – possibly a majority – who oppose independence have been drawn into the anti-Madrid camp by the ferocity of the central government’s response to a referendum. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy clearly felt there was a reasonable chance the vote, if it had been allowed to proceed unopposed, would have gone against the Centre. He was supported in this by most Spaniards other than those in Catalonia and, inevitably, in the Basque Country, where similar separatist sentiments are once again on the rise.

The fear in Madrid is not hard to understand. Spain, stripped of the economic powerhouse of Catalonia, with its 7.5 million people, and with the Basques next in line, would be reduced to tertiary status in the EU. More than that, it would feel as if it had lost one of its limbs and an important part of its heritage.

In England, similar concern was evident in the lead-up to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. Some English felt “good riddance” to the Scots if they were ready to turn their backs on the UK. Most, however, were distressed by the prospect of the border turning into an actual frontier. They could accept the loss of Northern Ireland with relative equanimity. The Northern Irish, unlike their southern neighbours,have never been fully accepted as part of the British family. Rather they are considered as second cousins once removed, and troublemakers at that. But not the Scots. In war, the English look to the Jocks to have their backs. In peace, they look to them to help them run the country. They would be missed.

With all that said, the Westminster Government allowed the 2014 referendum to take place. English riot police were not sent to Edinburgh and Glasgow to seize ballot papers and block the entrances to polling stations. Instead, London relied on the good sense of the Scottish people, who duly obliged with a 55-45 per cent vote in favour of Remain.

The Spanish should have learned a lesson from this. Democracy is never easy, and referendums are always a lottery. But the indications last week were that Catalans would vote to stay part of Spain in return for a promise of increased power. There were even those, one gathers, who would have cast their vote in favour of Remain mainly to ensure that Barcelona FC continued to play in La Liga. As Liverpool’s former manager Bill Shankly, himself a proud Scot, once famously remarked, football is not a mtter of life and death, it is more important than that.

But there was no good sense on offer and few moderate voices, still less humour. Rajoy panicked. So did much of Spain, with the results we saw yesterday – broken heads, blood on the streets and the Guardia Civil reminding the populace of the bad old days we had hoped were gone forever.

Not that the Catalan nationalists don’t share a large measure of responsibility. Regional President Carles Puigdemont’s boast that he would declare formal independence within two days of a Yes vote was unnecessarily belligerent and provocative. Had he said instead that a vote for independence would lead to talks with Madrid at which a formula could be worked out and agreed, with implementation a year from now, to include a close and fraternal link with Spain, there would have been no need for angry confrontation. But he didn’t, and Rajoy’s blood was up.

Everyone should now take a step back. Nationalist conflict in 2017 is no less ugly than in 1937.