There’s been, shall we say, a spot of falling out in certain quarters of the Scottish independence movement of late. Rattles have been tossed from prams. Dummies spat out. Feet have been stamped. I’m naming no names, and pointing no fingers, but let’s keep a sense of perspective here. This is a dispute about the means of achieving independence, it’s not a dispute about the worthiness of the goal itself. It’s a dispute about tactics, not about fundamental principles. We have the luxury of having such spats because we live in a state where the right to Scottish self-determination is legal, is constitutional, and is recognised. Even though the anti-independence parties have of late being giving a very good impression of sticking their fingers in their ears and going la-la-la-I’m-not-listening, they do understand that when all else is said and done, Scotland only remains a part of the UK as long as that is the will of the majority of the people of Scotland. That’s why they’re so desperate to avoid the question being asked, even though they understand on some level that they can’t stall it forever.
In Catalonia they don’t have the luxury that we have of openly debating different legal tactics for achieving independence. Today, Monday, the Spanish Supreme Court sentenced prominent Catalan politicians and independence campaigners to lengthy prison sentences for the “crime” of democracy. For facilitating and organising an independence referendum without the permission of a Madrid government which had refused under any circumstances to concede the right of Catalans to decide their own future, the politicians and activists were convicted of sedition and the misuse of public funds. Those who tried to vote during the referendum were brutally assaulted by police officers brought into Catalonia from elsewhere in the country, yet not one of those officers has had to face any legal consquences for their violence. Instead it was those who organised a peaceful exercise in democracy who were charged with violent rebellion.
Even though the most serious charges of violent rebellion were dropped, the sentences that were handed down were severe. Former vice-president of the Catalan government, the leader of the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC, Republican Left of Catalonia) Oriol Junqueras has been sentenced to 13 years in prison. The former foreign minister of Catalonia, Raül Romeva, the labour minister Dolors Bassa, and the Catalan government spokesperson Jordi Turull were each sentenced to 12 years. Carme Forcadell, the former speaker of the Catalan Parliament, was sentenced to 11 years and six months. The former territorial minister Josep Rull and the former interior minister Joaquim Forn were both sentenced to 10 years and six months. Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez, respectively the leaders of the pro independence civic organisations Òmnium Cultural and the Assemblea Nacional Catalana, were each sentenced to 9 years and six months.
In a further assault on the democratic right to self-expression of the Catalan people, the Spanish electoral authorities recently ruled that in the forthcoming Spanish General Election, the Catalan parties are not allowed to mention the phrases “political prisoners”, “exile”, or “trial of repression” in their electoral materials and the Catalan public media is prohibited from broadcasting them. In Scotland on this blog I can describe Oriol Junqueras, Carme Forcadell and the rest as political prisoners, because they have been convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms due to their peaceful and democratic belief in the right of the Catalan people to democratic self-determination. In Catalonia the Catalan language television channel TV3 is banned from using the same description. Pro-independence Catalan parties are prohibited from using the same term in their election campaign materials.
In Catalonia you are not allowed to say that the former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont is in political exile in Belgium or that former education minister Clara Ponsati is in political exile in Scotland. You are allowed to describe them as “fugitives from justice” because the Spanish electoral commission has ruled that this highly judgemental and emotive term is a neutral description. In Spain, you’re only considered to be neutral if you support the viewpoint of the Spanish government and the Spanish establishment. So rather like the BBC in Scotland then.
The Catalan crisis is a political one. You can’t solve a political problem by imprisoning those who have a different political opinion from you. Yet that is precisely what the Spanish government seeks to do. The Spanish state has just sentenced Catalan politicians and civic leaders to long terms behind bars for the supposed crime of peacefully pursuing a mandate given to them by the electorate of Catalonia. When a peaceful democratic mandate is castigated by prison sentences, democracy is dead.
Catalans have reacted with predictable anger to these harsh, disproportionate, and unjust sentences. There is a massive demonstration taking place at Girona railway station, another at Barcelona airport. Throughout Catalonia, roads and railway lines are being blocked by protestors. The sad reality is that when the peaceful democratic route to independence through the ballot box is blocked, punished, and criminalised, then people will seek an alternative route and who knows where it’s going to end. The anger and fury of the Catalans is only going to increase, and we risk a spiral into violence and oppression as the police react violently to the protests. This is a potential tragedy of Madrid’s own making.
In 21st century Europe, we should have learned the lessons of the past. We should have learned that the right of a people to self-determination cannot be blocked, cannot be punished by prison, because that is the way that madness lies. And this is a lesson that Scotland’s anti-independence parties must take on board too. It is perfectly legitimate to oppose Scottish independence or Catalan independence. It is perfectly legitimate to propound arguments against independence, to seek to persuade people against it. It is not legitimate to prevent the question being asked. It is not legitimate to criminalise those who seek to ask it through the ballot box. It is not legitimate to seek to remove supporters of independence from democratic discourse. When democratic politicians seeking a peaceful resolution to a political issue through the ballot box are silenced behind the bars of a prison, democracy has been murdered.
Visca Catalunya lliure.
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