Is there a democratic case for Catalan independence? My analysis in El Pais, Madrid.
There is without doubt a strong movement within Catalonia for secession from Spain. Regional leaders, now Carles Puigdemont and before him Artur Mas, have claimed that they have a democratic mandate from recent elections and now the disrupted referendum.
But do they? What is the democratic argument in the matter?
Whether or not there is an electoral majority in Catalonia for secession is not clear. If there is, it is at best a small majority, with a large minority remaining in favour of Catalonia staying within Spain. Is a small majority, if there is one, enough for a democratic mandate for so large a move?
Two main rules of democracy are:
- in the end, the majority decides,
- in so doing, the majority has a duty to respect the interests of relevant minorities.
Democratically, the question of whether Catalonia remains a part of Spain or leaves the union is to be settled by a majority. But which majority?
People who live in Catalonia have an interest in the matter. But so do the people who live in the rest of Spain. If Catalonia were to secede, the remaining Spain would be a different country. The relevant constituency in the matter, then, is all Spanish people. Even a majority in Catalonia is a minority in Spain and can have no democratic right to change all of Spain. This principle was recognised, for example, in the 2014 Scottish referendum on independence. The right to hold that referendum was constitutionally given to Scotland by the British Parliament (in what is known as an ‘order in council’) after negotiations between the British government and the regional Scottish one.
Catalonian pro-secession leaders may be right that they have a democratic mandate of sorts. But if so, the mandate is only to seek secession. There is no democratic mandate for people in Catalonia on their own to decide on an important matter that effects all of Spain. For a Catalonian referendum, for example, to be democratically valid, the rest of Spain, as in the British case, must, at the least, have conceded to Catalonia the right to hold a referendum and agreed to abide by its majority.
How strong, then, is the mandate? Since there is (at least) a large minority within Catalonia against secession, the mandate for secession must be said to be a weak one. The minority has a right to have its interests respected. The question of independence is one of great principle. A small majority in a population hardly has a right to simply impose its will on a large minority in an important matter. The mandate to seek secession, if there is one, must contain a duty to persuade the doubters. Before Catalonian leaders could argue the case for secession with force in front of the rest of the Spanish population, they would need to show that they have at last a solid majority in their own population behind them.
The strength of the mandate is influenced, further, by the reasons that are given in favour of secession. In a founding text, the American Declaration of Independence, it is stated ‘that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes’ and that the ‘Right to throw off such Government’ arises only as a result of ‘Abuses and Usurpations [and] a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism.’
The Spanish union is long established. The government is democratic and no group or province within Spain is under despotism. From the Catalonian side, it does not seem that strong arguments are given for secession, and certainly nothing of the kind suggested in the American declaration. It seems mainly to be a case of resentment. It is said within Catalonia that the relatively wealthy province is being forced to subsidise poorer areas in the country. But that kind of redistribution is standard in a well-governed country and obviously nothing like despotism.
However, the Catalonian leaders may still have a democratic mandate to seek independence. They therefore represent a minority within Spain with a valid interest in a vital matter. The rest of Spain therefore has a duty to respect the interests of that minority. One way to do that might be to negotiate with Catalonia for a different constitutional settlement.
But, again, if such negotiations were to result in proposals for a radical centre-provincial realignment, the democratically relevant constituency for ratifying the realignment would be the entire Spanish population, for example as represented in the national assembly, the Cortes.
Parliament is moving towards preventing Britain from exiting the European Union. It is not there yet but in its lumbering, convoluted, step-by-step manner, that’s where it is heading.
Parliament carries the charge and responsibility of protecting the British people’s interests and well-being. It is not going to sit by and allow the country to cut its legs off. Critics of Parliament, such as myself, are often in despair of its ineffectiveness, but the historical experience is nevertheless that in the big questions, in the end, Parliament comes through.
Since the referendum, there have been huge shifts in Parliament in how to deal with the outcome. We started with the government’s determination to implement hard Brexit with minimal involvement by Parliament. Hard Brexit is now off the agenda and Parliament has asserted itself and continues to do so. It is denying the government any unambiguous mandate for how to negotiate in Brussels.
Parliament has enforced the acceptance that there must be a transition after the completion of negotiations in which Britain remains a member of the Union for some as yet not determined period. The view is strengthening that Britain must remain in the single market, which is code language for continued membership. The Norwegian solution of being part of the single market without membership of the Union – accepting the rules with no say in the making of rules – is impossible for a big country. The Labour Party has moved to the single market position, for (as they say so far) an indefinite period.
After the failed general election, there is a confusion of ambivalence in Parliament which perfectly reflects the confusion of ambivalence in the population. There are criss-crossing views in Parliament on Britain and Europe, with constellations in constant movement. In neither of the big parties are the leaderships representative of their respective parliamentary parties. Everything is in flux. Nothing is settled. Members of Parliament collude in corners and corridors day in and day out. The huge shifts we have seen so far are in continues motion.
More is known about the consequences. The argument that Brexit would be simple has been disproved. The argument that is would save money has been disproved. The argument that it would be economically costly has been proved: the British economy is now worth 10% less to the world.
The risks have been clarified. Trade and investments will suffer. The union will break up: Brexit will give the Scottish nationalists the arguments they need to carry the day. These risks may or may not sway public opinion but in Parliament they matter.
Can Parliament overrule the majority in the referendum? It is no simple matter for it to so do and it will, to put it carefully, be problematic. But, referendum or not, Parliament carries the final responsibility.
Parliament has the formal right to overrule the referendum. Constitutionally speaking, the referendum was advisory. In the British constitutional tradition, Parliament is sovereign and that sovereignty was maintained in Parliament’s remit for the referendum.
It also has the moral right. It has obeyed the referendum and started the process. That has moved us on. The facts have changed. Matters have been clarified. We know more. Parliament has a duty to deal with the world as it is and is not bound to dealing with it as it was.
The emotive language following the referendum is “the will of the people.” But there is no single “will of the people.” The population is divided, even in the referendum pretty equally. It is for Parliament to work itself through divisions in the population towards a reasoned position in which it pays heed not only to the (small) majority and the (large) minority in the referendum but also to the interests that were not reflected in the referendum, notably of the young who (regrettably) did not vote in the numbers they should have.
Thanks to support from the European Social Fund, our local Adult Community College is able to offer beginners’ courses in the piano, allowing some of the good people of our town to enjoy the pleasure of hearing music arise from the work of their hands. If that support were to fall away, the College would have to rearrange its curriculum and the piano courses might fall victim. If Britain exits the European Union, our participation in the European Social Fund would presumably come to an end.
This link between the European Union and local piano lessons gives rise to some questions:
- How deep is Britain’s integration in the European Union? The EU, it turns out, is not only about trade and borders. The Union is a partner in education, cultural life, regional policy and much more, down to the smallest detail. Innumerable Community Colleges and other local organisations up and down the country operate thanks the EU support. The biggest beneficiaries from the Social Fund are the west of Wales and Cornwall. In the decades since Britain joined, EU integration has deepened constantly. Leaving the EU will affect every strand of our social fabric. The national funding of Community Colleges, for example, is premised on part of their funding coming via the EU. If they are to continue their activity, there will have to be a new base of funding.
- Will new funding be available to Community Colleges once funding via the European Social Fund falls away? Probably, no one now knows. Do our negotiators in Brussels have the matter on their radar? Are plans being made in Whitehall so that Community Colleges will be able to maintain their range of activity? My guess is that this and many other fallouts from Brexit are in limbo.
- If new funding is to be made available, who will pay? It will have to come from government sources somewhere. That means that on this account there will be no saving for the Treasury from Brexit. What Britain now contributes to the Social Fund, will have to be reallocated to the institutions now benefitting from Social Fund support. This is emblematic of one of many Brexit illusions, that there will be massive savings to the taxpayer. If social and economic quality is to be maintained, activities now funded from Brussels will have to be funded from London.
- If new funding is not made available, who will suffer? In the case of the piano lessons, it will be the good people of our town who will have to abandon their musical ambitions or pay for more expensive private tuition. There will be a cost in the form of less social quality. Even an interim of confusion will do harm to Community Colleges and similar activities throughout the country.
This example of the link between the most mundane little local activity and European integration is illustrative of a Brexit paradox. In large measure, Brexit will mean that what is now done in partnership between British and European institutions will have to be done by British institutions on their own. That represents a massive reorganisation for little or no purpose. As is seen in our local piano lessons, things now work. Why repair what works?
Of course, what is now done in partnership between British and European institution may not be continued by British institutions on their own. If so, Brexit will result in an erosion of economic and social quality.
(First published in the Daily Telegraph)
On the inferno in London’s Grenfell Tower on 14 June we know
- that residents, local people and safety experts had long warned about the state of fire security in this and similar blocks,
- that known techniques are available that would likely have prevented a fire inside one flat from engulfing the building.
The residents were not heard? We need to understand: Why?
The explanation is no double complex, but in the final analysis the answer must be that residents did not have the power to get their concerns acted upon. It was not that their fears were not known or not valid, but that the step from knowledge to action was not taken.
The reason they did not have power behind their concerns is also no doubt complex, but already on the day after the calamity it was observed that at least part of the reason must be systemic. Better precautions could and should have been taken to secure the block. The fact that such precautions were not taken shows that there is a fault in the system of governance. Decisions that should have been made were not made.
Grenfell Tower is in a borough (Kensington and Chelsea) of about 160 000 people. In a political unit that large, the distance from the little people in the little neighbourhoods up to those who are in charge is a very long. It is hard for any small group to be heard. These residents had people speaking for them in the local council, but that voice was only one of many in a large district and did not carry much weight.
Furthermore, this council, as British local councils generally, is itself bereft of power. Councils have some limited responsibilities which they exercise pretty much as administrative agencies under direction from Whitehall. They are not actually local governments. They manage some local affairs, but they do not represent local populations. In his book The British Constitution, published in 2007, the late Anthony King, concluded: “Local government is no longer, in any meaningful sense, a part of the British constitution.”
Your local concerns compete with those of others and if yours are to prevail there must be power behind them. This is the iron law of democratic governance. Those who govern deal with the matters they must deal with. Other matters are squeezed out. The people in Grenfell Tower and its neighbourhood did not have political representation because they are a small and peripheral group in a very large district and because the council at the head of that district is not a local government in the business of representing local people.
This absence of local political representation is visible in many areas of British life. In recent years, for example, we have had terrible flood catastrophes. These have also been the result, at least partially, of failures to take precautions. That has resulted, again, from systemic failures in governance. There has been no clearly defined localised responsibility. Local councils have had little and ambiguous authority in the matter. Flood protection throughout the land is the responsibility of Whitehall in London and the national Environment Agency. That’s a long way to go to get someone who is responsible for innumerable rivers to take an interest in yours.
Local populations are at the mercy of such attention as distant authorities may elect to give them. Local councils may by and large do the jobs assigned to them well, but such management is also all they do and can do. They are not attuned to acting as the local population’s representative, and local populations are not attuned to turning to their council for representation. There is not the relationship between council and population that is the fabric of local government. This is reflected in the dismal participation in local elections.
In Britain’s architecture of governance, there is a whole layer missing. There is, as Professor King found, NO LOCAL GOVERNMENT. In the case of Kensington and Chelsea, once a catastrophe outside of the council’s remit hit, such local authority as there was simply disintegrated, first into paralysis and then falling apart in resignations.
The absence of local government is one of several defects in the constitution, in need of urgent repair. This void should be filled with local units of government that are different in two ways from today’s councils. They should be both smaller and have more responsibility. There should be nearness between local people and their authorities and those authorities should have the power and responsibility to give their populations representation.
Our national politicians want us to think that Britain is a well governed country. But it is not. A well governed country has the apparatus to deal with the population’s concerns. In Britain, part of that apparatus is missing. A vital link in the chain of command from people in the localities to governors up high is missing. Britain has the most centralised system of government of any country in Europe (devolution notwithstanding, which for local government proper means yet more emasculation). We are on our own in believing it is possible to deliver good governance without local governments. As we have now seen in even the wealthiest borough in the centre of the capital, that is a failing enterprise.
Europe is in the grip of a rumbling political earthquake (as is the US). But two recent elections turned out very differently. Why?
In France, the challenger, Emmanuel Macron and his new party, La République en march, won decisively, first the presidency and then a strong majority in the National Assembly. In Britain, the challenger, Jeremey Corbyn and the Labour Party, did surprisingly well but still lost the election, taking 55 fewer seats in Parliament than the governing Conservative Party.
National circumstances matter, of course, but there is more to it. These were entirely different battles.
In France, Macron represents no established political camp and has stormed the political citadel with a brand new party of his own making. His movement does not define itself on the traditional left-right divide but responds to the new politics of open society internationalism vs. populist nationalism. It is radical and progressive not in the old meaning but in respect to a new political landscape.
In Britain, the battle was between the traditional foes from within the political establishment and was fought on traditional left-right issues, as if nothing had happened to the political landscape since the 1950s. The Labour Party brought to the election a challenge to some of the government’s policies, but no challenge on the big issues of the day or to the way politics is made. As with so much in Britain’s current political culture, Labour’s campaign was entirely backwards looking.
In France, the election has brought hope that a regime is in the making to undertake much needed reforms and shake French society out of its paralysis of sclerosis and despondency. That hope may be frustrated, but for now there is something new and relevant in the air.
In Britain, now that the dust has settled, it would seem that the challenger did not bring enough of a challenge to the established order to win. Any promise of something new and relevant in the air was missing.
The new political landscape in Britain is defined, most urgently, by Brexit. On this issue, Corbyn’s Labour kept strategically silent, not challenging the government’s hard Brexit stand out of fear of alienating hard Brexit voters. You could not have a clearer manifestation of old politics. In France, Macron took the dark forces of populist nationalism head on and saw them off.
Beyond Brexit, the big issues of the day are environmental sustainability and social justice in the context of global capitalism. On none of these issues did Corbyn’s Labour rise to the challenge. On environmental sustainability, the campaign had nothing to say. On social justice, there was, in the old politics way, promises to various constituencies – students and welfare recipients – and to tax the rich. All worthy, but there was no analysis of the logic of global, information based capitalism and the meaning of social justice in that context.
Specifically for Britain, there are also burning issues of constitutional reform. The Labour campaign, again, as if being designed for a bygone age, had nothing to contribute.
The lesson from these two election is that the meaning of what is “radical” is changing. Political movements that define themselves as progressive and want force should take note. Old politics radicalism now has no traction.
“Participatory democracy” is a bit of a misnomer. Democracy is by definition participatory: citizens vote and engage in the making of public opinion into a political force. On this level, the role of citizens is to make demands on the governance that is in the hands of representatives and officials.
But there is now a view that this is not enough of a role for citizens if democracy is to be vibrant and responsive. There is a demand not just for different policies but for a different way of doing politics.
A first response is to improve the channels for citizens to provide political input. Much can be done here, for example with techniques such as deliberative opinion polling. That is important, but still limited: citizens are allowed opinions, but the doing is by “those up there.” Can citizens participate directly in the doing?
They already are. People do voluntary work in the provision of services and make financial contributions to charities that do good works. Governments support this with tax exemptions for charitable givings. This is a form of participatory provision of public goods. More could be done by building on this experience.
Here is a proposal: Governments step up their contributions from tax exemptions to obliging themselves to match the contributions of citizen. Whatever citizens provide, either in money or labour, would generate an equivalent provision from the government. That would be a huge stimulus to citizens to engage in good works.
It would also represent a shift in decision-making. The deciding on what to do would be in the hands of citizens. They would have contributory support from the government but the doing would be theirs. We would then have a model in which citizens are in charge of deciding and doing, with the government in the more limited role of facilitator.
Say, as an example, a group of parents think the local school should offer pupils more physical education. They raise half the money to employ a teacher for the purpose, knowing that the government is obliged to match their contribution. The parents have decided what service should be offered and are able to get it done.
You might argue that it is the government’s responsibility to provide services. Well and good, but if you insist that all the doing must be the responsibility of the government, you are also saying that your own role can be no more than to put pressure on the government. If the starting point of this argument is that the participation available to citizens is too limited, why not welcome the opportunity to take charge directly in the deciding on what should be done? Why not welcome a participation that comes with both power and responsibility?
In the example given, there is a lot in it for citizens, in this case the group of parents. They get a teacher job established by raising only half of the money needed. For every £1 they provide, £2 go to the school. They get to decide what teacher job should be established – they have the power. They get involvement with the local school. They get an opportunity to shift a bit of their family spending from yet more consumption trinkets to socially useful doings under their own control.
There is also much in it for the government. As a result of its facilitation, it sees a useful service being provided. It has let citizens decide which service and helps realise something citizens want. It is cheap for the public purse. Not only have citizens raised half the money needed, much of the additional money the government puts in, it gets back. The money goes into a salary on which the school pays social insurance contributions and the new teacher pays income taxes. The teacher spends the remaining income, generating VAT revenue back to the public purse. That spending in the next round stimulates further economic activity, which generates further public revenue.
Step up a notch and imagine thousands and thousands of such initiatives throughout the land. You then have a democratic structure of social justice: doings are in response to needs identified by citizens and under their authority. Citizens massively decide on the provision of public goods, in a decentralised pattern. Ordinary people here, there and everywhere make decisions. They take power and accept responsibility. The government facilitates and supports their doing. Much of that doing will be in the form of job creation. You therefore have a structure that creates jobs, and by and large good jobs. And an efficient structure free from stifling bureaucracy.
In the aggregate, there is again much in it for the government as well. It offers a way out of the blight of public poverty within private wealth. Things get done which the government itself could not do. When the government is the doer, all doing needs to be funded from taxes. But the raising of new taxes for additional doings is now very difficult. By and large, tax revenues are committed to existing doings, and by and large tax extraction has reached its limit within the constraints of global capitalism. Cynically, the arrangement I am suggesting is a way to get people to pay voluntarily what they would not be willing to pay in taxes.
I have had in mind a country like Britain, which is relatively poor in the provision of public goods and in which tax extraction has (pretty much) reached its social limit, but which is rich in what might broadly be called public provision institutions. That includes, for example, institutions like the National Trust or English Heritage and many similar ones, many local, schools and universities, and a vast network of charities. These are institutions rearing to do more work in their respective fields. Along with a strong tradition of voluntary and charitable participation, they represent an underused national capital. With more stimulus, it would be meaningful for citizens to get together and create their own institutions, small or larger, to work for causes of their interest.
Obviously, there would have to be a regulatory regime for which private provisions would trigger an equivalent government provision and which institutions are eligible partners. Obviously, there would have to be oversight to avoid exploitation and corruption. Not easy, the devil is in the detail, but doable.
My argument is that with strong government encouragement in the form of a 100% matching commitment, a second level of public provision, grounded in citizenship participation, would be possible. On the first level, citizens pay taxes and the government provides services. This, roughly, is the “welfare state.” On the second level, citizens take in hand service provision and are able to do that thanks to government facilitation. This we might call the “participation state.”