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.
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.
In the French presidentials, the establishment candidates were dismissed in the first round. But here, for reasons difficult to explain, there had been a political realignment giving voters who wanted to reject the establishment a centrist alternative to go to. We have perhaps thought that the politics of anger must find its outlet on the extreme right or extreme left, but that may not necessarily be the case. France is showing the way – who would have thought?
There are two dimensions to the politics of anger. One goes to the substance of public policy. There is a failure to respond to the pressures of modern capitalism with a credible agenda of fairness and social justice. Economic progress trickles up but not down, resulting in a landscape of affluence on one side and public poverty and exclusion on the other side.
The other dimension goes to the way politics is made. Citizens are able to vote but otherwise feel, or many of them do, that they have no say in public affairs, that they are not involved and not invited to be involved.
For now, we have no good answer to the challenge of social justice. Following the economic crisis of the 1930s and World War II, advanced democracies invented welfare states that were effective as a civilising influence on industrial capitalism. Now we need a similar civilising influence on post-industrial capitalism, but that is yet to be forthcoming. In Britain, for example, where the Labour Party was the leading force in the welfare state revolution, that movement is now without ability to confront the fact of a very different capitalist order.
To the question of how politics is made, however, we probably do have an answer. The reason many citizens feel excluded from influence, is that they are excluded from influence. “Populism” is hardy a wave of irrational anger, but a reasoned reaction to the gulf of distance that separates “them” up there and “us” down here. The way to respond to “populism,” then, is not by blaming angry citizens for not understanding their own good but by rebuilding structures of policy-making for less distance.
Democracies with decentralised governance are more successful than centralised ones in terms of cohesion between political leaderships and citizenry. It is easy to understand why. When public policy is made in a balanced way between central and local decision-making, citizens have more opportunities for involvement, and for involvement in matters that are near and relevant to them. If you are on the losing side in national elections, for example, that is not the end of the line for you. There are still real and meaningful local arenas to be involved in.
The age of deference is over and citizens expect to be taken seriously and to be involved in public matters. The more governance is centralised, the more citizens have no other way of “participating” than by airing anger in demonstrations, protests, manifestations and the like. Hence we get the paradox that many young people in particular are involved and ready to spend time marching, but cannot bother to vote.
Much of the answer to the how-politics-is-made dimension in the politics of anger, I am suggesting, lies in local government, local democracy and a setting of real local authority and responsibility. In trying to understand matters such as democratic culture, it is generally advisable to assume that people are as they are and good enough and to look to how they are treated. If citizens have arenas of meaningful involvement, we can expect social peace. If all that is available to them is to respond to removed and centralised governance, there is no involvement within reach and no other “participation” than in the venting of anger.
An optimistic reading of the French situation, one week ahead of the final round of the presidentials, is that the new centrist force is responding to both challenges of populism, both the substance of policy and the way policy is made. That is perhaps a very optimistic reading, but there is at least some hope for a non-extremist alternative to the politics of anger. Looking out from Britain, it is good to have a straw of hope to cling on to. Here, too, we face elections, but so far the campaign gives no promise of any innovation, neither in the substance of policy nor in the way policy is made. In the country in which the politics of anger made itself felt with such force that the constitution is in turmoil, it is as if there is nothing to be learned form that experience.
From a previous blog: “The trouble for democracy, at this time in history, comes from our own poor ability to reform.”
Here is a short list of pending reform issues:
We need systemic economic reform. Societies that define themselves by security and inclusion cannot live by deprivation and division. Globalization and automation, the targets of the politics of discontent, come with enormous benefits in the form of affluence and quality of work and life. But we have not found a way of combining this progress with inclusiveness. To underwrite democracy under advanced capitalism, we need a new social contract. The shallow individualism and small-government gospel of Reaganism and Thatcherism has shipwrecked. Before inclusiveness in public policy must come inclusiveness in mindsets. It is a matter of nothing less than the reinvention of democratic political culture.
In Europe, the mindset of reform needs to include the European Union. British and European leaders should swallow their pride and sit down to devise a reformed union that can embrace all of Europe. The European Union is already a structure with many different forms of adhesion, from Swiss and Norwegian types of quasi-membership, via various combinations of inside and outside of the Schengen and the euro, to the comprehensive arrangements of the full-membership countries. Flexibility has proved to work and is now needed in respect to Brexit and to pre-empt other possible exits. Brussels may have to sacrifice a battle to win the war, but better that than to lose the war.
In Britain, the time is over-ripe for constitutional reform. It is a misunderstanding that Britain does not have a written constitution just because constitutional provisions are not collected into a single document with “constitution” its heading. But the constitution is poorly protected and open to political manipulation. The Brexit referendum was called by Prime Minister Cameron ahead of the 2015 general election for opportunistic party-political reasons. If they can, politicians of the day will manipulate the constitution for their own advantage. That should not be possible. By coincidence, the week after the vote, the Chilcot report of the inquiry into Britain’s participation in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and its aftermath was published, with deep criticism of a dysfunctional system of decision-making which resulted in colossal mistakes both on the entry into war and post-war management. Britain does not have a safe system of political decision-making.
In America, what burst through the surface in 2016 was the pent-up pressure from a long, relentless, step-by-step erosion of political culture in which big business has fortified itself as the power behind the throne. The reason there is gridlock in Washington is that the holders of office, in Congress in particular, are not free to make policies for the public good. When big money is allowed to transgress massively into politics, those who control it gain power to decide who the successful candidates will be—those they wish to fund—and what they can decide once in office—that which is acceptable to those who hold the purse-strings. The representatives, or most of them, may not be personally corrupt, but the system in which they work is one of deep collusion between big politics and big money. It is a misunderstanding that politicians chase money; it is money chasing politicians.
Read the full article in the Cairo Review.