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.
The dust is settling after the British Brexit referendum – leaving us with this paradox: There was a majority in the population and in Parliament for Britain to remain in the European Union, but because of low turnout of younger voters, this majority did not prevail in the referendum. The matter was “put to the people,” resulting in a decision contrary to the popular will. Had the matter been left to Parliament, British EU policy would have continued to accord with the majority will of the people.
This paradox raises a question mark not only against the use of referendums but also more generally: is it a democratically good thing to encourage participation from below by the people in political decision-making? Is participatory democracy democratic?
In a series of posts on this blog, starting here, I will reflect on the theme of democracy and participation. The matter is all but simple. It might seem obvious that participation is a democratic good, but as so often what first seems simple on reflection turns out to be complicated.
I am in conversation with a student leader in Hong Kong who was one of the organisers of the “umbrella revolution” in late 2014 when up to 100 000 protesters occupied strategic sites in the city for a period of about two months and seriously disrupted governance and business. The action was in protest against what was seen as a stalled movement towards complete political democracy in Hong Kong. The student leader did not regret the action he and others encouraged at the time, but two years on needed to acknowledge, he said, that it had been of little or no consequence.
On the 21st of January 2017, the day the inauguration of US President Donald Trump, millions of women across America and around the world participated in Women’s Marches in protest against the anticipated policies of the new presidency. More than 600 marches took place in more than 80 countries, on all continents (including Antarctica), more than 400 in the United States, in probably the most massive political action from below ever seen.
It is easy to be sympathetic with young Hong Kong people who take to the streets in their demand for democracy. But did their action matter? It is easy to align with women across the world who stood up against the misogyny of the new American president. But did their action matter?
Of course, democracy depends on participation from below, but when and how? Of course, referendums are a democratic procedure, but when and how? Of course, manifestations of mass action are a democratic form of expression, but when and how? What is it right to do, and when? What works, and under what circumstances?
A sceptical view on participation was once expressed by the great Max Weber. He was an adviser to the German delegation to the peace treaty negotiations in Versailles in 1918 and got into a rambling and probably lubricated conversation one evening with General Ludendorff. (At one point he suggested to Ludendorff that he should offer up his head for execution as a way of restoring the honour of the German officer class.) Ludendorff asked him to explain the meaning of this thing democracy that he kept going on about. Weber replied: “In a democracy, the people choose a leader in whom they trust. Then the chosen leader says, ‘Now shut up and obey me.’ Later the people can sit in judgement. If the leader has made mistakes to the gallows with him.”
That we the people should just shut up and obey hardly corresponds to modern sensitivities, but could there be more truth to Weber’s provocation than we might like to accept? With participation, is it the more the better? Beyond voting in elections, how should we ordinary people be and get involved in democratic procedures and democratic decision-making?
In a thread of posts under the heading of “participation” I will try to find democratic answers to some of these democratic problems.
Brexit changes everything. With a bang, the opportunity has presented itself for the formation in Britain of a new political party of the centre-left and for that party to take hold. Now is the moment to grasp the opportunity. It will not come again.
The outcome of the referendum has been described, not without justification, as a political revolution. The immediate effect was a collapse of political order, with parties in turmoil and no one in control or authority. The leaders in the campaign have departed the scene en masse.
The Conservative Party is regaining its footing. The Labour Party is however going into destruction, Brexit having become the catalyst for the centre wing to try to wrench back control from the left wing, something they are unlikely to achieve or can only achieve at suicidal cost. The Scottish nationalists are likely to again press for independence. The two-party system, long wobbly, has now collapsed.