A Few Thoughts on the Catalan Independence Referendum

A mixed bag in Spain.


Having observed the buildup to and consequences of the legal and peaceful dissolution of my native land of Czechoslovakia in 1993 into two separate countries, I have developed an open mind about separatist arguments. Since their separation, tensions between Czechs and Slovaks have disappeared and the two are, once again, the very best of friends. The Czechs no longer subsidize their poorer cousins in the east, while Slovaks no longer blame their problems on their "big brother" in the west. Everyone has won.

As such, I have kept an open mind about Scottish independence. Many Scots resented their bigger neighbor to the south and wished to regain the statehood they lost with the creation of Great Britain in 1707. Scots, ultimately, balked at going it alone – a decision partly influenced by the large financial subsidies that Caledonia receives from England. The Brits handled the question of the referendum in a typically cool-headed fashion. Unencumbered by a "written Constitution," a simple agreement between David Cameron, the British Prime Minister and Alex Salmond, the Scottish First Minister, paved the way for a vote north of the Hadrian's Wall, with 55 percent of the Scots opting for the status quo.

Spain, alas, has a Constitution, which was adopted in 1978 by 92 percent of the Spanish voters, including 95 percent of the voters in Catalonia. The document does not provide for independence referenda and specifically refers to the indivisibility of the Kingdom of Spain. Consequently, the Spanish Supreme Court ruled that the Catalan independence referendum was unconstitutional and should not take place. The Catalan government ignored the Court's ruling and decided to hold the plebiscite anyway. The Spanish government responded by sending in the national police and the referendum was, for all practical purposes, derailed – amid some violence.

With regard to the crackdown, a couple of things should be kept in mind. First, nobody died, which is a bit of a miracle, considering the red-hot passion on the Catalan side. From the film footage I saw, it seemed to me that the Spanish police were remarkably restrained and only responded with batons and rubber bullets when under physical threat from the pro-independence protesters. Second, given the Supreme Court ruling, the Spanish government was obliged to enforce the rule of law and should not be unduly blamed for the unpleasantness that followed.

That said, Madrid's approach, while legal and proportionate, seems to me politically unwise. The only way that the Catalans could have held the vote legally was through constitutional change, which is impossible, because the Spanish Parliament is filled with unionists opposed to Catalan independence. The crackdown leaves the Catalans with no recourse to rectify their grievances and could lead to increased support for independence and, even, occasion a rise of more extreme forms of Catalan resistance to the central authorities.

For most Europeans, Spain without Catalonia is as strange of a concept as the United Kingdom without Scotland. But, independence can be a good way to lower tensions between peoples who no longer wish to remain a part of the same political entity and an excellent way to increase inter-jurisdictional competition, thereby allowing for greater institutional experimentation.

Prior to the rise of the European nation states in the 16th and 17th centuries, Europe was sub-divided into hundreds of different states and statelets. Germany alone consisted of over 300 different political entities prior to Napoleon's consolidation of the territories in 1806.

These states offered their residents different sets of rights and responsibilities. They competed with one another in terms of policies, including religious tolerance and taxation. In fact, it was this territorial disunity that, scholars argue, enabled Europe to zoom past heavily centralized China to become the world's leading economy.

Today, Europe is in a bit of a funk. Perhaps an injection of greater jurisdictional competition is just what the old world needs to take it out of its morass and reinvigorate it once more.

NEXT: Are We All Gonna Die If Animal Rescuers Remain Unbound by Red Tape?

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  1. it seemed to me that the Spanish police were remarkably restrained and only responded with batons and rubber bullets when under physical threat from the pro-independence protesters

    Catalan traitor violence

    1. I must have been watching entirely different footage.

      1. I thought the same thing. Maybe singing is considered s “physical threat” these days.

        1. As is sitting quietly in a chair in the school auditorium.

          1. I’m making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.

            This is what I do…

  2. Bring back the Holy Roman Empire .And city and Papal states.

    1. I’d be all for replacing the EU with the Holy Roman Empire.

  3. …a decision partly influenced by the large financial subsidies that Caledonia receives from England.


    1. I think the author meant “Scotland.”

      Caledonia is the Latin name given by the Romans to the land in today’s Scotland north of their province of Britannia, beyond the frontier of their empire.

      1. Alba is/was the Scottish name for Scotland

      Caledonia is the Latin name given by the Romans to the land in today’s Scotland north of their province of Britannia, beyond the frontier of their empire.

  4. “and, even, occasion a rise of more extreme forms of Catalan resistance to the central authorities.”

    Reading military history as a child, I never thought I would have the privilege of watching a war in Western Europe in my lifetime.


  5. Both sides seem to be acting as if they were unable or unwilling to learn anything from recent history. Think Castilian policemen punching grannies and firefighters was stupid?

    Today, Catalans are blocking roads. I can’t think of any protest movement of the last thirty years that was helped by that. Pretty much an equivalent of punching yourself in the face.

    1. Sometimes both sides are wrong.

      That said, anything that leads to greater granularity in society is fine by me.

  6. So, I know Reason has changed a little in the past year and a half, but is the new libertarian position against self determination and quick to compliment police who *only* fire rubber bullets into crowds of people who wish to vote? Guess I just haven’t been able to make enough cocktail parties in Washington to help me keep up.

    1. Jesus, dude, it’s too early to take shots.

    2. I’ve been thinking about this question lately, in light of the events in Spain, and my conclusion is that self-determination in the sense of majority rule deciding whether a geographical area should be politically independent or not is not an issue that really has a libertarian position. All that is potentially happening is a switch from one government to another. Which is totally neutral from a libertarian point of view. Majority rule is not a libertarian value. If a region breaks away from an established country and becomes a heavily socialist state by popular vote, that’s no libertarian outcome. If it breaks away and becomes a bastion of freedom, then it is. Political entities don’t have rights, individuals do.

      1. I’m not going to disagree with you in the sense that people should be free to choose tyranny, I would suppose, which does seem to be a sort of failing with libertarianism or at the very least libertarians.

        1. In principle, why is it a failing of libertarianism for A to freely disassociate from B, even if A’s governance will be no more friendly to individual liberty than B’s?

          Smaller jurisdictions, more decentralization is better then bolstering the borg.

          1. Because it’s an assumption that libertarians seem to have that people will not choose tyranny when it’s pretty readily apparent that most people are more than happy choosing it over liberty, so you end up at a place where you say ‘each individual has the right to choose’, and they choose not choosing for themselves en masse. Then, this entirely theoretical libertarian gets upset at their fellow man choosing tyranny. Mostly, if I’m honest, because when people choose tyranny they usually want to choose it for everyone I suspect.

            1. No argument about what the Clovers want: that is their nature.

  7. Wow, you really didn’t watch many videos if your thought the voters (they weren’t protesting they were trying to vote) were threading the cops. Firefighters came out to protect the voters with their bodies and the cops beat them too. You can’t seriously believe the old women bloodied in several of them were a serious threat to thugs in body armor.

  8. Once again, we have a misguided conception of the rule of law.

    Reason staff contends that the initiation of violence perpetrated by the central authorities was necessary “to enforce the rule of law.” Reason staff cites the 1978 constitution as the touchstone of the rule of law for all those within the jurisdiction of the centralized socialist nation state.

    Reason staff does not advert to any classical liberal principle which espouses the following propositions:

    (1) Written constitutions are binding upon those who did not support such constitutions;

    (2) Written constitutions which mandate unity are binding upon all those who do not want coerced unity;

    (3) Force, including deadly force, can be used by centralized socialists in order to prevent others from disassociating with the centralized socialists.

    No, Reason staff, there can be no rule of law where A and B can force C to remain with A and B. That is tyranny.

    1. What if C is leaving A and B so they can more easily force D to remain with C?

    2. That is tyranny.

      That is the nation state. Even if region C does get to leave, there are plenty of citizens of C who disagree with the move who are now being forced to stay with C.

      1. Libertarian theory is decentralization in practice.

        Of course, citizens of C should not be forced to remain with C. But such citizens do not have the right to use force in conjunction with A and B to keep C with A and B.

  9. Any law that specifies the “indivisibility” of a state is invalid. It removes something that cannot be removed- the right of a group of people to determine their government.

    1. How far does that right go? Does a neighborhood, or a household or an individual have the right to determine their government? If so, doesn’t that make any state and any law invalid in some sense? (in case you are wondering, I think the answer is “yes”)

      1. How far does this go in the other direction? If cities don’t have rights to claim independence do counties? States? What about countries within the EU? Territories like Puerto Rico?

        I agree there need to be limits, but I would propose that smaller governments are necessarily better at representing their people than larger governments who often just impose the will of the majority.

        1. As I’ve said elsewhere, political entities don’t have rights, individuals do. I guess I agree that smaller, more local polities are often preferable. But they are quite capable of tyrannical behavior as well.

        2. Make the Holy Roman Empire Great Again! Seriously, bring back disunited confederations with free city states.

    2. Yes absolutely.

      The other way to look at this is the “indivisibility” of a state ALWAYS leads to a direct violation of the NAP. In fact, numerous wars (the ultimate form of aggression) have been fought because of a group who seeks a new form of self-government.

      Our founders eloquently said that “prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

      I don’t know enough about the Catalan experience. Only the Catalans themselves can weigh the pros and cons of independence. Certainly Madrid cannot.

    3. Do West Bank Palestinians have a right to determine their government?

      1. Yes, even if the exercise of such self-determination is offensive to Zionism.

      2. Good question, did they vote on their current leaders? If so, were they allowed to vote on a different leader after 2013?

  10. It’s unlikely independence would be a win for Catalan liberty as the separatist government is more socialist than the Spanish government and is also ethnic supremacist (for example, the regional government requires all schooling to be done in Catalan, even though only 30% of the children in the region speak it).

    1. Yes. I think a lot of people are forgetting that this is a fight between competing governments and has essentially nothing to do with individual self-determination. Independence won’t make the people of Catalonia more free, it will make the Catalan government more free.

      1. But, people should be allowed to choose who rules over them, so this would make them more free. The whole consent of the governed and everything

    2. As opposed to Catalan children being forced to be taught in Spanish?

  11. “The document does not provide for independence referenda and specifically refers to the indivisibility of the Kingdom of Spain. Consequently, the Spanish Supreme Court ruled that the Catalan independence referendum was unconstitutional and ******should not take place*******.”

    There’s your problem. There are two possible responses. Either say, “this referenda means nothing because the result changes nothing and should not take place, therefore we are going to show up with guns and police and prevent you from voicing your opinion in a way that legally changes nothing.” Alternately, they could say, “this referenda means nothing… so go ahead and have your silly little vote, but understand that it changes nothing whatsoever.”

    One of these options requires using force on people; one doesn’t. One of these options effectively communicates your message that the vote means nothing. The other suggests that it is so important that it shouldn’t be allowed to happen.

    1. Good observation.

    2. Exactly.

  12. There were two independence referendums that recently occurred: one in Iraq and one in Spain. In Iraq the central government just ignored the results (to be fair they probably couldn’t do anything else even if they wanted to), whereas in Spain the central government sent in military police to beat civilians who were going to vote. Spain unleashed barbarism on its own population and the EU looked the other way. So much for the enlightened West.

  13. So, did Catalonia not expect the Spanish Inquisition?

    1. I don’t know what’s sadder: that almost no one will see your post or that it took the 45th comment for someone to think of it.

  14. Sorry, I couldn’t finish reading this propaganda piece!

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