Imagine a world in which the Scottish National Party won its historic victory in 2011, but the UK government refused to acknowledge its mandate to hold an independence referendum.
In this alternate reality, London rejected any negotiations that could have led to a binding referendum, and used the courts to have even a consultative referendum declared illegal. When the SNP tried to get around that ruling by downgrading the vote to an informal and purely symbolic 'citizen participation process' run by volunteers, London reacted by trying to get Alex Salmond thrown into prison and banned from standing for election for the next ten years.
Is this just a paranoid Nat fantasy that implausibly casts the UK as a potential Soviet-style oppressor? Sadly, no. It's the exact equivalent of what has been unfolding in Catalonia in recent times, culminating in the former Prime Minister Artur Mas being put on trial this week for the unspeakable crime of actually doing what he was elected to do in 2012, by giving the people of his country a say over their own constitutional future. If convicted of being too much of a democrat, he faces a potential prison term and a lengthy ban from holding public office.
The Spanish government's excuse for this downright sinister turn of events is one that will be only too familiar to dissidents in the former communist bloc. Of course people have a right to pursue their own political objectives, says Madrid, as long as they do so in accordance with the law, and in accordance with the constitution, and in a manner that is not detrimental to the authorities' own notion of good public order.
Which begs the obvious question - if the Catalan people have been pursuing the objective of self-determination in the wrong way, what exactly would be the right way?
A rather enormous problem from the outset is that the Spanish constitution expressly forbids any nation within Spain from becoming independent. It's more than a tad tricky to pursue an unconstitutional political objective by constitutional means. Perhaps it could be argued that there are legal ways of seeking to have the constitution amended, but as that can only be done on an all-Spain basis, the hostility towards Catalan aspirations inevitably means that any such bid would be dismissed out of hand.
Indeed, the proposal for an independence referendum went before the Spanish parliament in 2014, and was derisively rejected by 299 votes to 47 – flying in the face of the popular mandate that had already been received from the people of Catalonia. Presumably at that point, the Catalans were supposed to throw their hands up in the air and say "we were given a fair shot, it didn't work out, time to pack up and go home, lads". Well, either that or face jail.
Nope. That's not democracy. Self-determination doesn't mean going to someone else, begging to be allowed to do something, and then being meekly accepting when the answer is a curt 'no'. Indeed, to state the obvious, it means pretty much the polar opposite of that. If things get to the point where the only way of pursuing a legitimate goal by peaceful, democratic means is to step outside the law and contravene the constitution, then the problem is not the democrat - the problem is the law and the constitution.
That really shouldn't need spelling out in any liberal democracy, but there seems to be a blind spot across the western world where so-called 'separatism' is concerned. Loyalty to the existing state is irrationally conflated with commitment to democratic values, and there's precious little recognition of the fact that requiring blind loyalty is in itself profoundly anti-democratic. Witness for example the recent caller to a radio phone-in show who accused Alex Salmond of treachery against Britain’s war dead, without realising that Salmond’s own father – a lifelong supporter of Scottish independence – fought in the Second World War to give his children the freedom to choose their own future.
There can’t be a “separatist” anywhere – not in Catalonia, Quebec, Scotland, Northern Ireland or in Flanders – who hasn’t been lectured at some point in time about how they should simply be grateful to live in a free (or free-ish) country, and be willing to settle for what they’ve got. Don’t be greedy. It’s good enough. Coincidentally, that was also the message once upon a time to the citizens of communist Hungary, the so-called “happiest barrack” of the Eastern Bloc. You’ve got it good compared to your neighbours – how dare you throw it back in our faces by asking for even more? Well, plenty of people did go to jail in Hungary after asking for more, and I’m not sure many of us would dare to call them ungrateful brats now. Artur Mas may soon face the same fate in a supposedly modern democracy.
Freedom isn’t a treat to be doled out sparingly by rulers to the ruled as part of some grand bargain to preserve their own power. It is – or it should be – an inalienable right which can’t be arbitrarily circumscribed. The ability to use that freedom to secede from an existing state may be the final frontier for western liberal democracy, but it’s a frontier that must be crossed sooner or later if our values are not to be exposed as a sham. Those are the stakes in Catalonia at present, and that’s why there won’t be a single supporter of Scottish independence who isn’t right behind the Catalan movement as they defend themselves against a depressingly old-fashioned brand of oppression.
Indeed, a few people in Scotland may be wondering if we’re next. Michael Fallon’s recent suggestion that Scots should just “forget it”, in spite of the immaculate mandate that exists for a second independence referendum in the event of Brexit, sounds disturbingly similar to the Spanish attitude of “self-determination is illegal”. Perhaps Scots will soon have to draw inspiration from the courage and resilience of our Catalan friends… but hopefully Theresa May will instead look at the images of a man put in the dock for being a democrat, and realise that’s not the sort of country she wants to lead.
James Kelly's blog, Scot goes POP!, is among the most popular political blogs in the UK. He has also contributed to a number of newspapers and magazines.
James has also written for us about the madness of King Trump, the crisis created by the Brexit legal challenge and why Scottish Labour care more about Corbyn than their country.