Brian Monteith: The rule of law must be maintained

Catalan students stage a silent demonstration after the violencesurrounding the referendum. Picture: Getty
Catalan students stage a silent demonstration after the violencesurrounding the referendum. Picture: Getty
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When I wrote last week about the growing tension in Catalonia as its regional government sought to hold an illegal referendum it was not to take sides with either cause but to show how the rule of law has to prevail or chaos will rule and that always results in violence.

I still hold no view about Catalonia and its relationship with the rest of Spain, it is for all Spaniards to decide (because the Spanish constitution was approved by all of Spain and most enthusiastically by the Catalonians). To change the status of Catalonia must involve the consent of the rest of Spain – even if it is just to find a way to hold a referendum legally.

Sunday’s state violence was completely unwarranted. Attacking voters – all apparently peaceful and without weapons – breaking into polling stations and snatching ballot boxes was wrong both morally and politically, no matter that it might be allowed legally because the police had the Spanish courts’ authority behind them. What harm comes from casting a ballot paper that required brutal force?

That said, treating Sunday’s violent behaviour as the subjugation of human rights by Spain has to be seen in the light of similar violence by the Catalan police against their own Catalan citizens over recent years to break up peaceful demonstrations or strikes against the Catalan government’s austerity. Police violence, legitimised by the courts, is sadly par for the course in Catalonia, whichever police force the finger is pointed at.

It is highly biased for supporters of the referendum taking place to blame only one police force for their violent actions when Catalonian police also have a shameful record and it was known that brutal police force could be expected if the referendum went ahead. It was as if the Catalan government wanted a violent reaction and the Spanish police obliged.

The Spanish government’s actions are completely counter-productive to their goal of keeping Spain united and together. By their own actions the Spanish government has created a grievance that shall push many Catalans towards independence that would previously not have considered it. The smart approach would have been to allow the referendum to go ahead without legitimacy and then dismiss it as meaningless. It does not matter how many people voted or what the vote was, for it had no legality. Moreover, evidence is now mounting of people printing their own ballot papers and voting multiple times, and of no checks about voters.

In short, it is a mess and it is not for the Scottish Government – itself a regional government of the UK – to become embroiled in it when it has no locus and no standing in representing Scotland, for that is the job of the UK Government.

In all of this Nicola Sturgeon’s motives for her outspoken interventions are unclear. The First Minister has a duty to uphold the law, for at the very least it is the law that gives her any authority and it is the law that protects our own rights from coercion from private or state interventions. For the First Minister to ignore the illegality of the Catalan referendum – when she has also ignored her commitment to honour the Edinburgh Agreement on the outcome of the Scottish referendum – suggests she does not care for the law when it does not suit her purposes and would support an illegal Scottish referendum. She now needs to rule out that possibility unequivocally.

Sunday’s events warn us about what can happen when the law is ignored – and also shows how flexible and benign the UK is in settling disputes.

The political dispute in Catalonia can only be settled by negotiation and agreement within the law. For legislators in Scotland – of any political colour – to encourage or give succour to any other course of illegal or violent action is to repudiate the rule of law in Scotland and make them unfit for the office they hold in our name.