The ugly scenes in Catalonia as riot police intervened in Sunday’s independence referendum, seizing ballot boxes, and firing rubber bullets at the crowds are distressing and deeply disturbing.
The Spanish government may regard the referendum as illegal, but its attempts to stop the vote and the police violence towards people who were peacefully taking part in the ballot are a serious threat to the very idea of democracy.
In the run-up to the poll, local Catalan officials were arrested and newspaper offices raided.
On referendum day, Catalan police appear to have taken a much softer line, but the national police sent in by the Spanish government were seen attacking defenceless voters with batons, pulling people by their hair out of polling stations and smashing their way into schools to remove ballot boxes.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Labour’s Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson were among many leading Scottish politicians voicing their shock at the scenes and called for police violence to stop.
In contrast with the tensions and violence surrounding the Catalan vote, Scotland’s independence referendum, however much it divided voters, was peaceful and took place with the full consent of the UK Government. David Cameron and Alex Salmond signed the Edinburgh Agreement well ahead of the poll, setting out details of how it would work.
The Catalans wanted Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy to follow suit. Mr Cameron is apparently hailed as a hero in Catalonia – just for agreeing that a referendum could be held.
The former Prime Minister was no friend of the SNP or the independence movement, but he and all parties at Westminster recognised the right of Scots to hold a vote on the country’s constitutional future.
It is just over 40 years since Spain’s long-established fascist dictatorship came to an end with the death of Franco in 1975, but the incidents around the Catalan referendum suggest a disregard for democratic principles on the part of Spain’s rulers did not die with him.
Edinburgh South West SNP MP Joanna Cherry, who was in Catalonia to observe Sunday’s referendum, described the effect of the violence: “The older generation are very upset because they’re reminded of Franco and the fascist state they were born into, that they lived in and they thought had gone away forever, and it’s come back.”
The importance of the European Union is often cast in terms of the determination of member states to live in peace with one another following the death and destruction of two world wars.
But arguably even more important is its role in buttressing democracy, which was absent from several European countries right up to the 1970s – not only was there Franco in Spain, but Greece was ruled by the colonels until 1974 and Portugal’s authoritarian regime was ended by a coup the same year.
It is alarming that the unacceptable police violence on Sunday has not prompted a bigger outcry and more condemnation from other UK and European leaders.
Whatever the pros and cons of independence, here or in Catalonia, the right of the people to decide should always be upheld.