Spanish riot police unleashed violence against people voting in a referendum on Catalan independence on Sunday 1 October. Recent estimates (on Monday 2 October( number those injured at 884, and it seems miraculous no one was killed.
As soon as the Catalan regional government set a date for a binding referendum, the right-wing Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy declared its intention to prevent the vote taking place. On the Prime Minister's appeal, the Spanish constitutional court ruled the referendum illegal. State police then geared up to prevent the referendum by force, confiscating millions of ballot papers and arresting regional government officials.
While it was clear in advance that the police planned on stepping in on the day of the vote, the scale and severity of their violence was shocking and has provoked resistance.
Police stormed polling stations, smashing their way in through glass doors, kicking and dragging out voters by their hair. Where voters attempted to block police access to polling stations, riot cops in full armour charged the crowds. Rubber bullets and batons were used on demonstrators in Barcelona.
On the internet footage can be seen in which police are battering people attempting to block their path peacefully. One woman, Marta Torrejillas, says police broke her fingers one-by-one and sexually assaulted her as she attempted to leave a polling station in Barcelona; the video evidence strongly corroborates her story.
While human rights groups have denounced the Spanish government for its brutal deployment of state violence, the response from the governments of Europe has been far more muted. Keen not to sour diplomatic relations with Spain, and often with one eye on their own secessionist problems, many European leaders have made a tepid call for “resolution” of the issue, describing the crisis as an internal matter for the Spanish government.
Boris Johnson's response has been particularly wretched, calling Spain “a good friend” to the UK and supporting its “strength and unity”. He described the referendum as “a matter for the Spanish government and people”. This flies totally in the face of the principle of self-determination. Whether the people of Catalonia opt to stay in Spain or to leave, that choice can be there's alone. To make their national status subject to a veto by the rest of Spain is undemocratic. Johnson's statement is as backward as if he were to say the future of Northern Ireland is “a matter for the British government and people', or the status of Crimea 'a matter for Russia”.
In contrast, Jeremy Corbyn has made a more forthright condemnation of the Spanish police than many others, calling the violence “shocking” and calling on the Tory government to intervene with Spain to bring an end to the repression.
The first duty of socialist, democrats and labour movement activists is to condemn the repression and defend the right to self-determination. We are in favour of the fullest democracy possible, and bitterly hostile to the ability of the state to trample over civil and political freedoms. That is true irrespective of what we think about Catalan separatism. Any decision made by the people of Catalonia must be made without intimidation and coercion.
Given the bloody actions of the Spanish state, it's tempting on an emotional level to want to support Catalan moves for independence. However, we should not collapse into supporting the separatist forces, nor should we line up behind the right-wing, austerity Catalan government. While we believe the people of Catalonia should be free to opt for independence, it does not follow that we think they should.
The Catalan government has used nationalist hostility to Madrid as a cover for its anti-working class programme of cuts and austerity. It favours a low-tax, free trading statelet on the lines of a Mediterranean, turbo-charged Andorra. It argues that relatively wealthy Catalonia would be better off not having to pay taxes into poorer Spain. Undergirding much nationalist resentment is the unsavoury idea that the hard-working and entrepreneurial Catalans shouldn't have to subsidise the feckless and lazy southern Spaniards. The left and the labour movement should have no truck with this kind of politics.
There are also serious democratic problems with the idea of a Catalan state emerging from this referendum. While a majority favours a referendum taking place, polls consistently indicate a majority favours remaining within Spain. Given the widespread boycotting of the vote by those against independence, and given the chaos and sabotage of voting by the Spanish police, it is entirely possible that the referendum vote, would have been and now certainly will be unrepresentative of what most of Catalonia's population actually wants.
As socialists, we are for democratic freedoms and working-class unity that crosses borders and national divides. For this reason we oppose Catalan separatism. For the same reason, we oppose the brutal actions of the Spanish state, which can only poison and divide workers against one another and squash democratic rights.