Blog: Unsustainable Devolution

On Friday October 27th, the Catalan parliament in Barcelona issued a declaration of independence, proclaiming Catalonia to be a sovereign and independent republic, separate from Spain. Of course the validity and legality of this dramatic step is, as I write, deeply contested both within and beyond Catalonia, but support is stronger than ever, in part thanks to the violence meted out by the Spanish police on October 1st as they ruthlessly attempted to intimidate voters and undermine the legitimacy of the referendum. The situation remains complex, dangerous, and capable of degenerating into further violence.

Photo: eldiario.es/Robert Bonet CC-BY-3.0 es

We arrived at this situation as a result of fundamental failings in Spain’s political system. A system which, once liberated from the brutality of Franco, adopted a democratic constitution recognising the cultural diversity of Spain, and empowering its regions to seek substantial devolution from the central government in Madrid. It also recognised Spain’s various ‘nationalities’ as holding a strong historically continuous sense of identity. Devolution has placed in the hands of the Catalan people significant control over their own nation, its laws and its economy. This devolution has enabled the region to prosper, developing an advanced economy and the highest nominal GDP of any region in Spain (2014). Together with the Basque Country and a few others, Catalonia has the highest level of devolution from Madrid, although other regions are now not far behind. Yet despite the overwhelming success of devolution for Catalonia, it has failed to satisfy the wishes of a majority of the Catalan people who still seek further autonomy, and some to go as far as supporting outright independence. Why? Some see Franco’s contempt for regional distinctiveness as still alive today, but Spain’s modern constitution, as I pointed out above, is respectful of diversity and empowers Catalonia to largely govern its own affairs.

The Catalan people, like any people of any nation, have an innate desire for freedom and equality and the dignity that is afforded to them by having the own nationality recognised, not as subordinate to Spain’s nationality, but as its equal. Independence, thus, is often regarded as the only way to satisfy these desires. Except, it’s not. The Catalan crisis highlights the need for Spain to revisit its 1978 constitution, and reconsider its structure and organisation as a state. Spain’s constitution avoided the question of whether it should be a centralised unitary state, or a decentralised federation of states, by sidestepping the issue, establishing a central government, but providing for a process of devolution to take place. In 2017, this ambiguity is not necessary, devolution has reached the entirety of Spain’s territory, a total of 17 Autonomous Communities and 2 Autonomous Cities. The process is all but complete. Spain has gradually been shifting from a unitary state, to a federation. The constitution should be updated to reflect this reality, competing the transition and in so doing, it will deliver the full benefits of a federal system of government.

The current constitution, whilst affording recognition and rights to Spain’s regions, ultimately still places them in a position of inferiority, and cements the inequality of the Autonomous Communities because they don’t all have the same powers or status. There is inequality both amongst the regions, and between them and the central government in Madrid. Federalism offers the salida, the way out that can provide not just autonomy for the regions, but also dignity. In a federal Spain composed of 17 autonomous communities and 2 autonomous cities, all on an equal footing with one another and with the federal government, the identities of the people can be dignified through mutual respect, yet at the same time the ‘the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards’ can be guaranteed. A federal Spain would be substantially more sustainable.

Here in the United Kingdom, it is time that we too look to learn some lessons. Parallels are frequently drawn between Catalonia and Scotland. Of course, while there are certain important elements in common, there are also many more differences between the two. Their experiences are different, their histories are different, their modern political and constitutional context is different. But there is (at least) one parallel that can indeed be drawn, in fact not just between Scotland and Catalonia, but between all nations. That is the sense of national identity, belonging to a common cultural community and the desire for equality with other nations. Here too, as in Spain, it is federalism that can provide the constitutional glue to hold the broader union together whilst allowing for diversity and difference, dignity and identity, and providing a relationship founded on equality rather than subordination.

Federalism is often cast, both in Britain and in Spain, as an unachievable ideal which probably wouldn’t work in practice. But the flexibility of federalism as it is practised around the world, from Canada to Brazil, and from India to Germany, coupled with the strength of unity that it engenders amongst the nations and peoples brought together, contrasts dramatically with the inherent unsustainability of devolution as a system of power distribution in unitary countries where one or more regions have a strong and historically established sense of identity. Such strong identities are abundant around the United Kingdom, whether in Scotland, Northern Ireland, England, or Wales or indeed regions such as Shetland, Yorkshire or Cornwall. Federalism provides the balance between independence and interdependence that the modern world increasingly demands. A system of government where power is shared, rather than where it is delegated from on high, is by far the best way forward, be it for the UK or for Spain.

By Robert Jones
Leader of the Federalist Party

Disclaimer: This article expresses the personal views of its author, and may not necessarily reflect the official policies or views of the Federalist Party.

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