september 20 2017, 5:00pm, the times

Crackdown in Catalonia

Madrid must use argument not force to avoid a national break-up

Spain is stumbling into its worst constitutional crisis since the end of the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. The province of Catalonia’s headlong rush towards independence challenges the very roots of Spain’s existence as a unitary state. Yet the government of Mariano Rajoy, in trying to head off a Catalan breakaway, is pursuing strong-arm tactics that are likely to backfire when the province votes in a referendum in ten days’ time. He is fuelling a crisis rather than extinguishing it.

Catalonia, which once made up more than half of the territory of the Kingdom of Aragon, has long nurtured the dream of independence. Spain’s Second Republic in the 1930s extended to the region a measure of autonomy but that status was quickly extinguished by Franco. Under his long and oppressive rule, Catalans suffered. They were among the tens of thousands purged by the regime; Barcelona languished long after other parts of Spain had been rebuilt.

This sense of victimhood now stokes the referendum campaign. Although Catalonia once again has a degree of autonomy in Spain, control from Madrid chafes. The province has become one of Spain’s wealthiest regions but it is angry that it pays a disproportionately large amount into the national budget. It feels constrained and neglected. Mr Rajoy insists, correctly, that an independence vote flies in the face of the 1978 Spanish constitution which alludes to the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation” and the “common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards”. The constitution, which was drawn up with the participation of Catalan scholars, was supposed to address the wounds of the Spanish civil war and the decades of authoritarian misrule. To defy it now, in the view of rattled central authorities, will gnaw away at the standing of the Spanish state.

The case would be better made by Mr Rajoy if he appeared less of a bully. He insists the Catalan administration submit a weekly account of expenditure to prove that no money has been diverted to fund the referendum. Catalan politicians have been questioned on potential sedition charges. Spanish police officers were yesterday searching the offices of the Catalan presidency and the ministries of economics and foreign affairs. Police leave has been cancelled.

Catalan separatists pledge that if the referendum comes out in favour of breaking away, they will announce a unilateral declaration of independence two days later. Mr Rajoy’s actions so far suggest he would respond with a state of emergency, suspending Catalonia’s autonomy.