The SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has landed in Dublin seeking political asylum, along with her deputy, John Swinney, and the party’s constitutional affairs minister, Mike Russell. Their hasty departure follows the conviction of 13 Scottish “separatists” who helped organise the illegal 2022 independence referendum.
Prominent nationalist politicians including the Scottish Justice Secretary, Humza Yousaf, the leader of the Scottish Greens, Patrick Harvie and the co-convenor of the Independence Convention, Lesley Riddoch, have been sentenced to between nine and13 years for sedition and disobedience.
The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, says he regrets the severity of the sentences but that the law must be obeyed. The UK Supreme Court had earlier ruled that secession was illegal, and that by supporting it, the Scottish Government, which has been disbanded, had committed a crime equivalent to a declaration of war against the UK
The European Union has refused to comment on the imprisonment of the Scottish nationalists. A Brussels official said it was “an internal matter for the United Kingdom”…
Incredible? Fantasy? Of course. We don’t behave like that in Britain – at least we hope not. But that’s exactly what has happened in Spain. For the first time since the death of the fascist dictator General Franco, elected politicians have been seized, tried and imprisoned, with draconian sentences, for the crime of democracy. For organising a peaceful referendum in 2017.
The democratically-elected Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont, is in Belgium fighting attempts by the Madrid state to extradite him. Nine Catalan politicians and independence activists have been sentenced in Madrid to between nine and 13 years for the archaic crimes of sedition and disobedience. The government of Catalonia, elected in a free and fair election, has been suppressed.
The Catalan independence movement, like its counterpart in Scotland has been entirely peaceful and democratic. Yet it has been subjected to some of the worst police brutality seen in Europe for decades. Approaching 1,000 demonstrators were injured during the suppression of voting in 2017. Hundreds more independistas were injured last week.
The European Union appears to have washed its hands of Catalonia. Brussels regards it as an internal matter. The outspoken Guy Verhofstadt, who has not been slow to comment on the “internal affairs” of authoritarian countries from Hungary to Hong Kong, has been silent on the most egregious violation of basic civil rights seen in Europe since the creation of the EU.
The EU is supposed to uphold the European Convention on Human Rights. Its own Charter of Fundamental Rights includes, under Article 12, on political freedom: “the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association at all levels, in particular in political, trade union and civic matters”.
The imprisonment of elected politicians, who have never incited violence, is an offence against every citizen of the EU. These sentences should be overturned in the European Court of Justice in Strasbourg, and hopefully, they will be.
But today there needs to be more than head-shaking by leaders of other EU countries. Politicians who routinely condemn Vladimir Putin seem unable to see the hypocrisy in failing to condemn Madrid. Liberal newspapers like the Guardian show their ambivalence by reporting the fate of Catalan political prisoners as “a warning to Scottish nationalists”.
Seriously? A warning of what, precisely? They are surely not suggesting that an unlawful Scottish referendum could result in anything remotely similar.
What should be deeply worrying to the UK Left is that the imprisonment of the Catalan independistas has been condoned by the Socialist Prime Minister of Spain, Pedro Sanchez. The reason: he can’t interfere with the law of the land. One hopes that the silence from Mr Corbyn does not indicate any solidarity with Mr Sanchez’s rigid adherence to undemocratic laws.
Indeed, Spain is a lesson for radical politicians in the UK not to place too much faith in the efficacy of Supreme Courts. Those at the SNP conference who’ve been talking about pursuing independence through the courts should take note. The law is politics by other means, and Supreme Courts are supremely political institutions.
The fact that Lady Hale gave Boris Johnson short shrift over proroguing parliament doesn’t mean that the Supreme Court is going to be kind to Scottish nationalism. In 2017, the UK Supreme Court dismissed out of hand the Sewel Convention – the right of Holyrood to withhold consent to any laws passed by Westminster that cut across the powers of the Scottish parliament. When the chips are down, the UK Supreme Court will always see the integrity of the United Kingdom as its first priority.
The same goes for Brussels. Ms Sturgeon has condemned the behaviour of the Spanish government, but she should also be making clear her discontent with the EU. Brussels is deeply ambivalent about state repression, whether in France against the Gilet Jaunes, or against the Catalans in Spain. Even when the UK is out of the EU, it is naïve to expect that Brussels will necessarily support Scotland if it comes to a constitutional breakdown with Westminster.
These are dark times. All the more so because of the double standards of liberal opinion in the UK. We continually hear warnings about impending fascism in Britain. Columnists warn about the threat to democracy from Tommy Robinson, from Boris Johnson, from Brexiters. But here is real fascist repression taking place right now in one of the largest countries in the European Union.
It’s time for European governments to condemn this wilful regression to authoritarianism. The Spanish state should be diplomatically shunned by the British Government until it releases these political prisoners, just as countries like Russia are shunned. Madrid must be made to realise that this kind of repression cannot succeed.
By reviving the spirit of Franco in 21st century Europe, Spain has squandered any sympathy for its centralist cause. It is legitimate to argue against Catalan independence; it is legitimate to fight elections opposing it. But by breaking heads, dismissing elected governments and then imprisoning peaceful politicians, Madrid has acted in defiance of international law. And it has made the case for Catalan independence unanswerable.
A version of this article first appeared in the @heraldscotland.