Jim O’Neill says the violent policing of the Catalonia referendum must be condemned, but both governments have failed their people.


All good policing is with the consent of the people. That is why British police do not ordinarily carry guns and the times when they respond with violence are so newsworthy. On his satirical programme The Russell Howard Hour, Russell pointed out the disparity between how we treat the police compared to the bravery they show in keeping us safe. Stand-up comedians s are not often known for their love for the police, but his comments clearly struck a chord with his audience.

I was struck by this watching the terrible scenes of police brutality in Catalonia. It reminded me of the behaviour of the police in Edinburgh towards peaceful protestors at Murrayfield in December 1969 who were opposing the Springbok tour to Britain. The police removed their numbers and then with batons and other instruments supported violent stewards attacking the protestors both inside and outside the ground.

I will never forget the charge of police in minibuses into the march going up the Mound and debouching to lay about us with their truncheons. Despite all the violence from the police, the protestors won in that the Springboks were not seen again in Britain until apartheid had ended.

Watching those violent scenes in Barcelona it was clear that policing by consent had broken down and that Senor Rajoy was determined to stop the Catalan referendum by any means, fair or foul. This is no way for a democratically elected government to behave and should immediately be condemned by all right-thinking people. I am saddened by the lack of any such response from our government, although I am not surprised. Why should a government who have sold £5bn of weapons to the Saudis to continue their genocide in Yemen be bothered by a few broken heads in Spain?

Mind you, I cannot exclude the nationalist Catalan government from some responsibility. This referendum was opposed by many in Catalonia, especially on the left. The Socialist Party voted against it in the Catalan Parliament. The Nationalists knew that the referendum was illegal without the agreement of the Cortes Generales.

This is where Alex Salmond triumphed in his seeking for a Scottish referendum. By using polls, official and party sponsored, speeches and negotiation, he convinced David Cameron to give legislative consent to a referendum in Scotland, which would resolve the matter “for a generation”. We all know what happened next. The Scottish people comprehensively rejected independence, and the length of a generation, at least in SNP circles, rapidly shortened.

If the Catalan Parliament had taken this route, with patience and possibly a change of central government, they could have won assent for a peaceful referendum. As it is we have a disputed result, with less than 50% taking part in the referendum, and even the European Commission declining to accept the result, while the Nationalists are claiming a mandate for independence.

I am not taking sides here. With Catalans also being in the ascendance in much of South East France and in the Balearic Islands, where some still only speak Catalan, Catalans cover a much wider area than just in Spain. It is reminiscent of the Kurds who cover areas of Syria, Iraq and Turkey, where equally violent measures are used by the Turkish police to keep them down. Catalans should also note that attempts to provoke a violent response from the Spanish Government did not help ETA gain independence for the Basque Country, nor the IRA gain independence for Northern Ireland.

But, going back to the initial discussion, if we are to condemn the violent behaviour of the US police, particularly towards black people, we must then condemn the Spanish Government for allowing such shocking tactics to be used again the Catalans. In the end it is those who instructed the use of such tactics who are at fault, and we should never condone, nor profess to understand, the use of such tactics. Violence is never the answer.