Reflections on Catalonia


‘It is difficult to be certain about anything except what you have seen with your own eyes, and consciously or unconsciously everyone writes as a partisan’ George Orwell, ‘Homage to Catalonia’

On the morning of 9 November I found myself in Vila de Gracia in downtown Barcelona. It isn’t on any tourist route. It’s quite a plain building, and yet I was there early. So were a great many others. A queue had formed which wound its way from the door of the school in a great arc round the courtyard. At 9.00am the doors opened and voting in the Catalonian ‘Public Participatory Process’ began. The crowd burst into spontaneous applause. I was moved. It was hard not to be when a crowd several hundred strong applaud their right to vote. At other polling stations, the crowds sang the Catalan anthem.

The Parliamentary Delegation

So how did I end up in Catalonia leading a delegation of parliamentarians to observe what can only be described as an independence vote? After all I had just spent the last few months fighting furiously to keep the United Kingdom united. I must confess that I was slightly surprised to be asked. The week before in Brussels I had hosted an event that explored how a post-referendum Scotland and other like regions and nations could best engage with the EU. I was joined by a number of MEPs with a range of experiences of different constitutional models. That may have been a factor. Perhaps the answer lies in the make-up of the delegation itself; we hailed from lands with experience of separatist debates: the Basque Country, Flanders, Wales, Slovenia. MPs from France, Sweden and Germany completed the group but even here the individuals brought experience of federalism, cultural diversity and devolution. I suspect I was asked to lead the group because I was the only unionist. Our collective role was relatively simple, to visit polling stations, to observe the ballot and to determine whether there were problems with the conduct of the poll. There were only eight of us, so our ability to be everywhere was limited. We split into three groups and covered the country. My team visited twelve polling stations in the city of Barcelona and its environs. The other teams spread out into the countryside, stretching as far as Girona in the north and Tarragona in the south. Our programme was flexible. We went where we wanted. When an incident occurred at one polling station - an anti-vote group attacked a ballot box - a team was immediately di-verted to investigate. However there were 1200 polling stations (including 17 stations abroad, stretching from China to the US) and there were eight of us. Our findings are therefore a sample. Of course, all election observers, in all elections, can provide only a sample. Since leaving Catalonia, we have continued to pursue any allegations of voting impropriety.

What did we witness?

To cut to the chase, we witnessed a well conducted poll conducted in extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

A little bit of history first

Spain is a young democracy. General Franco, the last of the fascist dictators, only shuffled off this mortal coil in 1975. With his death Spain began its journey to democracy. Step one was a constitution, which after much discussion - the framing of a constitution being a delicate thing - was agreed in 1978 and affirmed by referendum that year. The Spanish Constitution is based on the

‘indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards’

 The constitution recognises that Spain is not homogenous, so the rights of 17 Autonomous Communities and two autono-mous cities are affirmed, each with varying degrees of autonomy ranging from the quasi-confederal status of tax management in Navarre and the Basque Country to a centralised army. It is this variation that is at the heart of the Catalonian question. In 2006 Catalonia sought greater autonomy and greater recognition of her historical rights, from the Spanish Government .Barcelona and Madrid entered a dialogue and an agreement was reached on further devolution. So far, so good. However a new Spanish Government took office in 2011. Enter, stage right, the Spanish Constitutional Court. In 2010 the supreme court of Spain found the agreement ‘unconstitutional’. Thereafter the Spanish Constitutional Court, upon request by the Spanish Government, has found a number of things unconstitutional, including: the Catalan Government’s attempts to hold a referendum (March 2014), the Catalan Government’s attempts to hold a consultation (September 2014), and the methodology of the Catalan Government’s at-tempts to hold a ‘popular participatory process’ (October 2014). During this entire period, the Spanish Government has refused to enter into serious dialogue with the Catalan Government.

‘Extraordinarily difficult circumstances’

That brings us to the question of what I was doing in Catalonia. Simply put I was asked to determine whether the ballot was being conducted according to acceptable electoral standards. So let us examine some of the difficulties faced:

No electoral roll. Following a ruling by the Constitutional Court the use of the existing electoral roll was forbidden. Pause and think for a moment the difficulties that such an interdiction introduces to a ballot. Who is entitled to vote? How do you avoid multiple voting or other methods of electoral fraud? How big is the electorate, particularly since the franchise was extended to include those aged 16 to 18?

No government or local officials were permitted to administer the ballot. Think of the diffi-culties introduced to the process by the absence of all electoral officials. Who organises polling stations and their staff? The ballot paper? The ballot boxes? Who explains the voting system to the public (particularly important given the challenges)? Who oversees the count? Who investigates allegations of fraud?

No official ballot boxes were made available. Where do you get ballot boxes? Is there a ballot box factory? A ballot box shop?

No government buildings were allowed to be used as poling stations. In most countries polling stations are located in public buildings: town halls, recreation & sports centers, schools, libraries. Not in Catalonia. The Spanish Government wrote to each school prin-cipal in Catalonia warning them that if their school was used as a polling station then they would be breaking the law. As a result of this interdiction there were far fewer polling stations than in any ballot previously held in Catalonia.

So how was it possible to conduct a poll at all?

Good question. Each of these challenges required a solution. Each solution was an im-pressive feat of ingenuity, of individual commitment, of common sense, of necessity. Voter registration, for that is what was required, was conducted according to the American model. You presented yourself with your ID card to the nearest polling station. Your ID number was entered into a computer which allowed it to be verified against local records. Your details were then recorded manually in a list. Only then could you vote. Not ideal, but sound nonetheless. Every polling station was manned by volunteers, some 41,000 across Catalonia. As an observer I would argue that this was a weakness in the process (my delegation noted this in our official report). However, it was an impressive commitment necessitated by circum-stance. The solution to the ballot box question was elegant. The people of Catalonia made their own. I had never seen a ballot box with a window in it. You could watch you vote gently settle into the bundle in the box. The reduced number of polling stations was a problem. It meant folks were not always sure where they should go. It also meant that some polling stations had helluva long lines. In the end however there were almost certainly enough polling stations for those who wanted to cast their vote. In my opinion the poll was as good as it could be given the circumstances.

So what does it mean for Catalan independence?

In the end, some 2,305,290 Catalans at home and 13,573 abroad voted for what can only be described as independence - 80.7% of those who took part in the poll. This is a clear statement from those who chose to take part in the referendum. The phrase ‘chose to take part’ is the challenge. The turnout was 41.6%. That means that nearly 60% of Catalans chose not to participate in the participatory process. It would be wrong to interpret this group as wholly supportive of the status quo. Indeed it would be wrong to offer any serious interpretation of this group sans evidence. The Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, declared the participatory process: ‘…no ref-erendum. Two out of three Catalans refused to take part in a simulacrum of democracy. It was not a democratic vote, it was political propaganda’. Indeed, he made it so. His erection of obstacles made opaque something that should have been clear: the view, the wisdom, of the people. Vox populi, vox dei. As someone who has recently taken part in the Scottish referendum, where the turnout was 85%, I can state that the most important part of the process was the confrontation of arguments of both sides. Missing from the Catalan campaign were the arguments of the other side, the unionist cause, or indeed the federalist position. They should have been there. Perhaps they would have polled 60%. Perhaps not. From the debate, with each claim and counter-claim tested, a consensus might have emerged about the direction in which Catalonia should be headed. Perhaps the turnout would have been 85%. The question now is where next for Catalonia? In a rational world, a campaign would be staged, with both sides represented, where the arguments are put before the people. A referen-dum would result in which no obstacles or barriers were put in the way of the ballot. All could vote, easily, according to their conscience. Sadly, this approach seems but a dream. 

What about the EU?

As for the EU, I can see little here in Brussels from which Catalans can take comfort. The EU is a union of member states. Catalan membership, just like Scottish membership, would depend upon the goodwill and endorsement of all existing member states, including Spain. Given Spain's current approach, this is by no means a given.

Where next?

The solution to the Catalan conundrum will rest with the people of the Iberian Peninsula. It is time to move forward from a turbulent period of confrontation to a calm period of negotiation. A piece of advice I was given many moons ago, 'the most important trip you may take in life is meeting people half way'. The Catalan Government seems ready to make that journey. Is the Spanish Government willing to move from its fixed spot?


Details of the parliamentary delegation can be accessed here:

The final report of the delegation can be found here: