After a study discovered that 75% of people no longer trusted their government, the next Brexit is a ‘when’ not an ‘if’.
The vote by nearly half of Catalonians to secede from Spain may not replicate precisely the Brexit vote to leave the European Union, yet the sentiments driving both decisions – essentially to up stakes and leave – reflect the near impossibility of governing today’s democracies.
In a fast, instantly interconnected world, national governments are not only struggling to communicate with their electorate but are also becoming increasingly transparent in their failures to do so. And those winning over their voters are manufacturing problems that they promise to solve rather than addressing the real issues which they can’t; see: racism against white Americans; IS taking over the streets of London; the EU needs to return £350 million to help fund the NHS.
Many people no longer recognise their country as their own. In order to regain a sense of control over their cultural identity, they are trying to redefine what it means to belong. But in their efforts to become fully sovereign, Catalonia and Britain risk eroding the vibrancy, dynamism and success they gained as part of greater entities that have allowed them to leverage their innate national talents.
Instead of continuing along a path of relative prosperity (before its referendum, Britain was the fifth-largest economy in the world, and Catalonia is Spain’s economic powerhouse), Catalan separatists and Brexiteers have chosen to plunge into the unknown, with little idea of what a Brexit Britain or an independent Catalonia will look like.
Their shared vision is to wrestle back control from what they perceive as unresponsive and out-of-touch centralised systems of government, backed by a confidence in their past history as successful independent nations. And questions of what real control means today for any country’s porous borders – given the risks from terrorism, climate change and pandemics as well as from financial instability and protectionism – go unanswered. They now risk being hoisted on the petard of their idealised futures.
No matter. According to marketing firm Edelman’s worldwide survey of countries’ attitudes to government, 75% of citizens do not trust their politicians to do the right thing. Brexiteers have directed their mistrust towards what they see as the unelected, anonymous EU technocrats making decisions on their behalf. And many Catalonians resent the centralised Madrid government apportioning their hard-earned tax revenues to poorer parts of Spain that they consider lazy and unproductive.
The 2008 economic crash played significantly into the separatist sentiment in Catalonia – it was the largest tax contributor to Madrid’s coffers and yet it also experienced the highest budget cuts. But so did the lack of political will by Spain’s central government to engage productively with Barcelona’s deeper frustrations.
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Many Catalans are still angry about the Spanish constitutional court’s decision seven years ago to “reinterpret” parts of the 2006 Catalan statute of autonomy, which would have afforded the region greater independence. Instead, Barcelona’s current autonomy ebbs and flows from Madrid. And, although its contribution to the Spanish economy is twice the size of Scotland’s to the UK, it lacks the same fiscal autonomy as the Basque country, an equally productive but smaller region whose efforts to become independent included a bloody 30-year campaign of terrorism.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy might insist on Spain’s “indivisible” status according to its constitution, but today’s regions need greater say in controlling their financial resources and political futures.
Similarly, the near miss of Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum should have been a sobering moment to consider the devolution of greater powers to the rest of England. A regional assembly serving nine English regions could have helped assuage the resentments of many voters outside London who felt powerless as their social services came under strain from EU immigration in the last ten years. The only “city region”, since 2014, to benefit from greater autonomy over local spending and decisions, Manchester, had the strongest Remain vote in the North West.
So far, Brexit politicians have successfully perpetuated the myth that rejecting the EU will bring the country culturally closer, even if it is by enduring the economic hardship predicted ahead. But London’s built-in resilience will highlight once again the powerlessness of English regions, and this time without the help of EU subsidies.
As a result of too much-centralised government, two tolerant democratic societies which have long contributed to the principles and values of the liberal international order have been unable to embrace fully the empowerment of being a Catalan Spaniard or a British European.
The EU has not got the answer; it is not the right governing body from which Brexit voters need to wrestle back control. Nor can it resolve the Catalan yearning for greater independence. Pointing out the dangerous repercussions of irrational acts, declaring the Catalan independence vote illegal or challenging the legitimacy of the Brexit EU referendum and all its faulty caveats will not shut the door to the governance dilemma facing Spain and Britain.
Delegating significant financial and political autonomy to regions could help rebuild a greater sense of local identity, sufficiently empowered to swat away populist nonsense about being the innocent victims of a big and bad outside world.
So long as the potential and success or regions remain beholden to their capital elites, we are likely to see more political divergences in the future. The challenge for centralised governments today is to retain the faith of the people. Making them feel like they are part of the political process starts, like most of life’s learning, in their regional homes.