Media are often fond of the narrative of “faults on both sides” in political controversies. It makes them sound wise and impartial, while avoiding the need to make difficult and possibly unpopular judgements about right and wrong.

And of course there’s always some element of truth to it: everyone makes mistakes, and no political movement is composed entirely of saints.

Nonetheless, it’s a narrative that should generally be resisted. Questions of right and wrong, even if they can only be uncertainly answered, are often a key part of the story. When the interests of truth and justice support one side’s case rather than the other’s, readers deserve to be told that. If it confounds some of their preconceptions, well, so much the better.

But when it comes to Catalonia, “faults on both sides” is just irresistible. This really is a case where both sides have served their respective interests incredibly badly. There is so much blame to go around that deciding which side is more deserving of it seems hardly worth the effort.

Let’s start with the Catalan nationalists. In 2014 they held an “unofficial” referendum, which produced a “yes” vote to independence of around 80% on a turnout of something like 40%. Since most opponents of independence had evidently ignored the vote, that didn’t tell us a great deal about what the majority wanted.

A better opportunity for that was an early regional election, held the following year. The pro-independence forces received 48% of the vote, but won a narrow majority of the seats, and duly formed a government committed to a second referendum.

That referendum was held on Sunday, amid scenes of violence and chaos as police and security forces loyal to the central Spanish government tried to prevent voting. It’s reported that more than 800 people were injured across the region, although most injuries are said to be minor.

The first thing to be said here is that 48% of the vote does not convey a mandate to unilaterally pursue independence. As I said at the time, “If the Catalans were solidly behind independence, there was nothing stopping them from showing that by giving Mas’s ticket a big majority. They chose not to.”

Lacking overwhelming popular support (all the signs are that pro-independence sentiment declined in the following two years), the nationalists should have gone back to the drawing board and pursued a course of negotiation and peaceful persuasion. Instead they went ahead with a referendum that met entirely predictable resistance.

Once it was clear that the second referendum could not be held peacefully, its value as a gauge of public opinion disappeared. Obviously, very few opponents of independence would brave Sunday’s mayhem to show up and vote “no”. And sure enough, very few did; according to the Catalan government, only 7.8% of voters said “no”, plus another 2.9% who voted informal.

Turnout, at a claimed 42.3%, was quite impressive in the circumstances. But it was still very much a minority of Catalans who voted for independence – and we are none the wiser about how representative they are of the general population.

The only real value of the vote was as a provocation: by tempting Madrid into using force, the nationalists were trying to demonstrate the hollowness of Catalan autonomy and boost support for independence, both locally and internationally. And the government of prime minister Mariano Rajoy played right into their hands.

To quote myself again – this time from 2014, but the moral is the same:

Without comprehensively trashing Catalan autonomy, it’s hard to see how [Rajoy] can prevent some sort of vote being held. And by trying, he is just reinforcing the thing that most drives Catalans (or anyone else in the same boat) to support independence: the sense that they are being disrespected, that their voices are not listened to.

But the Madrid government has not just been tactically stupid; it has also shown hostility to fundamental democratic values. It may be true (indeed I think it is) that the majority of Catalans are not persuaded of the case for independence. But it is still vital to recognise that it must ultimately be their choice, no-one else’s.

It’s one thing to condemn this particular referendum as stupid and counter-productive, and quite another thing to say that no referendum can ever be legitimately held in Catalonia. The latter position is a typical product of the traditional centralism of the Spanish right that has done so much damage in the last century and more. For all the talk of this being a Spanish “internal affair”, foreign observers should never be seen to endorse this denial of the right of self-determination.

Although Catalonia has historic grievances, its independence is not a no-brainer in the fashion of South Sudan or even Kurdistan. Catalans and (other) Spaniards come from the same ethnic stock, speak closely related languages, and most of the time get along quite amicably. If their governments were to negotiate in good faith, it is very likely that a compromise that they could both live with could be reached.

But good faith is precisely what is currently missing on both sides. The Catalan government is ignoring the rule of law and treating its voters as pawns; the Madrid government is repudiating democratic principles in the service of both domestic political advantage and a blinkered centralist ideology.

Faults on both sides, indeed.

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