The Catalan vote: some more thoughts on the social license of politicians
The unofficial vote in Catalonia today, which will most likely give a resounding “Yes” to the independence movement, is not binding on the government in Madrid but will increase pressure for a formal referendum. This after the recent votes in Scotland (already discussed in my earlier commentary) and the much more contentious situation in Ukraine. I remember waking up in Atlanta, USA, on 19 September this year and feeling relieved that I did not have to choose between my Scottish and English half identities over breakfast, and even happier (and proud) that there had been no violence in what had been a passionate debate. The doorman at the hotel, half Eritrean and half Ethiopian, had not been so lucky.
What all these votes do have in common is they remind us how much politicians also need social licence – yes they win general elections but voters (or at least some voters) want more. Perhaps this is why we refer to elections as “general”, reminding each other that more specific votes are indeed needed to maintain social licence on key issues that cut across the ebbs and flows of mainstream politics.
The Catalans remember Franco, although very few of them are old enough to remember the Spanish Civil War itself. When I lived in Barcelona in 1987 there were still those that did, and my host family said they had packed their cases when elements in the Guardia Civil threatened to overturn the fledgling democracy in 1981 – in case they had to drive to the French border through the night. In many ways, Spain has still to deal with the legacy of its civil war and the historical repression of Catalan culture and language give energy to the independence movement to this day. Politicians in Madrid still lack social license when speaking out on such issues: the social contract was destroyed in the late 1930s and never fully rebuilt.
But what is happening in Catalonia cannot be explained in historical terms alone. As Gordon Brown wrote eloquently in September, these independence movements are more responses to globalization and growing inequalities within nations. What is interesting in Catalonia, and Northern Italy for that matter, is that it can be the richer regions that most want to leave. The same cannot be said for events in the UK or Ukraine (we once had friends in the US who though UK and Ukraine were the same place, but that is another story). There indeed is something about the shifting power relationships of our economically globalising world that fuels challenges to the nation state, the social contract and the social license of mainstream politicians.
The extremists we see across Europe, whether they be of anti-immigration, anti-European or the religious fundamentalist variety, all offer easy solutions to complex problems. Europe has seen this before and it was not pretty.
It is fitting that that this weekend also marked 25 years of the fall of the Berlin Wall and Chancellor Merkel is right to cite human rights as one of the greatest achievements of unification. This at a time when it has also become fashionable (and politically acceptable) in some quarters to trash the 1951 European Convention on Human Rights – and the legacy of not just Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Kant but also Winston Churchill.
One of the best things commissioned by the BBC for a while has been Neil MacGregor’s Germany: Memories of a Nation. It remains to be seen whether the social license of European politicians will continue to be built on the very honorable intellectual, liberal and inclusive traditions of this continent’s greatest thinkers (what might be seen as an enlightened ‘social contract’), or whether social license will once again become an issue of fear, prejudice, arrogance and hatred.