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If the degree of autonomy already enjoyed by Catalans make nonsense of the claim that they are oppressed by a fascist government in Madrid, there are unfortunate echoes of the pre-Civil War years. The utter failure of the two sides to engage, the ingrained habit of treating compromise as a sign of moral weakness, the rise of anarchist groups, the circulation of bizarre conspiracy theories, the attribution of the worst possible motives to opponents and the refusal to seek common ground recall the relations between the nationalists and republicans in the run-up to that terrible conflict. For this the separatists must take the greatest share of the responsibility: sensing that their support was slipping as a result of immigration from other parts of Spain, they set out on a step-by-step approach designed to confront the Madrid government with a demand they rightly surmised would not be accepted in the hope that this would bolster their flagging fortunes. The decision to press ahead with the referendum was not merely illegal, it failed to achieve its objective: only 38 per cent of those eligible to vote backed independence. This scarcely provides a basis for the separatists’ claim to have won  democratic approval for the subsequent declaration of independence. But Rajoy’s hardline stance and, in particular, the use of masked policemen to prevent the plebiscite, badly damaged Spain’s international reputation as well as his party’s standing, while making a resolution of the crisis infinitely more difficult.

Rajoy’s motives were not hard to discern: anti-Catalan rhetoric plays well in many parts of Spain and has long been part of the Partido Popular’s armoury. Rajoy presides over a fragile coalition government. The promise to teach the Catalan separatists a lesson produced support in the form of marches, not just in Madrid and other major cities, but also in Barcelona. Yet judging by the party’s dismal ratings hardly anyone believes that Rajoy handled the crisis well. Indeed, he is rightly criticised for not taking advantage of the simple but central truth that even while sharing many of their fellow Catalans’ gripes, half the population don’t want independence and no reputable survey of opinion has shown otherwise. There would therefore have been little risk in responding to the repeated and increasingly strident demand for a referendum by promising changes to the constitution that would permit a plebiscite, while stipulating that in his own view a leave vote would require the support of 60 per cent of voters and a 60 per cent turnout.

The Spanish legal system is notoriously slow-moving. As matters stand, it seems likely that almost all of the most prominent Catalan separatist politicians, including those who have run the region for the last decade, will be charged with crimes in trials that will take many months, possibly years, for the courts to deal with. If found guilty they face the prospect of years in jail. Rajoy quite evidently did not want to go down as the man who lost Catalonia, but he has pursued his goal in a way that has diminished his government’s authority and international standing, responding to the separatists’ recklessness and extremism with obduracy and clumsiness. Unless he can find a way of reducing the severity of the punishments likely to be meted out by the courts, at the same time showing a willingness to contemplate constitutional changes that recognise the province’s distinctive features — perhaps through support for a federal Spain — the future of Catalonia looks very likely to be characterised by violence and disintegration.

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