As expected, Spain’s reaction to the unsanctioned Catalan vote for independence has been to rush to exert central authority and seems to be moving to repudiate the independence vote by removing the seditious government and holding new elections. Catalonia’s leaders, having successfully persuaded much of their state to throw in with their ideas has, in doing so, undemocratically excluded the rest of Spain from a crucial national decision, and have endangered the autonomy the Catalan people have enjoyed up to this point. Such is the risks entwined with the pursuit of liberty. Bear in mind, no matter what your politics today, that politically Catalonia was already part of the Crown of Aragon when Ferdinand married Isabella of Castile in 1469, the act that essentially unified Spain.
Having said that what does history tell us about popular votes and countermeasures? Historically Spain’s reaction to almost every revolutionary movement has been based on the assumption that popular sentiment can be suppressed without compromise so long as authority can be established quickly and ruthlessly. There is a certain logic to such a plan, the problem is that as time has gone on it has grown less and less effective. In ancient times, and right into to the medieval period, a ruler could usually squash the life out of a rebellion by a show of brute force. Usually if you caught the ringleaders and made suitable examples out of them the problem went away. A notable exception would be the case of Edward I and Scotland where no amount of force or repression seemed to work. However once we pass the French Revolution the power of a collective idea becomes harder and harder to shatter with laws and weapons, and the harder you suppress something the deeper the seeds take root. Take for example the Texas Revolution.
Try to forget for a moment that Texas became a state of he United States of America. In 1835 it was a State Mexico, a rough and ready frontier polity inhabited by adventurous immigrants willing to work the land for subsidies promised by Mexico City. They bought into an idea promised in the liberal constitution of 1824, however when that was threatened and repudiated by Santa Anna, the Mexican Citizens of Tejas rebelled and declared themselves unilaterally independent of Mexico in 1836. Santa Anna believed in quashing such democratic but legally abrasive ideas with a harsh, sharp, merciless campaign of repression. What one might call a typically Spanish solution to the problem, which is saying something given Santa Anna was himself an anti Spanish revolutionary. It started well as he wiped out all of the new republic’s advance forces early in the war, but it all blew up in his face when he was captured at San Jacinto just months after striking his first blow at the Alamo, the echoes of which became a rallying cry to those still in arms.
This way of thinking was also rather how the British thought about the situation in America in 1775. Local leaders had successfully carried a vote, unconstitutional by British standards but perfectly in keeping with the spirit of enlightenment ideals of democracy. At first there had been a chance to compromise, but lawmakers in London weren’t interested. The law was the law, and those who broke it had to pay.
At first the job of law and order was handed over to colonial point men and to the crown’s commander in chief in North America, General Gage, a politically moderate and fairly decent administrator who was ordered to induce a “full and complete submission” with “mild and gentle persuasion” should the “madness of the people” make it necessary. Especially he was ordered to apprehend the “ringleaders and abettors” who had stirred up dissent. The army was convinced that “vigorous measures” were required to show the Rebels who was boss. Leading to the terrible battles of Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill.
The attempt at a swift and sure drawing of teeth, had the opposite effect, as Hugh Bicheno wrote in “Rebels and Redcoats”: “even those who target swiftly and repress ruthlessly are hard pressed to cut off the heads of the hydra fast enough once they begin to proliferate.”
The leaders of the movement, the heads of the hydra, had cast their die and risked the lives of the people they had persuaded to agree with them in their great cause. Liberty or Death, the objective being to convince the opposition and your followers that you are willing to live up to the mantra, thus making it highly likely you won’t have to. Once the line of righteous authority has been crossed by righteous indignation neither side can withdraw without exchanging blows. Those that land must achieve several things. The establishment usually intends on striking hard and hopefully grinding the movement into dust, the upstarts hope to either martyr themselves or win such gains that force larger sympathetic neighbours to aid them. In the former the British failed, and in the latter the Americans succeeded because it is much harder, as Bicheno observed above, to grind a hydra (that has already disseminated its ideas) into dust.
The American debacle showed quite dramatically how the British Government and Monarchy of the day, a product of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, had forgotten the lessons of how Charles I had sparked the Great Civil War that unseated him. In that instance armed conflict erupted after the King attempted to arrest 5 elected members of the House of Commons who had been agitating against his attempts to impose a national prayer book on the Scottish by force. The surest road to civil unrest is when central authority attempts to protect its sovereignty by force. Although lacking the element of a vote of questionable constitutional legality, Charles most certainly felt that any, even legal, resolutions that challenged the right of the King to rule was treason.
The culmination of the war of words ended in dramatic style when Charles entered the house with a troop of guards headed by a Sergeant at arms intending to arrest his enemies, who had been forwarned and were even then hurrying out of the Palace of Whitehall via a watergate.
“I must declare unto you here” said the King having “Made bold” with Speaker Lenthall’s chair, “that albeit no king that ever was in England shall be more careful of your privileges…” his words rang as hollow as the steps of his guards and all the more ominously as he continued “yet you must know that in cases of Treason, no person hath a privilege.” Having thus attempted to defend his actions as only an autocrat can, he observed lightly, casting his eye around the room “since I see all the birds have flown, I do not expect from you that you will send them unto me as soon as they return here.” Charles then promised he never meant to use force, and asked Lenthall where the missing members were to which the speaker famously took a knee and replied “your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.” The King had no option to withdraw with as much dignity as possible “The King…” John Rushworth recorded “went out of the House… which was in great Disorder, and many members cried out loud, so as he might hear them, Privilege! Privilege!”
Frightened by this hint of a tyranny many had long feared Parliament passed bills removing the armed forces of the City of London from the command of the Lord Mayor and placed it under a special committee. Charles having gone so far, perhaps realised his misstep and not wanting to bear the blame for plunging London into chaos elected to flee the Capitol in the face of what he thought amounted to a coup d’état.
The problem is that whenever the question of sovereignty ends up unilaterally decided, a separation has already taken place. One that is usually irrevocable, and is rarely resolved through force. Popular risings and challenges against the accepted system of government are usually met with varied levels of force, as can be seen from these examples. Declarations of self determination cause reactions that either target the means of sedition or the architects of it, the counter reaction to these moves usually prove fatal to the fabric of the nation in question, and have the power to change it, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. The scary thing is that usually you don’t know which for about 10-20 years afterwards.