Robin McAlpine: It is power, not principle, which is creating the Catalan crisis

CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine explores the power game at the heart of the fight for Catalan independence

THE unfolding hostage situation in Spain took a nasty turn this week when a number of people who should know better took the side of the hostage-takers.

As seven million people were told that they and their land should be considered the indivisible possession of an entirely different 40 million people, it was made clear that they have legally defined freedoms. They are free to go to the bathroom, they're just not allowed to leave the building. Or vote.

(But, cheerily, the Spanish Government has divine approval through King Someone-Or-Other, anointed via his magical blood which itself is a direct gift from God. Would anyone like sugar with their Dark Ages?)

To understand all this we must look at the response of the EU and the UK.

To understand all this we must look at the response of the EU and the UK. The EU expressed 'concern'. This is not 'concern' as in 'this is a nasty situation and we should do something about it'. This is concern as in 'whatever...'.

The UK considered the events 'regrettable'. This is not 'regret' as in 'let's learn from this awful situation so that we don't repeat it'. This is 'regret' as in 'whatever...'.

The EU believes itself to be, above all, a moral, values-based institution. This means that when it says 'fuck you' it adds please and thank you. The UK believes itself to be a titan of wisdom and pragmatism. This means that when it says 'fuck you' it precedes it with 'I'm afraid it has to be a...'.

Both rattle on about human rights-based underpinnings, and claim to be working from the best set of rules available to humanity. And so they do – on one condition; that human rights don't interfere with the interests of sheer, unadulterated power.

When they do, there is always a loophole. Always. At least in the olden days kings and emperors had the honesty to admit that it was always about the ability to inflict violence and repression.

The EU expressed 'concern'. This is not 'concern' as in 'this is a nasty situation and we should do something about it'. This is concern as in 'whatever...'.

This whole affair seems to me to have very little to do with constitutional politics in Scotland. This is a purely democratic matter. Over and over I have heard people declare that the Catalans are the baddies because the law and the constitution are on the other side.

Except the law and the constitution were on the side of the British Empire in India. They were on the side of the Nazis and their concentration camps. They were on the side of white South Africans and their apartheid regime, the slave trade, the white segregationists in the US.

And do you know who was, in their day, on the wrong side of the law and the constitution? Black African slaves, Jews facing genocide, women who wanted to be able to vote, gay men who wished to live their lives openly, Rosa Parks, Gandhi, Mandela, Jesus.

I can't think of anything that has been said as direct criticism of the Catalans that wasn't said as a criticism of all of these other groups - selfish, divisive, uninterested in others, contemptuous of the rule of law.

"But these damned Catalonians are doing all this just because they want to wave a flag," cry the sophisticates, seeming entirely comfortable with setting themselves up as the sole arbiters of what it is OK to believe in, to hope for.

The UK considered the events 'regrettable'. This is not 'regret' as in 'let's learn from this awful situation so that we don't repeat it'. This is 'regret' as in 'whatever...'.

I mean, all those gay men causing all those problems in the 1970s and 1980s and for what? So they could kiss other men? Selfish, divisive, uninterested in others, contemptuous of the rule of law.

But the Catalans have brought a lot of this on themselves by being, well, unpleasant, right? A bit arrogant, perhaps? Hmmmm. Just for clarification, my revulsion at the Holocaust is not based on how pleasant the Jews were or weren't.

Europe is peppered with secessionist movements and I've got to know quite a few of them – Flanders, South Tyroll, Veneto, Sardinia, Basque, Catalan, Welsh. Sometimes, because I support Scottish independence, I'm asked to defend them all.

This always strikes me as very strange. Whether I like or don't like each of these movements seems of vanishingly small significance. I accept them, and I recognise their right to pursue what they believe through peaceful action.

And the Catalans have been impeccably peaceful, even in the face of brutality. Surely we aren't yet at the point where civil disobedience is considered 'asking for it' – yet the Spanish Government is talking about 'sedition' prosecutions. Are there to be no political tools left for those without power?

You simply can't understand the Catalan situation in terms of dry constitutional law, or in terms of morality or belief. You can only understand what is happening in terms of power.

The single biggest achievement of the post-war period was the emergence of the concept of universal human rights. We are blasé about this, but really for the first time in history we codified the idea that there was more to justice than a sword. Unless you are sitting in a governmental office or have a large and well-armed militia behind you, you should be eternally grateful.

Suddenly the concept of right and wrong became structured around you and your neighbours, and their neighbours. A tricky concept, no doubt – but absolutely, certainly worth the fighting for.

These rights are not perfect. They were ratified by nation states who stuck in some useful caveats. In the Catalan situation, all seven million people have the right to self determination – unless the nation state deems otherwise through its constitutional court.

But go and read them. Last year I spent an utterly captivating evening in Gladstone's library in north Wales at which, in the setting of hazy, early summer sun through stained glass, a series of inspiring figures stood in front of us and recited poetry or similar readings which for them invoked the concepts of democracy and human rights.

I think none was more moving than the woman who stood up and read for us extracts from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The sheer utopian wonder of this document hit me with a force that caught me entirely unprepared.

READ MORE – European Commission branded “utterly hypocritical” over response to police violence in Catalonia

And we should be grateful – very grateful indeed – that one generation at one moment had the nerve, vision and commitment to create this. I fear that in the 2017 version of humanity, Trump and all, there would be more chance of Count Dracula springing to life than a universal statement of human rights.

But given that only slightly over one in 10 people alive today live in a properly functioning democracy, and that even in these countries democracy becomes 'flexible' when in direct contact with other forms of power, a human rights-based interpretation doesn't adequately describe the world.

You simply can't understand the Catalan situation in terms of dry constitutional law, or in terms of morality or belief. You can only understand what is happening in terms of power.

A number of EU member states have secessionist movements. Each would weaken the territorial, financial and diplomatic power of the larger nation, just like the struggle for independence across Africa and Asia weakened the British Empire.

Worse still, what if the idea that ruling elites are always subject to the will of citizens took hold? What then? Just as Greece had to be sacrificed to financial autocracy, so Catalonia must be sacrificed to territorial autocracy.

When it comes to supporting democracy, we don't have an endless range of options. If it becomes 'the right to self-determination, except...', where next?

I've heard people equivocate about the Catalan situation based on antipathy to the Catalan cause. They strain, Trump-like, to say there is blame on both sides. But it sounds to me uncomfortably like them trying to feel better about seeing a grandmother smashed in the face with a police baton.

When it comes to supporting democracy, we don't have an endless range of options. If it becomes 'the right to self-determination, except...', where next?

It's borders or empires. It's rights or repression. It's standing with someone you don't like or allowing them to be hit with a stick. It's accepting divisiveness or imposing tyranny. It's democracy in all its messy reality, or one day it's a constitutional court telling you what you're allowed to believe.

Throughout history all of my heroes have fought against laws they believed to be wrong. I believe people have the right to self determination, and it isn't my business. I believe that the bits of history worth celebrating have almost all been the battle of people against power.

If the Scottish Tories were banned from existing by a constitutional court, I'd march side by side with them in protest. So why is it so hard to accept Catalonia's desire to be a nation?

Picture courtesy of Documenting Yes

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Thu, 10/05/2017 - 14:57

Delighted to see the whole of the Scottish separatist movement is squarely behind the Catalonia separatist movement. Because if you ever get your desired 2nd or 3rd or 4th bit of the cherry, there are around half a dozen areas in Scotland that will not agree to be dragged out of the Union against our will on the back of a big turnout in Glasgow.


Thu, 10/05/2017 - 18:15

Absolutely excellent Robin!
I’ve just returned from Barcelona and the loveliest, kindest, most courageous and well mannered people I’ve ever come across. Love and freedom to Catalonia with all of my republican heart!

Justin Kenrick

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 18:34

fantastic piece - thanks!

(and Maurice, that's fine if there are other places that want their autonomy from Scotland, each is welcome, and being welcome they're unlikely to need to pursue that option: autonomy is pursued for as long as it is refused)


Thu, 10/05/2017 - 18:54


Forget about Catalonia ! FORGET IT !!! Who the eff cares !!! 55% of the Scottish nation DON'T CARE

Just please write one of your wonderful articles AFTER THE SNP conference on the number of speakers who started their presentation with;

"Due to the strength of our economy.....fill in what you want.

Forget about the NHS, Education, Social Welfare etc etc etc

They are for NOTHING unless we have an economy to support our social policy agenda.

Forget about EVERYTHING.

Its the economy, stupid.

The SNP conference agenda is a disaster. I have not identified the word economy anywhere in the agenda. It is full of aspirational claptrap. Just like the last White Paper.

When will we ever learn.....PLEASE !!!

Ross Priory


Thu, 10/05/2017 - 19:02

"if there are other places that want their autonomy from Scotland, each is welcome"

LOL, right. Imagine your fantasy republic, shorn of:

*Edinburgh, Midlothian, East Lothian, Borders and Dumfries & Galloway
*Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Perth and Kinross & Stirling
*Orkney & Shetland
In the first installment of the once-in-a-generation referendum all of these were >55% "No". Most of them were over 60% "No".


Thu, 10/05/2017 - 19:09


Some of the time I agree with you. But tonight you are making an erse of yourself. Stick to the economic argument. That is what the people need to understand. I for my sins agree with certain aspects of your argument re the economy. But I want my economy to run my country for better or for worse. Not be run from another land but by ourselves.

Maybe you will join us one day. I think your economic input would be a great contribution to our new nation state


Thu, 10/05/2017 - 19:24

That huge swathes of Scotland are not going sit by whilst Glasgow drags them out of the Union against their will and into an economic catastrophe is part of what people need to understand.

Tony Perridge

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 20:05

There will never be a 100% vote for any given question, so there will always be some who are disappointed be any outcome. However, if Scotland was now an independent country, would the population vote to join with England to share their "broad shoulders" as a protection against the vagaries of the world? I very much doubt it.

Derek Henry

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 22:00

What we have do is issue our own currency by proxy until we get independence and copy what the Italians are doing.

Italy is experimenting with giving tax-cuts to its citizens in exchange for public services―such as pulling weeds and cutting grass. Wow. What an amazing idea! The government issues a tax credit, and uses it to pay a citizen in exchange for the citizen’s services to the government. The government could even make this arrangement more formal by printing the tax credits on pieces of paper called “LIRIES” (or something like that) and paying for the weed-whacking services with this “cash.” That way the citizen who’s earned the “LIRIES” has the option of using them as payment to another citizen (who’d also like a tax-cut) for, say, a bag of potatoes. So, the first citizen pulls some weeds, gets paid in “cash” and then uses the “cash” to buy her dinner. If you thought about it, you could possibly run an entire economy in this fashion. The only thing you’d have to worry about, of course, is that the government might run out of the tax-credits it needs to pay the citizens to do the work! If that happened, where could the government possibly get more tax-credits? Could it collect tax-credits as “taxes”? Could it borrow them from all the street-sweepers and weed-whackers who’ve earned them? (In which case it would have to pay “tax-credit interest”―which just seems to exacerbate the problem!) Hmmm. I’m going to have to think about that one. But in the meantime, doesn’t this mean that any Eurozone country has the option to stay IN the Eurozone while at the same time operating its own local economy using its own local “sovereign” currency?

Italy, is now experimenting with paying for public services with tax credits. Presumably, this is happening because Italy doesn’t possess enough Euros to pay its citizens to provide all the goods and services needed to maintain and run the public sector of its social economy. And Italy can’t “create” the additional Euros it needs because that prerogative is the exclusive right of the EU Central Bank which Italy, even as a sovereign member of the EU, has no control over. But, as the news article explains, Italy still needs to have the grass mowed and the weeds pulled in its public gardens. So it has decided (out of desperation, the article implies) to pay the gardeners with tax-credits. The gardeners are willing to do the work in exchange for the government’s tax-credits, because it means the Euros they earn (in other ways) can then be used to purchase goods and services rather than for paying their taxes. So, in practical terms, it is “just like” getting paid in Euros.

This, in fact, is way more interesting than it seems. In fact, it might even be mind-expanding! Here’s why:

Presumably, the tax-credit payments described take the form of notations on the gardeners’ tax account. An hour’s worth of weeding is noted as 15 Euros worth of extinguished taxes. If the gardener has a tax liability of, say, €3750, her taxes would be completely paid after providing 250 hours of weeding and pruning. After that, obviously, she’d have no more incentive to provide any services in exchange for the tax-credits. So the amount of services Italy can obtain in this fashion is directly limited by the amount of tax liabilities it can impose on its citizens.

It would be possible, however, to structure the tax-credit payments in another way which would have a very different outcome. Instead of making the payment as a credit notation on a citizen’s tax account, the Italian government could issue paper tax-credits and pay them to the citizens for their gardening services. To be specific, this would be a piece of “official” paper, signed with an important signature, on which was printed something like the following:

The Sovereign Italian Government promises the bearer of this paper ONE EURO of credit on taxes owed to the Sovereign Italian Government.

This amounts to exactly the same thing as making a direct credit on a citizens’ tax account, but we now have set in motion a curious set of subsequent economic actions: Now, after an hour of weeding, upon receiving her 15 paper tax-credits―for convenience, let’s call them “PTCs” and give them the symbol β―the gardener can choose to do the following. She can put the PTCs under her mattress for safekeeping until the day her taxes must be paid. Or she can use the β15 to purchase a lasagna dinner at her neighborhood trattoria. The owner of the trattoria is willing to accept the PTCs in exchange for the lasagna, garlic bread, and wine because he, too, has to pay taxes to the Italian government. So, for all practical purposes, receiving the PTCs is just the same as receiving Euros for him as well.

Now we have to ask an important question: Is the amount of services Italy can obtain by issuing and “spending” its paper tax-credits still directly limited by the amount of tax liabilities it can impose on its citizens? In other words, if every Italian citizen theoretically has received enough PTCs to pay their taxes with—either having received them directly from the government for providing public services, or having received them from other citizens in exchange for lasagna dinners—will the citizens’ willingness to exchange real goods and services in exchange for the PTCs come to a halt?

Crucially, the answer is No. This is because the act of “embodying” the tax-credits in exchangeable pieces of paper has given the PTCs a usefulness in addition to their usefulness as tax payments: This additional usefulness, of course, is the ability to use them to buy goods and services from other Italian citizens and businesses. Thus, the number of paper tax-credits in “circulation” could vastly exceed, at any given time, the total actual tax liabilities of the Italian citizenry. The PTCs would continue to be accepted for lasagna dinners, because the Trattoria owners know they can use the PTCs they receive to subsequently buy Italian shoes and motorcycles— in addition to using them to pay their taxes.

It will no doubt have dawned on most every reader that what we’ve just created is “money.” Specifically, we’ve created what is called “fiat money”—which happens to be the kind of money the world has been using now for the past half century (ever since the U.S. formally abandoned the gold-standard in 1971). Having thus conjured a rudimentary image of fiat-money to life we should quickly make some important (and perhaps startling) observations about it.

Observation 1: How does the PTC “currency” come into existence? The sovereign Italian government creates it. Paper tax-credits are not created by Italian banks, nor are they borrowed from China—or even the EU Central Bank. They are printed by the Italian government. Note: PTCs could also be created by the Italian government digitally—that is, with keystrokes that enter numbers in an electronic ledger of account. In either case, the point is ONLY the Italian government has the legal right to create them. Why? Because that is the prerogative of sovereignty and the definition of fiat money.

Observation 2: How many PTCs can the Italian government create and spend? Or, to rephrase the question more precisely, how many times can the Italian government promise to accept one of its paper tax-credits in exchange for a Euro’s worth of taxes owed? The answer is simple: as many times as it wants! It doesn’t matter if all the taxes have been paid in full—it can still issue and spend the promise over and over again. The citizens will continue to accept the promise in exchange for real goods and services for two reasons: first, they know other Italian citizens and businesses will accept the promise as payment for lasagna dinners and, second, they know for sure that taxes due will come around again—and soon.

Observation 3: If (as observation 2 suggests is possible) the Italian government just keeps issuing and spending its paper tax-credits (fiat money) to buy goods and services from its citizens, won’t the number of PTCs in circulation keep growing until, inevitably, the price of things in the Italian economy begins to skyrocket? A lasagna dinner that used to cost β15 suddenly costs β150! In other words: Inflation. The answer, of course, is Yes. So what can the Italian government do to keep a lid on the inflationary pressure created by its continued issuing and spending of PTCs? Two things:

The government can continue to collect taxes from the citizens (or, if necessary, even increase the taxes in collects). Taxes will remove PTCs from circulation, reducing the number of them available in the market-place to buy lasagna dinners and Italian shoes. Taxes, then, have a dual virtue in a fiat money system: they continuously reinforce the citizens’ desire to earn the government’s paper tax-credits—and they drain the paper tax-credits out of the market place, helping to keep prices stable.

2. The government can also create special savings accounts that citizens can put their excess PTCs in. The accounts would earn interest (paid by the government with new PTCs)—but the agreement would be that the citizen would leave their “old” PTCs in the account, untouched, for a period of time—say 10 years. This means a large number of PTCs which would otherwise be competing to pay for lasagna dinners would be replaced with a much smaller number of PTCs (the interest payments). The net result will be fewer PTCs buying goods and services in the market-place. If you want, you could call these special savings accounts “government bonds.”

Historical Note: When the U.S. was in the midst of mobilizing to fight WW2 it was issuing and spending historical quantities of U.S. paper tax-credits (fiat dollars) to pay U.S. citizens to build battleships and bombers—and to pay the recruits in its growing army and navy. Inflation was, indeed, starting to become a problem. So what did the government do? Two things: it increased taxes, and it issued War Bonds. It even imposed a requirement that workers take a percentage of their pay in War Bonds. By 1943, inflation was brought back under control.

Observation 3: What happens to the PTCs when they are presented to the Italian government as tax payments? The mind-money framework we learn from early childhood “tells us” that the taxes collected by a national government are what the government then uses to pay for public goods and services. Crucially, however, this IS NOT TRUE with a fiat-money system. Looking at the paper tax-credit system we’ve just described, it’s clear that (by logical necessity) the government FIRST issues and spends the paper tax-credit, then it accepts it back as a tax payment. At that point of taking it back, the tax-credit is of no further use to the government. It is simply cancelled: it becomes a particular citizen’s tax liability with a line drawn through it. If the government needs to spend another paper tax-credit, it simply issues a new one. (It is actually easier and more efficient to issue new tax-credits than to “recycle” old ones.)

Observation 4: Is it logical for a sovereign government to borrow the paper tax-credits it has issued? Please try, for a moment, to wrap your mind around this question! Here is something that ONLY the Italian government can create, and something it can create as many of as it needs, at any time it needs them. Why would it ever want, or need, to “borrow” them from the Italian citizens? It is, therefore, illogical to imagine the Italian government ever being “in debt” to its citizens! The Government Bonds we mentioned previously are not a “debt” the Italian government owes to anyone—they are savings accounts which hold the citizens’ excess PTCs for a specified period time. When the bonds “mature,” the PTCs are simply transferred back to the citizen. In a fiat money system, therefore, it is illogical (and irresponsible) to imagine or describe U.S. Government Bonds as being the government’s “debt”—or, more specifically, to talk about that “debt” as being “unsustainable,” or to suggest the government cannot pay its citizens to undertake and accomplish some important task because it will “increase the government’s debt.”

Having made these observations, it appears the Italian government has stumbled on an actual solution to the “austerity” it has been forced to impose on itself by the European Union. Except we must now confront the fact that the rules of the EU do now ALLOW Italy to issue and spend its own sovereign fiat currency! The only “money” Italy is allowed to use is the Euro—and the only way the Italian government can obtain Euros is either by collecting them as taxes from its citizens, or by borrowing them from the European Central Bank, which has the exclusive prerogative of issuing them. And these methods of obtaining Euros to spend are falling short of what Italy needs to pay its citizens to do. So…. Italy has decided to pay its citizens with tax-credits, and then (why not?) with paper tax-credits. And then, presumably, the EU says, “Whoa, hold on here! It looks like you are printing your own money, which is not allowed by our rules!”

We could then proceed to an International Court in which Italy claims it isn’t breaking the EU rules because it isn’t printing “money” but is simply issuing tax-credits. The EU would then have to argue that “tax-credits” are, in fact, what “money” is! In making that argument, it would be forced to explain everything we’ve just explained which would, in turn, reveal and establish not only the absurdity of the Eurozone monetary system, but also that the whole world (including the U.S.) is misunderstanding and mismanaging its money system—and unnecessarily making a vast majority of the world’s citizenry miserable in the process.

florian albert

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 22:04

A huge section of the Scottish left has decided to offer unconditional support to those in Calalunya determined to attempt to break away from Spain.
It appears likely that there will be a UDI following on from a referendum with a turnout of less than 43%.
Robin McAlpine is dismissive of the argument that the proposed action is unconstitutional. The problem is that millions of people in Spain and in Catalunya take the constitutional position seriously. The constitution was agreed in a democratic vote.

Comparing the Catalans today with 'Jews facing genocide' is hyperbole which undermines anything else that Robin McAlpine writes.

Derek Henry

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 22:07

Robin you should have been there 2 weeks ago you might of learned something.

The first world MMT conference. Even Simon Wren lewis has had to take a step back and think about it.

Prof Bill Mitchell was at the Labour conference last week your getting left behind.


Fri, 10/06/2017 - 07:56

I think a lot of people, including much of left-wing Catalonia (remember, this is supposed to be primarily a left-wing blog, not primarily a nationalistic blog), and the Catalonian socialists just took the separatist regional gov to court, regard the Catalonian independence movement as being based mostly on 1) Greed, and 2) Pride. That's two out of the seven deadly sins, including the biggest one (despite people's best efforts to pretend there is nothing wrong with it, that's pride).


Fri, 10/06/2017 - 10:00

I was appalled by the violence ob Sunday. 800+ in hospital for voting, no arrests for voting. That's the action of a police state, not government by consent, not respect for the rule of law.

Also, if the law doesn't reflect the will of those it governs, those governed should have the ability to change the law - that's what democracy means.

Where it's going to rats in Spain is the definition of "those governed" - who gets to vote on this issue - all of Spin, or just Catalonia? That's where outside mediation irs required. The EU needs to step in forcefully.

Sceptical Scot

Sat, 10/07/2017 - 08:24

'And do you know who was, in their day, on the wrong side of the law and the constitution? Black African slaves, Jews facing genocide, women who wanted to be able to vote, gay men who wished to live their lives openly, Rosa Parks, Gandhi, Mandela, Jesus.'

This is beyond crass. Catalonia is the wealthiest part of Spain......Spain has endured a vicious civil war followed by 40 years of fascist dictatorship, the constitutional structures were designed to prevent similar episodes in the future. Catalonia embraced the constitutional arrangements by 95% in a referendum. The list above are in no way comparable to this situation, it is fascists who gain minority control over the political apparatus, then ignore the law to pursue their own agenda.

I fully understand why supporters of Scottish independence show such support for their Catalan counterparts.....they are both MINORITY nationalist movements, who fall well short of persuading half of their fellow citizens to rally behind the flag.

The result of this referendum is of no value whatever, there was no independent scrutiny of the process, voters could vote anywhere as many times as they like, the entire charade had been declared illegal and the Spanish state has horrifically stamped every aspect of this separatist chicanery, the side who opposed this process did not campaign due to the Catalan court ruling this referendum ILLEGAL. are they to be ignored because the obey the law?

Two weak minority governments have royally f****d this up, and the economic fallout may yet focus minds on solutions to this impasse, but UDI would be a dangerous and irresponsible course of action.

Tony Perridge

Sun, 10/08/2017 - 17:48

Brilliant! How extraordinary to read such a commonsense summary.

gjm's picture


Sun, 10/08/2017 - 22:53

Interesting to note how enlivened the unionist troll payroll has become about Catalonia?

The Catalans have the right to vote and to chose the constitutional arrangements that best suit their needs.


Mon, 10/09/2017 - 14:16

"The Catalans have the right to vote and to chose the constitutional arrangements that best suit their needs."

In that case, Dumfries & Galloway, Borders, Orkney, Shetland, etc. also have the right to chose the constitutional arrangements that best suits their needs, rather than have Glasgow's choice imposed upon them. And those areas were all >60% "No". As was Edinburgh. Think about that the next time you are tempted to say that IndyRef2 can't come soon enough and independence is inevitable.


Wed, 10/18/2017 - 00:44

Article 1 of the new Catalan constitution should be that Spain can shove its constitution up its bahookie.

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