DEMOCRACY is dying in Spain. Perhaps it was never really there. Under the thin veneer of European-style respect for democratic rights and popular sovereignty, the heirs of Franco are attempting to crush once again the desire of the people of Catalonia to run their own affairs and speak their own unique tongue without dictation from Madrid. As in 1936, when army officers rose in rebellion against the elected Republican administration and the autonomous Generalitat government in Barcelona, Spain’s right-wing Popular Party government is using force to block the Catalan independence referendum scheduled for Sunday October 1.

On Friday, Spain’s deeply-conservative attorney general, José Manuel Maza, ordered security forces to intervene and prevent any preparations for organizing the referendum, which has the democratic mandate of the Catalan electorate following the 2015 regional election which produced a pro-independence majority. Maza issued the order to the heads of the Mossos d’Esquadra (the Catalan regional police), the notorious Guardia Civil (formed in the 19th century to crush landless peasants seizing aristocratic estates) and the Spanish National Police.

Guardia Civil officers immediately raided a printing firm, Indugraf Offset, in Tarragona, looking for ballot papers. The Constitutional Court has “banned” the referendum taking place despite the decision of the elected Catalan parliament. Maza has sent notification to all mayors in Catalonia ordering them not to allow town halls and schools to be used for voting on October 1. Already, more than 60 per cent of mayoralties have rejected this instruction and say they will support the will of the Catalan people to vote on their own future. Maza has also told all Catalan government members and some 60 civil servants, they must desist with the referendum or face ejection from office. In other words, the elected government of Catalonia faces immanent removal.

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In response there have been spontaneous demonstrations across Catalonia. Today, September 11, is Catalonia’s National Day. A huge pro-independence march is planned for Barcelona. Already, more than 360,000 people have registered to demonstrate. Some 1800 coaches will transport people from around Catalonia to the capital. In response to this outpouring of national determination, the head of Spain’s minority administration, Mariano Rajoy, proclaimed (without any sense of irony): “There won’t be a self-determination referendum. I will do whatever is needed to prevent it.”

It is important for everyone in Scotland to understand that post-Franco Spain is not a real democracy. The Franco elite created a semblance of democracy after the dictator’s death because they had to – in order to gain access to the European Union and because they lacked the physical resources to thwart the will of the mass of people in Spain to dismantle the old repressive apparatus. However, much of the country’s wealth and banking system remains in the hands of a narrow oligarchy centred on Rajoy’s Popular Party (PP), the direct political heirs of the old Falangists and Francoists.

In July, one of the key figures in this nest of corruption – Miguel Blesa – committed suicide rather than face jail. Blesa was head of the now defunct Caja Madrid savings bank, for decades one of Spain’s major banks until the global financial crash. He chaired Caja Madrid from 1996 to 2010. In 2011, to avoid collapse, the bank was merged with seven others, and then bailed out for $30 billion. Blesa was not a real banker but a minor tax lawyer put in charge of Caja Madrid as a political favour. A crony of former PP leader José María Aznar, Blesa returned the favour by illegally bankrolling the party and giving its senior members well-paid sinecures. Blesa also used the bank as a financial weapon against Catalan business interests, in order to weaken Catalan nationalism.

This web of corruption between bankers and politicians reached its zenith during the great financial bubble of the early 21st Century. Billions were borrowed and spent by giant Spanish construction companies to build a new generation of toll highways around Madrid. These were funded on cheap bank loans underwritten by the Spanish state (ie PP politicians in Madrid). At the same time, illegal cash donations flowed into the coffers of the dominant, right-wing Popular Party. With the Bank Crash of 2008, many of these vanity construction projects went bankrupt leaving the Spanish taxpayer (ie the Catalan taxpayer) to foot the bill. Fortunately, justice has begun to catch up with the PP politicians. In October 2016, Spain’s biggest corruption trial opened with 37 defendants under indictment, including three senior former representatives of the PP.

Since the days of Franco, Madrid has used the Catalan economy as a milch cow to fund the rest of Spain – much as London kept hold of Scotland in order to use North Sea oil earnings to fund its trade deficit. Spain’s need of Catalonia has actually intensified as a result of Madrid’s profligacy during the boom years before the bank crash. Catalonia now pay high taxes to Madrid, only to receive low infrastructure investment back in return.

Note: Catalans do not reject the principle of keeping fiscal solidarity with the poorer regions of Spain or, indeed, of the EU. Instead, they complain that – as a result of the way Catalonia is treated by the political establishment in Madrid – many of Spain’s other regions have more resources per capita to spend on essential services. Rather than the redistribution system giving every region in the Spanish state a common (average) spend per capita, the system reduces Catalonia to nearer 90 per cent of the average – while other regions get 110 or even 120 per cent. No wonder Madrid wants to stop Catalans voting to control their own finances.

Some in Scotland believe that if only we mute our voices then the right-wing Madrid clique will not block a future Scottish application to join the European Union. Anyone who thinks this is being naïve. The record of the Spanish right-wing since the death of Franco is hardly encouraging when it comes to respecting anyone’s democratic rights. For two decades after Franco, the Spanish state was still using illegal death squads to murder Basque nationalists. And to this day, the Spanish Constitutional Court discriminates against the Catalan language. For instance, only in July this year, the Constitutional Court struck down a provision in the Catalonia Consumer Code obliging private firms, if asked, to offer customer service in Catalan. And people are routinely being fined or harassed by the Spanish state police for answering questions in Catalan while the Spanish Tax Agency has withdrawn VAT declaration forms in the Catalan language.

The desire for independence in Catalonia and the Basque lands is in part a desire to quit the endemic economic and political corruption that still dogs the Spanish state. The rottenness at the heart of the Madrid set-up also explains the desperation of the Madrid elite to cling to power. This desperation is now subverting the rule of law by turning the Spanish constitutional court into a naked political club with which to bludgeon Catalan democracy to death. This must not be allowed to happen. It will be a shame if we in Scotland – and I include the Scottish Government in this – fail to speak out in defence of Catalan democracy.