Mitch Benn: Burying the truth means burying your own credibility

PUBLISHED: 17:00 09 October 2017

A man draped in a Catalan flag walks through the streets of Barcelona during the referendum deemed illegal by Madrid. Photo: Ivan Batyrev/TASS/PA

A man draped in a Catalan flag walks through the streets of Barcelona during the referendum deemed illegal by Madrid. Photo: Ivan Batyrev/TASS/PA

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By attempting to quash the result before it was even known, Madrid has made the case for Catalan independence all but unanswerable.

As I believe I’ve mentioned a few times in columns past, I spent the academic year 1990 to 1991 living in Spain; I was working as an English language assistant in a high school in the city of Badajóz, down in the left hand corner of the country, just on the border with Portugal (indeed, we’d often cross the border as far as the Portuguese town of Elvas just to have dinner).

This is, you’ll notice, the diametrically opposite end of Spain from Catalonia (or Cataluña, as I’m used to spelling it, although the Catalans themselves spell it Catalunya – that ~ accent doesn’t occur in Catalán), whence came the alarming images of police brutality which so appalled everyone who saw them this last weekend.

During my year in Badajóz, I noticed that the atmosphere would thicken somewhat whenever Catalonia – and, in particular, Barcelona – came up in conversation, as it did quite frequently, given that this was during the build-up to the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.

I immediately recognised the shift in ambience; it was exactly the same chill which descends over the room in certain environs in Scotland when the subject of ‘the English’ comes up.

I was, after all, in the middle of my languages degree at Edinburgh University (this was the third of my four years) and had already learned how, living in Scotland as an English-accented (however ethnically Scottish) young man, there were certain tense conversations I was bound to have on a regular basis (and indeed, certain places you didn’t want to be heard speaking with that English accent).

At one point I enquired of a young local lady friend of mine, what exactly was the problem that everyone in this part of Spain seemed to have with the Catalans and specifically Barcelonans. “It’s just they think they’re better than the rest of us,’ she sighed, “they think they’re the only civilised part of Spain, that they’re the sophisticated metropolitan ones and we’re all peasants, that the whole of the rest of the country consists of dirt tracks and dusty little villages with donkey droppings everywhere and chickens running through the streets.”

“Oh ok,” I replied, “you mean they talk about you guys the way you talk about the Portuguese...?”

I’m not sure why I bring this up, apart from its anecdotal value... there is a tendency to assume that a separatist movement is, by definition, the plucky underdog attempting to shrug off the yoke of oppressive rule by a distant elite, but that’s not always the case. The Catalan independence movement is being cast – and likes to cast itself – in a similar light to the current Scottish independence movement, or indeed the (partially successful) Irish rebellion of 100 years ago. But it’s not quite comparable.

Catalonia is, historically, the most prosperous region of Spain, and its long-standing separatist tendencies (as reinforced by the cultural and linguistic differences from the rest of the country) have been bolstered of late by the economic turmoil engulfing Spain as a whole.

There’s a resentment at what some Catalans perceive as the millstone of Spanish monetary incompetence being slung permanently around the neck of Catalonia, and a suspicion that the region would do far better if it went off on its own and left the poorer regions to fend for themselves.

So it’s less similar to the Scots’ historic struggle to shake off the rule of London, and more like an imaginary scenario in which London decides that the Scots are a bunch of freeloaders sponging off the hard-working English, and kicks Scotland out of the union against its will.

Of course, Prime Minister Rajoy’s idiotic response to the Catalan local administration’s unilateral (and, in Madrid’s opinion, unconstitutional) ‘indyref’ has now ensured that the Catalan independence movement will forever be seen as a prime example of plucky underdogs resisting an oppressive regime.

It’s hard – almost inhuman – not to find oneself on the side of people you’re actually watching being clubbed into submission by armoured ‘policemen’ for the crime of trying to get to a polling station. Honestly, if you don’t recognise the vote, don’t recognise it. Ignore it, annul it, send it through the European courts, whatever... just don’t send in the Guardia Civil (chiefly remembered in Spain as Franco’s boot boys from the country’s relatively recent time as a fascist dictatorship) to beat the living crap out of unarmed civilians in front of the world’s media.

Of course, the point of this exercise was to prevent the vote from ever taking place. And the supreme irony is that had the vote taken place, it was by no means a given that the separatists would have won. But by panicking, by attempting to quash the result before it was even known, Madrid has made the case for Catalan independence all but unanswerable.

Similarly, in this country, our government has conducted a sector-by-sector analysis of the expected impact of Brexit on our economy and society in general.

It refuses to publish the results of that analysis, on the transparently spurious grounds that to do so would weaken the government’s negotiating position in Brussels. That excuse, in and of itself, hints at disaster; the fact the government is sitting on the report speaks volumes. And so we are left with nothing but our own foul imaginings, filling in the gaps in our knowledge with doomsday scenarios and nightmarish outcomes, because surely if there were anything good in the reports, they’d be waving them triumphantly rather than locking them away.

When you seek to bury the facts, you can’t be surprised if nobody believes you when you say that the facts are on your side.

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