RUBBER bullets, baton charges, paramilitaries smashing into peaceful protestors at primary schools, and Barcelona playing in front of an empty stadium. That’s what I’ll remember from last week. Somewhere in the middle of that,

90 per cent of those who could vote, or who desired to vote, cast their preference for Catalan independence. But that statistic is a side note. The 900 peaceful voters injured by police repression will be a far more enduring memory.

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon says 2 million Catalan votes for independence cannot be ignored

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Catalonia is a reminder of what state power looks like at its most fundamental level, the figurative boot stamping on a human face.

Even in times of social peace, the bullet and baton are simply lying dormant, awaiting any excuse to clobber the traitors. Sometimes we are surprised to find this in European democracies, but we shouldn’t be. Before Syriza, the Greek state, under strict orders from the Troika, meted out similarly brutal measures against protestors who wanted an end to austerity. Indeed, wherever protest movements arise, there are provocateurs and heavy-handed reactions from the violent arm of government.

States provide many necessary services, from hospitals and schools to libraries and welfare. But they are, ultimately, aggregates of violence. If government loses legitimacy and citizens disobey in numbers, coercion quickly follows: if prison doesn’t work, violence is the next tactic.

The Spanish state has adopted various strategies towards the Catalans. It has officially repressed their language and culture, forcing throngs of people into prisons or into exile. It has used the patronage system to install pliant or gullible officials.

And, since Franco, it has offered various degrees of autonomy, although always under the threat of withdrawal by conservative Spanish nationalists. This referendum emerged in that context. Predictably, the worst international reactions came from Donald Trump and the European Union. Trump called for unity, just as he did after Charlottesville.

As police fired rubber bullets at voters, the European Commission declared that the vote was “an internal matter for Spain” and “not legal” and that Catalonia, if independent, would not be admitted into the EU. As usual, Brussels saves its cheapest sentiments for the people who believe in European unity the most.

The Commission’s view that the vote is illegal and a matter for Spain may be technically true but misses the point entirely, in much the same way as did Margaret Thatcher’s description of the African National Congress as “terrorists”.

Like Scotland, Catalonia has a non-sovereign parliament. In 2013, Catalan MPs voted on their Declaration on the Sovereignty and Right to Decide of the People of Catalonia with 85 votes in favour, 41 against and two abstentions. This was designed to assert that Catalans, as a nation, had a right to decide their future, whether to remain in Spain or to become independent. The Spanish courts annulled it.

Last week’s vote was an act of civil disobedience by a people and a parliament left with no other avenues. Catalan leaders acted as if the vote would be binding, but knew that this, like previous votes, would be largely symbolic, a test of the limits of state power. Before the referendum, a majority was opposed to independence. Now the Spanish state’s overwrought and brutal reaction has undoubtedly made a breakaway much more likely.

The United Nations, as opposed to the European Commission, actually gives a hoot about human rights. Predictably, the UN was quicker to recognise the real implications. “Regardless of the lawfulness of the referendum, the Spanish authorities have a responsibility to respect those rights that are essential to democratic societies,” two UN officials said.

“The measures we are witnessing are worrying because they appear to violate fundamental individual rights, cutting off public information and the possibility of debate at a critical moment for Spain’s democracy.”

Sadly, a minority of leftists in Britain are still getting this debate wrong. Liberals tend to believe that, in any conflict involving violence, no matter how one-sided, condemning both sides always speaks for your intellect or your beautiful soul.

Some socialists, addled with hatred for “nationalism”, fail to notice Spanish nationalism, which has recently rotated from eerie to evil, from the wall of national flags at the Real Madrid game to the grappling and batoning of old women trying to cast a vote.

In Britain, we should have understood this by now. The nationalism of large, established states is often a hundred times worse than that ofbreakaway movements. Big-state nationalisms expect the most uncritical obedience and dole out the most high-handed imperial sentiments. Any questioning of their legitimacy, as we discover in Spain, invites a violent response.

Even Tom Harris, Blairite and self-declared “centrist dad”, shows a partial understanding. “If David Cameron had treated Scotland like Spain treats Catalonia, even I might have voted Yes,” he said.

And it’s true: Scotland was allowed to undertake its referendum peacefully, which is a pretty unique thing. Gaining the right to national independence mostly involves a significant number of bullets. However, the crucial question is, why? Does this reflect the uniquely peaceful and benevolent nature of the British state?

Not really. In truth, the SNP did not want the referendum in 2014 but felt duty bound to follow through on their manifesto promise to call it. They were convinced they’d get trounced. At best, they wanted a two-question vote that included devo max. Cameron’s agreement to hold the referendum was a trap to destroy the SNP.

As with the Brexit referendum, Cameron wanted to put an end to constitutional questions and burnish his authority to impose austerity, and ended up achieving neither.

Any future referendum will be held in a very different political landscape. Ultimate power may still rest with the UK Parliament, but for many people in this country the Scottish Parliament has far greater moral authority. Holyrood will only seek a referendum when such a vote would be in its best interests; Westminster will only allow it when it believes it would be to its own advantage. Britain’s government today is as confused as Spain’s, and the repressive state thrives in these situations. What’s happening in Catalonia is horrible, but don’t say it can’t happen here.