ACCORDING to Biblical tradition, the ten commandments were engraved on a tablet of stone, later broken in two by Moses. Thus, they were permanent and could never be altered.

To read and listen to certain members of our illustrious commentariat, the constitution of Spain is equally sacrosanct. How dare the Catalan Government organise an independence referendum when it’s against the rules laid down in a 40-year old constitution.

Never mind the fact that the referendum had the support of 70 per cent of the people who live in Catalonia. Just get back in your box and do as you’re told.

Unfortunately, that’s also the attitude of the leaders of the European Union and the USA. The governments of the United Kingdom, France and Germany have all closed ranks behind the right-wing Rajoy Government. Sadly, so too has the main opposition party in Spain, the Socialist Party. All of them demand that Catalonia should bow down before the Spanish constitution.

Few people in power internationally are asking the obvious questions. Is the constitution fit for purpose in the 21st century? Does it uphold democracy? Does it protect the right of minorities? Or has it turned into an instrument of national oppression?

I am a fan of constitutions. They are the output of civilised humanity. They provide clarity by setting out the ground rules through which organisations and societies govern themselves. I would hope that a future independent Scotland will be founded on the basis of a clear, progressive constitution that safeguards the rights of minorities.

But constitutions are not tablets of stone. They need to be continually revised and updated to reflect the changing world we live in.

Earlier this year, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, which owns the Muirfield course, finally modernised its constitution by admitting women into membership for the first time. It did so not with any enthusiasm, but only after prolonged and intense external pressure, which included a ban on the club hosting the Open Golf championship.

Around the world 154 nations states have a codified constitution. The UK is not one of them (though that hasn’t inhibited the UK Government from staunchly supporting the Spanish constitution). Does anyone seriously believe that these 154 constitutions are permanent and inviolable?

Take the very first of these, in alphabetical order. Under the Afghanistan constitution, agreed a recently as 2004, apostasy from Islam is punishable by death. When a man called Abdullah Rahman was sentenced to execution in 2006, after converting from Islam to Christianity, there was international outrage. His sentence was commuted, but the constitution was never changed.

The Canadian constitution was interpreted by the Supreme Court in Canada in a way that reflected contemporary democratic reality – and ensured the people of Quebec had the right to decide their destiny.

The Cuban constitution bans private ownership of the media and stipulates that the socialist economic system is permanent and irrevocable. Will the USA, or the EU or the UK ever denounce any violation of the Cuban constitution with the same vigour that they condemn the Catalan authorities?

The constitution of the Irish Republic has been amended 35 times since it was adopted in 1937 – an average of one change every two years. The Spanish constitution, in contrast, has been amended just twice in 40 years. The first change, in 1992, was to allow European citizens resident in Spain the right to vote. The second, in 2011, placed a cap on budgetary deficits. Both changes were in response to external pressure from the European Union.

Don’t get me wrong – there is much to be commended in the Spanish constitution. The strength of the Spanish left at the time it was drawn up ensured that it included basic provisions, such as “the right of all Spaniards to enjoy adequate housing” and the requirement that “public authorities carry out a policy aimed at full employment and a more equitable distribution of regional and personal income.”

As it happens, when it comes to these clauses, the Madrid Government is in breach of its own constitution. There are tens of thousands homeless people in Spain today, many evicted by the banks following the economic crash.

The country has an unemployment rate of 17 per cent, rising to well over 40 per cent among young people under 25. And according to the Catholic charity Caritas, Spain is now the most unequal country in Europe. Some regions, such as Extremadura, are among the most impoverished in Europe – not because of the industrial success of Catalonia and the Basque Country but because of the failure of central government in Madrid to curb the country’s bank and property developers whose greed and recklessness between 1996 and 2007 caused a financial catastrophe.

Ironically it is precisely the failures of successive Spanish governments to uphold the social clauses in the country’s constitution that has galvanised the mood for an independent Catalonia that will turn its back on what the general secretary of the Spanish arm of Caritas describes as “a situation of neglect, injustice and the dispossession of people’s most basic rights”.

It is a bizarre contradiction that the Madrid Government ignore the progressive clauses of the Spanish constitution, yet declares war on those who seek to change the regressive and outdated clause 2, which insists on “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation.”

The world has moved on since 1978. During that time, 45 new nation-states have been admitted into the United Nations.

The Spanish state has also changed. In the late 1970s, Catalonia was still emerging from the darkness of Francoism when its autonomous parliament was dissolved, its language banned, and its culture marginalised.

No-one under 60 today was eligible to vote in the referendum that ratified the constitution of 1978. Since then, new generations have grown up, their culture and language now restored to vitality, their horizons wider than the French and Portuguese borders.

They have the right to self-determination, one of the central founding principles of the United Nations. And that means the right to form an independent state – no ifs, no buts, no maybes. There’s an easy way to get round the disputed “illegality” of the October 1st referendum – give the people of Catalonia an undisputed legal one.

The Catalan people may or may not vote for independence. That’s up to them. But at the very least, those on the progressive left in Europe should be supporting their right to take that decision themselves through a recognised and binding referendum.

And if Spain refuses to accommodate that by changing its constitution or finding another solution, then it deserves to be treated like a Neanderthal golf club that insists on banning women.