THE Socialist Workers’ Party, or Partido Socialista Obrero Espanol (PSOE), is Spain’s oldest extant political organisation, founded as far back as 1879.

Under its youthful new leader Pedro Sanchez, it has miraculously returned to power in Madrid, though only as a (very) minority government, following the downfall of the right-wing Popular Party (PP) administration of Mariano Rajoy. At the last Spanish general election (in 2016) the PSOE only managed a derisory 85 seats out of 350 and was being written off – very much like the Labour Party before Jeremy Corbyn. But now they are back and have soared into first place in the polls, ahead of the PP, the Blairite Ciudadanos, and the leftist, populist Podemos group. But don’t cheer too soon.

No progressive can be sorry that Rajoy’s neo-Francoist, super-nationalist PP have been booted out of office. Rajoy himself – a colourless bureaucrat who acted as the office manager for one of the most financially corrupt political parties ever seen in modern Europe – is now toast. He was brought down on a motion of no confidence at the start of June, after the former treasurer of the PP was sentenced to 33 years in prison for running what the judge called “a network of institutionalised corruption”. One reason behind the Catalan desire for independence is to escape the endemic corruption of the Spanish state.

Of course, everyone in Spain knew what the PP had been up to. The party’s control over the judiciary – many senior judges are PP members – meant it could keep a lid on the numerous corruption scandals, but the PP have also been clever enough to spread the corruption to other political parties, as a way of ensuring everyone is implicated. That includes the disgraced former Catalan president Jordi Pujol and even the PSOE itself. The fact PSOE leaders (including senior trades unionists) had fingers in the corruption pie was one of the major reasons the party lost popular support on the left to Podemos, led by the charismatic though increasingly dictatorial Pablo Iglesias. Rajoy was also clever enough to offer the Basque regional government, led by the conservative Basque National Party (PNV), major political concessions in order both to ensure their support in the Spanish parliament in Madrid, and to stop them combining with the Catalans to demand outright independence.

However, the Catalan struggle for independence has energised a new generation of young Basques to oppose the cosy relationship between the PNV and Madrid. Under pressure, the PNV dropped their tacit support for Rajoy and provided the votes in the Spanish parliament to bring down the PP government and put Pedro Sanchez into power.

But what is Sanchez’s background? He was born in Madrid, his father is a businessman and his mother is a lawyer. He has a string of economics degrees and worked with the UN in Bosnia during the Balkan Wars. Essentially, Sanchez is an apparatus man, calmly working his way up through the PSOE without rocking too many boats or giving ideological hostages to fortune.

He emerged as PSOE leader in 2014 – as a virtual unknown –because there was no-one else to do the job and he offered no threat to the party’s regional and trades union barons. Not surprisingly, Pedro went on to lose the 2015 and 2016 elections badly, despite his boyish good looks. The PSOE looked destined for the dustbin of history. At this point there were moves to dump Sanchez. However, to everyone’s surprise, he showed he had a backbone. He contested the PSOE’s internal primaries on a radical left-wing platform, calling for an end to austerity and a reform of the Spanish constitution to create a federal – as opposed to devolved – system of internal government.

As a result of this uncharacteristic swing to the left, Sanchez was re-elected PSOE leader by the rank and file – shades of Jeremy Corbyn. But the comparison with Corbyn ends there. Once back in the driving seat, Sanchez point-blank refused to collaborate with Podemos in a no confidence motion against Rajoy, lest the PSOE become beholden to Pablo Iglesias, his rival for the left-wing vote.

Instead, our Pedro supported Rajoy’s hardline opposition to Catalan independence, going so far as to back Rajoy’s imposition of direct rule and arrest of elected Catalan ministers. Lesson: opportunism rules for Pedro Sanchez. Only with the anti-corruption verdict against the PP last month did Sanchez feel the time was ripe to move against Rajoy and seize power, though in truth he had no choice as the tide of public opinion was swinging against the PP.

However, in his first decision as the new Spanish prime minister, Sanchez announced he would implement the existing PP austerity budget. True, he made some symbolic concessions to the Catalans and Basques, moving jailed Catalan ministers and Basque political prisoners to jails in their own nations. But the stark truth is that Pedro Sanchez is as much a believer in the inviolability of the Spanish state as Mariano Rajoy.

Before he calls another election (in 2020), Sanchez wants to create a centrist electoral bloc that can isolate Podemos and win votes from the middle-class Cuidadanos Party. To do that, Sanchez intends to play the Spanish nationalist card, the default of all Madrid politicians.

True, Sanchez has appointed a number of Catalans to key posts. Josep Borrell, the Catalan-born former president of the European Parliament, is the new Spanish foreign minister. But Catalan independence is resolutely opposed by that nation’s big bourgeoise, who have done well out of the neo-Francoist state since the dictator died in 1975. So it is no surprise that Borrell – a long-time, right-wing PSOE apparatchik – was one of the most ardent defenders of Spanish unity during last year’s referendum.

The contemporary Catalan and Basque independence movements are radical, anti-system developments. The PSOE of Sanchez and Borrell is a conservative project and the last-ditch effort of Spain’s ruling financial oligarchy to protect the status quo.

It came as no surprise that last week Sanchez took the new Catalan government of President Quim Torra to court over a recent fresh vote by the Barcelona parliament reaffirming Catalonia’s desire for independence. Just like the PP, the Spanish Socialists believe it is illegal for a democratically-elected chamber even to express an opinion on Catalan self-determination.

However, Sanchez has opened a political Pandora’s box by offering constitutional reform and federalism as an alternative to Catalan independence. For starters, there is little chance he can deliver, as altering the 1978 constitution requires a two-thirds majority in the Madrid parliament, plus a general election and a popular referendum. On the other hand, it becomes increasingly absurd for Sanchez to say the Catalans are debarred from discussing self-determination by a constitution he is proposing to alter anyway.

Which indicates the Spanish state will stumble from one crisis to another until it recognises that large numbers of Catalans and Basques are determined to go their own way and escape the confines of a constitutional settlement created in 1978 precisely to protect the corrupt interests of the old Franco elite.

In the end, democracy will win out – in Scotland as well as Catalonia.