THE Spanish constitution marked its 40th birthday in 2018, a year after the Catalan independence referendum.

Four years on, we are seeing a return to dialogue between Madrid and Barcelona as governments emerge from the pressures of the pandemic. All of this framed by further developments with exiled Catalan politicians and Spain’s ensuing desire to prosecute Carles Puigdemont has re-invigorated the debate of Spain’s constitution and its guarantee of the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation”.

Madrid’s understanding of secession is of course important to the future of Scotland. Countless times we’ve been told that Scotland would never be allowed back into the EU, because a Yes vote from Spain would establish political precedent for Catalan independence. Despite this warning, the Spanish foreign minister Josep Borrell has already stated publicly that the government would not, by default, veto Scotland’s return to Europe – it would happily welcome an independent Scotland as long as independence was achieved legally.

The National: Carles PuigdemontCarles Puigdemont

His words were carefully chosen and informed by Spain’s criminalising of the 2017 Catalan independence referendum; the inference is that Scotland must either obtain Westminster’s permission or a legal mandate in the Supreme Court.

What has proven persistent to me as an outsider, is the need to understand why Spain’s constitution is so damaging to self-determination. Unlike Scotland, Catalonia is faced with a political straitjacket that, regardless of support for independence, barely allows such movements to be sustained. Recognising why this has manifested requires a look at its origins.

The end of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship is immediately responsible for the constitution that now stifles democracy in Spain. While many Spaniards describe the end of the regime as a democratic triumph (“Franco died in bed, but democracy was won in the streets”), the so-called transition was, in fact, just a reshuffling of power with many Francoists remaining in office.

Carlos Arias Navarro’s government of 1975 was marred by corruption, and the wider political atmosphere was certainly not alive with activism. The period known as el desencanto (the disillusionment) was a time of utter fatigue and dejection in the Spanish body politic. Consequently, the writing of the constitution wasn’t informed by a profound people’s movement – that’s why many now see the text as anachronistic and narrow.

The National:

The constitution must also be considered in the post-Franco context of el pacto del olvido (the pact of silence), arguably the most demonstrable failing of Spanish constitutionalism in the 1970s. The bilateral accord was designed to censor remembrance of the thousands of victims of the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship, borne by a paranoid establishment set on manufacturing political cohesion. Because this pact furthered censorship and pardoned Francoist criminals, it eliminated any sense of atonement for the brutality of the previous 40-odd years.

I remember being told by a Catalan man that the day Franco died (November 20, 1975) happened to also be the day of his father’s birthday. A quick trip back from the bakery – cake in hand – turned into a threatening encounter with the authorities who were wondering why such joviality was on display in the street only moments after the death of el caudillo was announced.

A central tenet of Franco’s fascism was the complete erasure of non-Castilian Spanish culture. The Catalan community suffered violent criminalisation of its language and patrimony but was pitted against the rest of Spain when Franco decided to centralise much of the industry there. Its people faced a painful reminder of this authoritarianism when Mariano Rajoy’s government launched cyber-attacks on polling stations and used physical force to block voters during the 2017 referendum. Subsequently, Article 155 of the constitution allowed Madrid to suspend the Catalan parliament, following criminalisation of the vote.

During my time living in Spain, I became aware of how Spanish politics could be provincial, and at times quite insular. Being a Scot, it was unsurprising how frequently I was asked about my stance on independence. What was surprising, however, was the willingness of locals to debate this topic quite open-mindedly and, yet, react antagonistically when I posed similar questions regarding Catalonia. If I asked a Spaniard in Extremadura, for example, about the Catalan right to self-determination, they often reacted antagonistically, armed with arguments that, from what I could see, were products of the failed “transition” to democracy, and Spanish constitutionalism.

Many felt disenfranchised from the wealth and power enjoyed by Catalonia, asking why the region would demand independence given its relative prosperity. Yes, it is true that Spain’s economy is becoming increasingly centralised to metropolises like Madrid and Barcelona, damaging rural areas and emptying out provincial towns of young talent. And, I think it’s important to recognise the regional consequences of Spain’s recession and the framework of semi-autonomy. But, if anything, this is evidence that Spain’s unity is not functioning healthily. Nevertheless, the perception of Catalonia as petulant and ungrateful harks of the cultural erasure that it suffered during Franco’s dictatorship.

Although Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez is in favour of constitutional reform, he only intends to protect the unity of Spain. He has described the document as democracy itself, the fabric of the plurinational state and the guiding principle of his government. His desire to revoke the inviolability of the Spanish king might see his administration as just the third to initiate the complex process of reform which requires an absolute majority in parliament, dissolving the courts and holding a referendum. The deep entrenchment of Spanish constitutionalism and its ties to Francoist oppression means transformations like a mechanism for independence leaves reform an elusive hypothetical.

By compounding the limitation of Catalonia’s autonomy when legislating referendums, the Spanish constitution renders independence essentially impossible: the only route to separation is via the institutions of Spanish democracy, the same ones that were established by a constitution that dictates the irrevocable unity of the country.