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Politics in Neverland

Wednesday 15 November 2017

Catalonia has been prominent in the news recently – certainly in Europe, but probably also in various other parts of the world as well. All because the Catalan Parlament decided to pass a formal unilateral declaration of Independence. Regions of any country, anywhere, do not commonly abruptly declare themselves independent, do they? So the Catalan drama is of fairly fundamental importance to the stability of states and governments and peoples everywhere. But what has been going on?

I’ve no intention of going into details here – it’s a very long and very complicated story, with lots of twists and a cast of thousands (**see below) – but the drama illuminates a crucial aspect of politics in the 21C: the conflict between what is true, and what (enough) people believe is true. Now, that has probably always been true throughout history (“discuss”), but the immense speed and availability of modern communications converts what people believe, day by day, even minute by minute, into a hugely powerful force.

Think of this: in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, there is a famous moment which dramatises belief. You will recall that the eponymous (always wanted to use that word!) Peter lives in Neverland, a magical place where people can fly, and there are pirates, and fairies. At a crucial moment in the story, one of those fairies, Tinker Bell, has been poisoned and is dying. She tells Peter that she can be saved if children really do believe in fairies. Inspired, Peter turns to the audience and asks if they believe in fairies. Any decent audience of kids will of course clap and scream “Yes!” ... and so Tinker Bell is saved. This is a brilliant theatrical effect – the audience is not only drawn into the story on the stage, it ‘votes’ on whether fairies exist, and it even has a decisive impact on events, by saving Tinker Bell from death.

It seems to me that something of that has been happening in the theatre of Catalan politics. Against a mounting pile of evidence, many Catalans appear to have believed that if the Parlament once pronounced the magic word ‘Independence’, then the Catalan Republic would spring into being, perfectly formed and functioning – or at least capable of surviving.

Well, on 27 October, the word was finally formally pronounced – and reality stepped in and closed down the theatre. The Spanish government, the Congress, and the full constitutional and legal system clamped down and insisted that fairies really do not exist, and that you can’t just invent an alternative reality, no matter how many people you claim have voted in favour.

And why did so many people believe so passionately in Neverland? Partly because the political theatre created a vision of a clean start, of a nou pais, a new country in which all the flaws and the frustrations of the old one could be cleaned away for and by decent (Catalan) people like us ... and partly because the political actors sold that vision through a skilful mass of selective facts, half truths and downright lies.

Which is all very sad ... or is it? What has happened is that everyone in Catalonia has had a bracing cold shower of reality. The independentistas delivered, honestly enough, exactly what they promised – a (debateable) referendum and a declaration of the Catalan Republic. And it has all vanished like smoke, leaving behind hard certainties such as No, Catalonia would not be instantly received into the European Union; and Yes, there would be serious economic consequences; and No, the Spanish government would not just give in and go away; ... and much more.

In recent days, there have been a string of independentista politicians saying, with remarkable honesty, that ‘we got it wrong’ and ‘we weren’t prepared’, and that negotiation is the only way forward. Given that the central government too has had a nasty fright, there is a chance that a common-sense compromise might actually, eventually, reluctantly, emerge.

** NOTE - If you want a lucid summary of the origins and implications of the Catalan situation, have a look at this Real Instituto Elcano report (in English version). This seems quite a fair overview, based on a lot of factual research ... although notice that it is dated in mid-October 2017, and there has been more significant action since this report was published.


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