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Spain in denial as Catalonia demands independence poll

Europe is full of the ghosts of old countries and kingdoms.

Burgundy or Bavaria, Lombardy or Strathclyde: the maps contain and conceal a host of remnants, sometimes as mere place-names, sometimes as diminished regions, sometimes as states waiting or working to be reborn.

Such entities are tenacious. They have a habit of confounding anyone who thinks historical arguments are ever settled. The fall of the USSR, if it proved nothing else, demonstrated that much. Not so long ago the re-emergence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania seemed a very unlikely prospect. But then, Poland's independence was once as unthinkable to Tsarist Russia as Ireland's independence was to Britain.

Why some countries - or nations - and not others? Why have the Basques and Corsicans persisted with their claims down all the years when Provencal nationalism strikes most people in France as little more than a cultural curiosity? No-one expects Burgundy to be reborn anytime soon. Aragon, Prussia and Savoy might have brought surrounding kingdoms under their control, but few believe Spain, Germany and Italy are about to fall apart.

Madrid is these days a little less sanguine, it seems, than Berlin or Rome. Catalonia, most tenacious of nations, persists with its demands for independence. Like Scotland, a few centuries spent within a larger state have not cured the appetite. Like the Scots, the Catalans propose to hold a referendum to settle the matter among themselves. There the similarities end.

In Madrid, the government of Mariano Rajoy has responded to the announcement of a double-question vote next November 9 with a flat refusal. With the support of the opposition Socialists, the Prime Minister asserts Spain's 1978 constitution does not allow such a thing, therefore it will not happen. Nor is there room, if you believe the government, for negotiation. As Mr Rajoy said on Thursday: "Any discussion or debate on this is out of the question."

The contrast with Scotland is plain enough. Britain's constitution might be a ramshackle, unwritten affair, but Westminster could easily, "by right", have dismissed the SNP case for an independence referendum out of hand. Instead, David Cameron and Alex Salmond haggled over details but did not argue over the consensus, cross-party view that Scots have the right to decide and a Holyrood majority for the First Minister's party amounted to a mandate. The Edinburgh Agreement was the result.

Madrid does not believe in that kind of compromise. The government is happy enough, so it seems, to risk the accusation democracy is being denied. The view Catalonia must be content as an inherently prosperous "autonomous community" enjoying a large degree of devolution is unwavering, either because Mr Rajoy thinks he is holding the country together, because he is defending the delicate compromises enshrined in the post-Franco constitution, or because Madrid simply cannot afford to lose a region with the highest GDP in Spain.

The refusal even to discuss the matter is a risky strategy. It might even count as stupid. Catalans are not unambiguous in their attitude towards independence. One recent poll for the newspaper El Pais put support for "separatism" at 46% against 42% in favour of the status quo. Some observers argue, indeed, the impetus towards a referendum comes less from pure nationalism than from grievances born of recession. There is plenty of backing for increased autonomy - a kind of Catalan devo max - in preference to independence.

Besides, there has long been a perception in Madrid that Catalonia is adept at not-so-subtle blackmail. It is a game nationalists have played with no little success since the restoration of democracy in Spain after Franco's death. President Artur Mas and his supporters in both the Generalitat de Catalunya and the Convergencia i Unio (CiU) alliance propose two questions for next November, after all.

First will come "Do you want Catalonia to be a state?"; secondly, "Do you want that state to be independent?" To put it no higher, this shows a certain lack of conviction and ambition. It certainly demonstrates the various parties backing the referendum are not as one in their aims.

Some elements will settle for what Scots would call enhanced devolution; some care only for an affirmative answer to the second question. In Catalonia, both positions amount to political traditions. But a Yes to either question would probably suit the pragmatic Mr Mas. At the very least, he will have room for manoeuvre and negotiation should Madrid ever countenance discussions.

Technically, Mr Rajoy is correct. The 1978 constitution does not allow the proposed referendum. If the vote goes ahead, the result will be at best "advisory" rather than binding. Given the broad church of Catalan nationalism, embracing left, right and some wildly varying attitudes towards the meaning of independence, Mr Mas would probably be content with just such an outcome.

If last month's El Pais poll was anywhere near accurate, British Unionists might certainly wonder about the tactics being pursued by Mr Rajoy. Why does he not attempt his own version of Better Together? Why does he not seek to court those nationalists amenable to a deal on autonomy? Threatening Catalonia with expulsion from the EU - one of Mr Rajoy's familiar tricks - is no more likely to win hearts and minds than the refusal even to recognise a people's right to vote.

Spanish centralists would point, no doubt, to the tensions that have run beneath the surface of the country's politics since it was rid of Franco. Elements of the Spanish military, past and present, have already begun to mutter Catalonia must be "dealt with", not necessarily by polite means. Conservatives (and plenty of Socialists) remain deeply loyal to the idea of Spain, whatever Catalans and Basques might have to say.

The fact remains Mr Rajoy is thus far refusing even to engage with the argument. That being so, he might as well be working for a double Yes vote. The Catalan sense of national identity runs deep. It survived the most vicious assaults of Franco. Catalonia is profoundly patriotic. Mr Rajoy has treated a decision of its national government with contempt.

The state of the Scottish independence argument in such a context can only be imagined. How would things have stood if Westminster had simply dismissed the claim for a referendum? What is too often defined glibly as the politics of grievance is often enough rooted in valid complaints. Mr Rajoy seems determined to embitter Catalans and concentrate their minds. He is another who misunderstands the maps.

Plainly, he fails to comprehend why Catalans, like Scots, like so many others, can still be pursuing their demands after so many generations. Old nationalism does not disappear because of a clause in a new constitution.

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