‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…,’
The metaphor may be hackneyed, but it remains a powerful one.
Written in 1919, when memories of rebellion in his native Ireland were still fresh, the second stanza to WB Yeats’ poem ‘The Second Coming’ captures the sense of breaking and bewilderment we encounter when new, often unexpected challenges rise up to meet the old truisms of our thinking.
It has become synonymous with a commentariat looking to make sense of the bedlam created from the regular volte face of modern day politics. Brexit, Trump, Le Pen; journalists have had rather ample use for the poet of late, and their message follows that the centre ground in politics has long since been abandoned in pursuit of new, unrulier futures.
It is by no means off the mark. But in reaching for Yeats once more as the latest instalment of ‘mere anarchy’ has wracked Catalonia, it was instead the less-quoted preceding line that caught my attention:
‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer’
And here, I think, Yeats has a more powerful clue to the roots of crisis – the much-practised art of political deafness.
In Catalonia, the falcon has indeed flown far from the falconer. Following a referendum on Catalan independence, declared illegal by the Spanish government on 1 October, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has threatened to invoke Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, suspending Catalonia’s autonomy. “There was no referendum”, he said - hear no evil, see no evil, right? Rajoy’s Catalan counterpart, Carles Puigdemont, has acted equally decisively, refusing to back down from the vote by issuing a declaration of independence, albeit putting pause to the process to allow for dialogue. Meanwhile, protestors from either side continue to gather in their thousands, each shouting louder than the other and both hearing nothing.
What might break the stalemate then? The crisis of “deafness” currently gripping Spain hasn’t always been so, and it is worth pondering how a recent history of the very document now wielded as a weapon in Catalonia could plot a way forward.
Following the fall of Franco’s military dictatorship, the drafting of the 1978 Constitution was the first time in Spanish history that the country’s defining mission had been decided by a process of consensus and later approved by the Spanish people in a referendum. Charged with the mission of hashing out a view of what Spain was and wanted to be, a constituent assembly and Commission of Constitutional Affairs brought together a broad-church of former Francoists, socialists, republicans, and Basque and Catalan nationalists.
Amid a backdrop of economic crisis, rising unemployment and terrorism as the nation edged towards democracy, extraordinary agreement was reached on significant points of conflict, such as the right to strike, the freedom to an education outwith the Church, abortion, the death penalty, and state intervention in the economy. Most important perhaps was its view of national identity – Spain was to be a nation of many “nationalities” with a scope for accommodation.
In reality, 1978 only put a rubber stamp to what had always been a pluralist political endeavour in Spanish history. From the joining of the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon by the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1469, to the operation of Catalonia’s own medieval empire spanning a constellation of islands and cities across the Mediterranean, Spain today bears the marks of a nation forged in the fires of bargaining and compromise. Even the modern Spanish state’s predecessor on the Iberian peninsula, Al Andalus, where Jewish, Christian and Muslim cultures peacefully co-existed as early as the 8thcentury, is testament to the fact. A very recent history of regional oppression under Franco and the speed at which it was rejected on his death also demonstrates that strict centralism was a straightjacket modern Spain never intended to wear.
The compromise held. As Spain prepared to ratify its new constitution, a 1977 survey showed just 5 per cent of Catalans were then in favour of independence. In the ratification vote that followed, 95% of the region approved the new constitution – the strongest support in mainland Spain.
With this in mind, it seems a sad irony that a constitution crafted amid such a spirit of dialogue and consensus now represents a dividing line. Constitutions must not be seen as artefacts of their time, as if Spain remains frozen in 1978; America’s experience of debating the Second Amendment and boasting gun laws better suited to the 1790s provides plenty evidence of that. In Spain as elsewhere, constitutions must adapt and respond to the charge of political will in order to stay authentic.
Going forward then, the lessons of 1978 remain there for all to see. There may yet be cause for optimism as Rajoy, joined by the leaders of opposition parties in the Spanish parliament, hinted that it may be time to revisit the issue of constitutional reform as a way through the impasse.
Here’s hoping. But as long as Spanish and Catalan leaders continue to pursue their own line and disregard the others’ position, I fear it will rather be a case of the deaf leading the deaf towards Yeats’ widening gyre.
Scott Reid is a Researcher at Charlotte Street Partners. He is a graduate of the universities of Glasgow and St Andrews, and joins the team from an AHRC-funded PhD in constitutional history, which is being completed jointly with the University of Edinburgh. Whilst studying for his Masters, which focussed on federalism in Scotland, Scott also worked with the think tank Reform Scotland during the 2015 General Election campaign.
He joined the team in August 2017 and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.