By Peter Preston (THE GUARDIAN, 03/04/06):
Here’s an infernal European jigsaw, its pieces of perplexity spread far and wide. Over there, in Belfast, toiling servants of Blair and Ahern strive “one more weary time” to persuade the province’s elected politicians to embrace each other and self-government. For heaven’s sake, get on with it! But power, let alone responsibility, seems the last thing on their minds. Yet over here (because I’m in Catalonia) the rush to seize more and more power could hardly be stronger.
It would be hard, wherever you look, to find such contradictory impulses stemming from situations full of seeming similarity, so many pieces of the jigsaw that don’t fit. The Spanish always used to follow Northern Ireland’s misery with attention, for wasn’t their own bloody struggle against Eta’s Basque terrorism almost identical? A few days ago though, Eta threw in the towel; some of the most brutal killers in postwar history decided that violence had had its day (and that George Bush’s wider war on terror had claimed them as victims).
Triumph, victory, relief! You couldn’t have found a happier outcome after four dismal decades. But what happened next is rather more remarkable.
There were, to be sure, all the usual cavils about full disarmament and verification. Over and above this, however, came an initiative to fit Basque nationalism into a new Spanish settlement; a sweeping programme of rewards for regions which hadn’t turned to slaughter in search of autonomy, first and most obviously, Catalonia.
Maybe the Catalans, rich and a bit prone to imperious gestures, weren’t best beloved by ordinary Spaniards. Maybe their incessant demands had got up so many noses lately that sales of their cava had plunged across Castile. Nevertheless, here was a moment for boldness, duly dispatched by special Madrid delivery.
Catalonia can be formally called a “nation” again. It can keep 50% of the income tax and VAT it raises and, because its prosperity still means a net contribution to central coffers, it can claim investment refunds to make up any difference. That, with extra judicial and administrative clout, is a formidable package of concessions, delivered by Zapatero’s Socialist government for acceptance and referendum ratification by Barcelona. What’s more, as part of the package, any other would-be nation or region can claim the same treatment if it wants. Galicia, Murcia? This could be a process, not a single package. This, with some daring, could put Catalan as well as Basque separatism in the wider, cohesive context of a changed federal state.
But look back across the jigsaw board for a moment. Weren’t Catalonia and Scotland each other’s first points of reference as devolution came at last to Edinburgh? Aren’t there parallels that continue to resound? And at once you see the strange, messy world of British constitutionalism, “a jigsaw of bits and missing pieces” laid bare.
The drive for reform in Barcelona comes from a most curious coalition of parties: extreme nationalists and cautious socialists outflanking moderate nationalists and conservatives (a line-up that fractures for June’s referendum). But there are no curious coalitions on offer in Edinburgh, just dominant Labour shacked up with the Liberals because they see no one else remotely available. The electoral system and demography (in Scotland as in Wales) are virtually guaranteed to produce no real change for ever and a day; rigged for stagnation, you might say.
So passion drains from the scene. Scots Nats call back their old leader for another stint. Labour’s big beasts prefer Westminster (and Downing Street). Voter revolt, perversely, given the coalition, is a shock Liberal victory (but their bigger hitters choose London, too). We’re not talking momentum or hope any longer. We’re talking about pottering on amid a growing unpopularity that ditches Nat ambitions along the way. Would the north-east like a slice of the action inquires John Prescott. There is no action. There are no takers. The UK “settlement” makes no sense. Perhaps a Brown government doing its son-of-the-manse bit will change that for England. Perhaps a post-election Gordon and Ming coalition for Britain (warmly promoted by Jim Naughtie on Today) will finally prompt Cameron’s blue shires to fury. But you wouldn’t bet on it.
The significant thing on our side of the table is how easily disillusion wins. Do Ian Paisley and the DUP feel under any pressure to use the victory they secured to govern rather than growl? No. Sit back and let someone else take the blame. There is no Belfast process, just as there is no Edinburgh, Cardiff or Tyneside process. We grind on with trendy fervour about bringing government closer to the people, but the people just turn away in embarrassment.
Farewell Eta. You got nowhere until, at the close, you helped prompt something big and imaginative, all of a perilous piece. And us? We can’t tell board from bored.