A few months ago I had a conversation with a friend from Madrid about the Catalan process. I recall it for two reasons. First of all, because my friend is reflective, intelligent and polite. This is always a good start for any conversation, regardless of the topic. Secondly, because of a certain argument that has stuck in my memory.
My friend listed off several reasons why Catalonia's independence would not be viable. In principle, all of them form part of the well-known, usual set of arguments. But I was personally surprised by the last reason given. My friend stated that "ethically and morally, Catalan independence is an indefensible proposition".
It's a funny thing. Obviously, this argument is entirely mistaken, as Spain's unity has nothing to do with morality. And that's what I said to my friend.
So how come many Spaniards, even educated ones, believe so and feel that way? We mustn't forget that whenever a group feels that its ideology is grounded on ethical or moral principles, it will undoubtedly fight for those principles with much greater conviction, intensity and passion.
It's equally true that many other people defend their stance without splitting hairs. They do so because that's what they are used to, because they learnt it from their parents or their peers or because they like it and feel comfortable and accepted by supporting a certain set of beliefs. And we should respect that, although reflecting on the reasons for one's opinions is always advisable.
But I digress. Those who feel that Spain's unity is a moral issue, besides being mistaken, are forgetting that there are two kinds of morality. Conventionalist morality is mostly about a specific place and time. But there is another morality, to do with the more timeless values, that is truly solid and detached from the particular circumstances of a place and a time --or it ought to be--. Habermas calls it "postconventionalist morality", which supersedes a conventionalist morality that "lacks reflexivity".
I will use an example to illustrate my point. I am from a town called Reus. I remember perfectly well how, in the late 1970s (and at the time I don't think this was unusual in Catalonia as a whole), many found it odd when two young, unmarried people chose to live together. Odd and, for some, very, very reprehensible.
Obviously, nowadays most of us would regard that decision as completely respectable and do not regard living together while not married as a moral infringement. As always with social stances, they are rarely, if ever, unanimous and there must still be a minority of people who disapprove. But, fortunately, this is generally no longer a socially reprehensible conduct in Catalonia.
I don't know if this moral dimension of Spain's unity --and of the whole of the Spanish people as the only sovereign subject-- is seen as such by those who deem it appropriate to deny Catalans the right to self-determination. I am not able to make a general statement on the matter. But the feeling, to a greater or lesser extent, is there. And I think that this feeling can partly explain the stand of many Spaniards on the Catalan process. It can also help to account for the violence of some punitive messages towards a process and an ideology that are peaceful and democratic: "the Catalan nationalists should know that their attempt will come at a price", an important former PP minister once said.
They are utterly mistaken. Democracy and tolerance are superior values to maintaining the unity of a State, as my friend in Madrid eventually admitted. What is moral in the UK or Canada can hardly be immoral in Spain, provided we aren't talking about the conventionalist morality that "lacks reflexivity". Supporting or opposing Catalan independence does not determine a moral qualification per se.
What a stark contrast with the position of the British government towards Scotland. In the last few weeks leading up to the referendum, Westminster has been making proposals for greater devolution if the Yes camp loses! It's a political stance that does not seek to punish those who support a Yes vote in Scotland, but to integrate them. It also shows democratic respect for a position that many in Britain dislike, but regard as respectable.
Centuries of democracy and respect for those who think differently separate us.