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Catalonia Update: The King’s Speech


“Many of our subjects, mislead by a desperate conspiracy of dangerous and ill-designing men have forgotten the allegiance which they owe to the power that has protected and supported them and have declared rebellion and traitorously levied war against us.

It is a better part of wisdom to put a speedy end to such disorders. We have thought fit to issue a royal proclamation that all our royal officers, both civil and military are obliged to suppress such rebellion and bring the traitors to justice. When the unhappy and deluded multitude against whom this force shall be directed shall become sensible of their error I shall be ready to receive the misled with tenderness and mercy.

For those who persist in their treason the punishment shall be death by hanging.

Given in Parliament this 26th day of October in the year 1775.

God save the King.”

  • Response of King George III to the Olive Branch Petition from the First Continental Congress, “John Adams”, HBO[1]

“God bless the King. Who else could’ve brought such a spirit of unity to the Congress? We must all hang together now; or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

  • Benjamin Franklin, “John Adams”, HBO

On Tuesday night, Spanish King Phillip VI addressed his subjects[2] on national television after a weekend of tumult and violence in Catalonia. The monarch recognized that the country was in a situation of “extreme gravity”. Addressing the Catalan leadership as “inadmissibly disloyal” and the independence referendum as an unjustifiable break with “the democratic principle of the rule of law” that threatened to undermine the “harmony and coexistence” in Catalan society itself and its solidarity with the rest of the country. The king declared that these seditious elements were trying to “break the unity of Spain and the national sovereignty”.  He told his subjects that they were not alone and promised that the country would overcome this difficult moments.

Philip seemed to be channeling his inner George III, but perhaps someone should have warned him how things ended for that unhappy monarch.

This was clearly not the speech that many Catalans were expecting or the Spanish left, for that matter. There was shock and outrage from both. With it, Mr. de Borbón closes the door to any dialogue. He made no mention of conciliation; no mention of excessive police violence against unarmed citizens; he gave full backing to the government’s position: “submit or else”. Yet the contents of the speech were should not have been a surprise. The only realistic possibilities for Felipe were:

  1. a) Another call to “calm” with a vague and ultimately insincere insistence on dialogue; or,
  2. b) this.

In Catalonia, thousands of people respond to the king with a giant “cacerolazo” – banging on pots and pans in protest.

The King’s speech was not targeted at the Catalans; Mr. de Borbón knows perfectly well that the Catalan separatists are mostly hardcore republicans, as eager to have a king as to have appendicitis. If he didn’t know this, he certainly learned it when he went to Barcelona in the wake of the tragic terrorist attacks there in September. No, the message was directed at the Spanish opposition parties, the Partido Socialista (PSOE) in particular. The PSOE is in a difficult position: it wants to blame the Partido Popular government for as much of the fiasco as possible, while nevertheless looking solidly pro-union to avoid alienating too many voters in the rest of Spain. It has therefore rejected the Catalan referendum while also rejecting the government’s position on how to stop it. With this speech, the king means to put a stop to that fence-sitting. He means to force the PSOE to choose: support the government be labelled disloyal, there is no other position. This argument won’t sway the United Left (IU) or Podemos, but they are somewhat irrelevant.

The key for the government’s strategy is to coerce the PSOE to full-backing of its position. This will ensure that no matter how bad things get, the Socialists cannot hang it all on their rival Populares in the next general election. It will also ensures that, should affairs turn truly ugly, the government can count on the majority support of the Spanish Cortes to approve the application of Article 155, the suspension of Catalonia’s charter of autonomous government. Prime Minister Rajoy dare not risk a rebuff in the legislature should his government decide that this step becomes needful.

Meanwhile, the dance continued. On the day after the King’s speech, at the same hour, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont went on television to deliver a rebuke to the Spanish monarch. He accused Mr. de Borbón of abandoning his role as a moderating statesmen and choosing partisan politics instead. He accused the king of willfully disregarding millions of his Catalan subjects and of tolerating brutal violence against unarmed civilians. The Catalan President then rejected violence and threats; he called this a time for moderation and reflection. He also called for the government to accept offers of mediation that have been tendered: one by the Archbishop of Barcelona, another from Podemos and United Left, another from the Catalan Socialist Party leader, Miquel Iceta and a fourth from Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau to seek a European mediator.

Within 20 minutes of this speech, Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz Santamaría declared Puigdemont to be “divorced from reality”. That is true enough: Catalans and Spaniards are now divorced and living in two separate realities.

Next Steps

Prime Minister Rajoy now has the royal backing he sought and will be applying pressure on the PSOE leader, Pedro Sánchez, for unqualified backing and a “grand coalition” aimed at stopping the Catalans from declaring independence. That breach is imminent: Catalan Parliamentary Leader Carme Forcadell has called the legislature into session on Monday, October 9th to consider the official ballot results of Sunday’s referendum. That means that independence could be declared as early as the 9th, though the 10th might be more likely.

Mr. Rajoy has an interest in acting before the Catalan Parliament issues that declaration. Regardless of the government’s position on the illegality and unconstitutionality of the referendum, secession and everything else, the Catalan Parliament remains the legitimate representative body of the Catalan people. Only they have the internal legitimacy to declare independence in the name of the Catalans. That declaration is the necessary, though not sufficient, precondition for any foreign government to 1) offer mediation; and 2) recognize Catalan statehood. Imagine if, in 1776, the British Navy had scooped up all the Congressional delegates in Philadelphia: there would have been no Declaration of Independence on July 4th, no French alliance, no chance of victory in our rebellion against Great Britain. So the Catalan leaders need to make sure they remain at liberty until after the declaration is issued; once published, they can happily go to jail. In fact, they might do great service to the Catalan cause if they are in jail – and if they could arrange to be mistreated while being arrested or under guard, so much the better.

To forestall this, I expect the Spanish prosecutor to order the arrest of Puigdemont and other pro-independence Catalan leaders in the next couple of days, certainly over the weekend. It will be infinitely harder to head off Catalan independence after a declaration, and the Spanish prosecutor doesn’t need the “go ahead” of the Cortes or the PSOE’s backing. I expect that Mr. Rajoy will keep Article 155 in his back-pocket for now; he has always been an incrementalist, and he would prefer to avoid angering neutral Catalans with the escalation of suspending the charter of autonomy for as long as possible. The arrest of their leaders is the less drastic step – he will want to see if that works first. If it fails to prevent a declaration of independence on Monday or Tuesday next week, then that would be the logical next step.

Sources and Notes

[1] The actual speech by King George III to the Parliament of the United Kingdom on October 27th, 1775 was longer and slightly different and can be found here

[2] English translation is author’s; so are any mistakes

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“Our obligations to our country never cease but with our lives.“

John Adams


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