Catalan separatist protest
© Reuters / Juan Medina
People carry and wear Esteladas (Catalan separatist flag) during a protest after a verdict in a trial over a banned independence referendum, in Girona, Spain, October 14, 2019
Catalan separatist leader Oriol Junqueras is jailed for 13 years. The UK is still waiting for Brexit in 2019. The EU has ignored countless referendums. The connection? Governments think they know better than the people.

Spain will no doubt say that the Catalan independence referendum was illegal. They'll point out that the reason over 92% voted for independence was that the 'Remain' side, to use the common parlance, had boycotted the referendum. That doesn't change the fact that Catalonia has consistently elected pro-independence governments.

I'm very much interested in whether Catalonia remains part of Spain but, first and foremost, I believe in the power of self-determination. The Catalan people must be the people to make that determination. In the UK I'd describe myself as Unionist: I want Scotland to remain part of the Union. However, if the Scottish people were to vote in a referendum to become an independent country, I would absolutely and unequivocally support their right to do so. In all of this, Spain has sought to crush the Catalan drive for autonomy rather than providing a pathway to an undisputed, legal, means of making an ultimate determination.

Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, somewhat ironically, permits the European Union to suspend countries' voting rights at EU level. The European Union has taken aim at Hungary and Poland, yet has staunchly defended Spain. It's this selective approach to self-determination which is at the heart of most problems with modern society. Don't expect much of an EU response to the EU's jailing of Junqueras, or to Carles Puigdemont's continued exile.

Nine times out of ten, referendums work well as a means of taking key national decisions. The Swiss hold referendums on an annual basis, giving 'people power' a chance to work. Many States in the USA put propositions onto ballot papers in exactly the same way, connecting people to decisions. In the United Kingdom, we've had referendums on all kinds of questions: Welsh devolution, Scottish devolution, changing the voting system, being members of the Common Market (if only they'd been honest about what that would become), and Scottish independence. In each of those cases - and Welsh devolution in 1997 was passed by only 50.3% to 49.7% - the results were respected without serious demur.


Comment: In the case of the Scottish referendum - the results were respected because the outcome was assured: Special Report: Scottish Referendum Rigged - The 'How' and the 'Why'


Democracy requires the consent of the losers. Fast-forward to the Brexit referendum of 2016, and suddenly everything changed. A small number of politicians, determined not to implement the will of the people, set out to sabotage everything about Brexit. They paid lip-service to 'respecting the result' then set about undermining it and seeking to dismantle it.


Comment: Because the British 'establishment' has no intention of allowing Brexit to happen: Still Confused About Brexit? It's Actually Pretty Simple...


The moment that the minority seeks to overturn the will of the majority, we run into an even bigger problem than the 'tyranny of the majority' described in the 18th century by America's Founding Fathers. A modern, politically-correct, view is that the 'tyranny of the minority' must prevail: that the majority must always change its approach to fit the minority. The gender-fluidity debate is an example of this, where simply respecting your friends' and neighbours' autonomy is no longer enough - there's an expectation of compulsion, that you must change your own outlook to fit theirs. When we move from freedom of speech to compelled speech, democracy suffers.

When the Greek people used a referendum to say 'Oxi!', 'No!' to the EU-imposed bailout conditions, the EU responded by imposing even harsher conditions. The people's vote risked Greece leaving the euro, devaluing, and developing manufacturing. The politicians immediately overruled the people.

The failures of consent in this article are far from the only ones: the EU has at various times ignored (or required a second vote after) referendum results on Treaty change in four different countries. Even in Switzerland, that bastion of democracy, the 2014 Swiss immigration initiative was not respected.

As a means of governance, I believe referendums work - but the principle has always been that the losing side consents to the result. When politicians believe that government should be above the people, able to ignore any result they dislike, democracy becomes little more than an illusion. It is the tyranny of the minority.
Jonathan Arnott is a former independent Member of the European Parliament