The independence referendum in Catalonia was marred by violence yesterday as Spanish riot police stormed into polling stations to stop the vote. The regional government says more than 800 people were injured during the voting, mostly by police. Before the referendum, the national government made a concerted effort to prevent the vote from happening, with measures including the arrest of local officials, the occupation of local buildings, and the takeover of local police.
The right to self-determination is enshrined in international law and is core to democratic norms. In a democratic society, people have the power to choose their leaders, and that requires having the power to choose who you choose leaders with.
The Spansh government fears that a split by Catalonia could lead other regions, like the Basque country, to follow suit. That fear fueled the decision to crack down on the Catalan referendum. That crackdown, in turn, makes independence movements more popular—the national government's heavy-handed repression becomes a reason to free themselves from its grasp.
By contrast, devolution of power has given regions like Scotland, with strong cultural identities of their own, more ability to chart their own course. In turn, that has often lowered interest in independence movements.
The conflict between Catalonia and Spain also highlights the importance of constitutional systems that define the powers of the national government vis a vis the governments of its constituent parts—and the importance of a culture that respects those distinctions. Unfortunately, even in the United States, with a Constitution that attempts to severely limit federal power, the national government has grown tremendously more powerful since its founding.
Polls earlier this year showed support for independence in Catalonia at around 40 percent, although a majority supported a vote taking place. Independence ended up receiving more than 90 percent of the referendum vote.
Some video of the crackdown in Catalonia, via The Guardian: