Sunday 29 October 2017

Why the British Government Is Failing With Its Catalonia Policy

This famous cartoon from an August 1864 edition of Punch pretty much sums up how the British government should respond to the Catalan crisis. Punch and the then Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston pass Jefferson Davis on the street, and Punch asks Pam if he recognised Davis. Palmerston, ever the politician, replies that he doesn't, but may have to one day.

The joke with its play on words works very well because it has always been British government policy not to recognise secessionist entities until the day arrives when the entity shows that it can stand on its own two feet. At that point, it is recognised and ceases to be a secessionist entity and joins the family of sovereign states. The Confederate States of America was never quite able to reach that point, although it came very close, so Britain never recognised it. 

In the case of Catalonia, the jury is still out on whether the newly proclaimed sovereign state will be able to maintain its independence, but that does not explain the rather fatuous, almost cringing statement that was put out by a Downing Street spokesman:
The UK does not and will not recognise the Unilateral Declaration of Independence made by the Catalan regional parliament. It is based on a vote that was declared illegal by the Spanish courts. We continue to want to see the rule of law upheld, the Spanish Constitution respected, and Spanish unity preserved.
All that was needed was a holding statement from the British government calling for calm and stating that HMG had no plans to recognise Catalonia, but instead, we have been treated to this drivel. The government is going to look very silly indeed if Spain does no offer any goodies as a mark of her gratitude, which she won't and why should she? London has already given Madrid everything and asked for nothing in return.

Looking silly is something that Theresa May should be used to by now, but there are two issues at stake, here, which make the statement even more incomprehensible than it would otherwise have been.

The first is that the UK does not owe Spain any favours. The issue of Gibralter is still outstanding, with Spain sending naval vessels into the waters around the Rock as an irritation to Britain. If Spain is bogged down in an internal conflict then Gibraltar is safe for another generation at least and we are not going to see a repeat of the Falklands War in 1982 when Argentina, another international joke of a country, decided to distract attention from a looming internal crisis by creating a foreign one. 

Secondly, and far more important even than Gibralter, is the fact that as part of the Brexit negotiations, it is not in Britain's interests to have a confident, united, European Union on the other side of the negotiating table. On the other hand, it is in Britain's interests to have an EU that is divided against itself, with Britain siding with one faction or another on the basis of her self-interest in getting the EU to sign up to most of what London wants.

Looking at the Eastern Marches of the EU we can see countries like Poland and Bulgaria that are totally opposed to the influx of Muslim migrants. That attitude has brought them into conflict with Germany and that is a further issue that Britain can use to her own advantage. It is not a case of supporting Poland, merely that London should be more neutral in the dispute between the outer reaches of the Empire and its central heartland.

So it is with Spain and Catalonia. By doing nothing Britain could help ensure that the crisis continues to rumble. A continuing crisis is not good for Iberia, but it might just be good for the United Kingdom.

This is all something that Britain once understood, but doesn't seem to today. Ending this piece as I began it, with the Americans in the 1860s, the British blockade runner captains, had a toast that pretty much sums up how Britain has historically behaved in times like this:
Here's to the Southern planters who grow the cotton; to the Yankees that maintain the blockade and keep up the price of cotton; and to the Limeys who buy the cotton. So, three cheers for a long continuance of the war, and success to the blockade runners!
 Theresa May and today's government would do well to remember that.

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