Following the distressing events surrounding the contentious independence referendum in Catalonia over the last week, Felipe VI, King of Spain, addressed the nation to express his distress at the way in which the Catalonian government has conducted itself over the question of independence. Many picked up on the fact that he failed even to acknowledge the shocking scenes of the Guardia Civil (a military force tasked with certain policing duties) beating those who were going to vote on whether or not the north-eastern region of Spain should become an independent state. The question of Catalonia's future is for its people and Spain, and not for any outsider to make a judgment on, but the way that a democratic vote is conducted in a nearby country is something that should interest us all.

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The immediate response

Reactions on Twitter:

Some commentators, such as Guardian columnist Owen Jones, were understandably angered by this behaviour and pointed to the obvious fact that Catalan independence will only be emboldened by it.

The EU sided with Manuel Rajoy's government in Madrid, albeit rather quietly. It is interesting, but not surprising, that the EU’s response was so muted since it encouraged the break-up of Yugoslavia, and absorbed or plans to draw in its formerly constituent parts.

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We will probably see increased regional nationalism in the coming years, as in Scotland, Flanders and the Basque Country, against the backdrop of the nation-state having lost so much meaning to the mighty Union of Europe.

The violence was wrong but so are the comparisons

If Catalan independence does come about, which I fear will be preceded by a great deal of violence, then the Kingdom of Spain will be geographically changed in a way unlike anything it has experienced since its union under Ferdinand and Isabella. It seems certain that the actions of the Guardia Civil will only have bolstered support for the separatists in Barcelona, and it is perfectly understandable that this should be so. Indeed, history may say that this was a fundamental mistake by the Spanish government. This approach to the Catalans is nothing in comparison to what was carried out under General Francisco #Franco, until 1975, which aimed to expunge any sense of a distinct Catalan identity. And so, the amateur politicians that inhabit Twitter and social media have drawn the inevitable parallels between that and a militarised police force attempting to enforce the authority of Spain's constitutional court, which declared that a referendum would be unconstitutional and therefore illegal.

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This talk is dangerous and irresponsible, particularly when speaking of a country which, on the edge of living memory, was fractured by a bloody civil war. The Spanish constitution, supported by an overwhelming majority of Spaniards in 1978, was an important step forward on the long road from dictatorship. It was the previous king, Juan Carlos I, who played a crucial role in this difficult process, when the Falangists (Franco's party) could have easily made it a much more violent affair. As with all such cases, there will be some who were and are disappointed that change did not go further and that some aspects of the old regime took a long time to phase out. It is then easy to try to link it to what looks to be an over-powerful state flexing its muscles with its own people.

Nevertheless, modern Spain is not the country of Franco. It is a country governed in accordance with a constitution endorsed by the people. To suggest otherwise is exaggerated nonsense and clouds over the real questions as to how far a government should go to uphold the document that is the bedrock of the state. No one wants to see old ladies caught in a police charge, or people clutching at their eyes as tear gas takes effect, all for trying to exercise their vote. This was the mistake of the Madrid government, which has ceded a major propaganda coup and a great deal of sympathy to the Catalans.

I have a great deal of respect for the aspirations of the Catalan separatists. Their’s is an especially lovely land, rich in some of the greatest works of architecture in the world, such as the ambitious Sagrada Familia, and they are rightly proud. As anyone who knows anything about the regrettably brutal Anglo-Irish, and Anglo-Indian for that matter, history of the last century should know, it is best to allow old friends and relations to go their own way if that is what they wish. This was why the British government’s approach to the Scottish independence movement, by granting a referendum, as much as I dislike them, and making the case for the union, was the right approach to take in the circumstances.

The King is not to blame

That aside, anger at Felipe VI’s broadcast was not aimed at the right person. #The King did not order the Guardia Civil to behave as it did. That was the elected government in Madrid, a point Mr. Jones might like to remember when using the word “unelected” as a stick.

In an age in which monarchy is seen as a disgusting anachronism, fit only for those who are unhealthily docile, it is easy to see the King in a malign light. However, his speech was nothing of the sort. H does not, as far as we know, have a dictatorial streak and nor does he do this for his own ends. This is the son of a man who worked quietly to ensure the peaceful transition from dictatorship. His duty is to be a unifying figure for his people and uphold the constitution -both of which he has sought to do. He could have spoken out on the violence, but he cannot be expected to defy the constitution.

Invariably trying to deny independence to a people will backfire, as Manuel Rajoy will soon learn, but all we can hope is that it is as bloodless and peaceful as possible. This could easily not be the case, and it is the responsibility of we outsiders, who discuss this, to temper our language and not draw unnecessary parallels with a recent history soaked in the blood of tens of thousands of Spaniards.