The Spanish railway incline

  • They had been warned that taking the Catalan issue to the courts would result in the loss of control over Spain’s train and, sooner or later, it would end in a crash

Vicent Partal
19.11.2019 - 09:59
Actualització: 19.11.2019 - 10:59

In April 2016 —that’s three and a half years ago— I wrote in an editorial about the metaphor of the railway incline.

I wrote that “many years ago, a bright PSOE leader taught me an interesting metaphor: the so-called railway incline. Apparently, the key element when planning to lay a new railway line is the terrain’s incline. High-speed trains do not allow for an incline greater than 3 per cent and trains in general cannot travel on tracks laid on a gradient that is steeper than 6 per cent, with the well-known exception of cogwheel railways. Why is that? Well, once a train is travelling down a slope at speed, it cannot be stopped if the gradient is greater than that, not even by engaging the brakes. To avert an accident, you would need to get very lucky and find yourself on a very long stretch of track, where the runaway train would eventually stop by itself. You would be unable to control it.

The person who used this metaphor was referring to politics. He meant that when a political actor begins to travel down a slope that is steeper than reasonable, a crash becomes inevitable. Under normal circumstances, in ordinary politics, you seldom get anyone to willingly go down such a dangerous slope. But under exceptional circumstances, as we have today, things are different. You can find yourself going down an impossible slope almost unwittingly.

That is precisely what has happened to Spain. Initially Spain responded to Catalonia’s independence bid by ignoring it. By the time it realised that Catalans meant business, it was too late. Then Spain’s reaction was to shun politics and judicialise the matter, which has put the Spanish train on a suicide gradient. We could almost just sit back and watch the crash…

Taking legal action to deal with the Catalan issue was the most serious mistake that Spain could have made, short of sending in the army. First of all, because it paves the way for a remedial-only declaration of independence, the one sort of self-determination that nobody across the world will question. Secondly (and most importantly), because they have lost control of the engine. If the Spanish government wanted to halt the judicialisation, they would simply lack the time and the resources to do so”.

I would like to stress that I wrote all that back in 2016. So it’s not like they haven’t been warned. Pedro Sánchez and Mariano Rajoy were both equally rash and incredibly reckless when they sent the Spanish train down the slope. At present the consequences of such a foolish decision are glaringly obvious. Now PM Pedro Sánchez would need to make a goodwill gesture towards Catalonia’s secessionist parties in order to [secure their support in the Spanish parliament and] be confirmed in the post to form a government, albeit a fragile one. Part of the secessionist movement would go to almost any lengths to reach an understanding with Spain’s PSOE leader. However, a while back the Spanish government painted itself into a corner by renouncing politics and resorting to a court of justice instead. It is paralysed. There is nothing it can offer because the matter is no longer in its hands. The runaway train is rushing down the judicial gradient, about to crash into a wall, while loudly bumping into the sides of the railway line, in particular, into the European side.

But that’s not the end of it. Only days ago we learnt that Madrid’s Audiencia Nacional court has begun to fabricate —fabricate!— an all-embracing case intended to bring terrorism charges against the hundreds of Catalans who were identified by police or arrested during the protests following the Supreme Court’s verdict. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to anticipate that such conceptual and judicial madness will rock the foundations of Catalan society and will trigger an even greater wave of resistance and confrontation with Madrid. We went from having nine political prisoners for two years to suddenly having thirty-six and, clearly, that has changed everything. Now imagine having several hundred Catalan prisoners in the near future, facing the most outlandish, trumped-up charges and convicted because of their postal code, rather than the criminal code: guilty because of their place of residence, meaning the same actions in Seville would merely get them a rap in the knuckles, while in Barcelona they will land them in a prison cell.

How will people react in the streets? You can imagine that such arbitrary, authoritarian behaviour will further undermine the Spanish state’s legitimacy and prevent any chance of detente. You can imagine to what extent a judicial pantomime like this will boost the idea that we must prevail and seek unilateral action because the alternative is the rule of courts, without the checks and balances of traditional politics.

In the last few days, in the wake of the successful blockade on the French border in Catalonia and the Basque Country carried out by Tsunami Democràtic, the regime’s remaining assets in Catalonia —which are shrinking but can still make a noise— have launched a hysterical campaign to criminalise the protests, which reveals, above all, a great deal of solid fear. The fear of losing. I understand that, but I can’t feel sorry for them: they had been warned that taking the Catalan issue to the courts would result in the loss of control over Spain’s train and, sooner or later, it would end in a crash. There’s a price to be paid for one’s mistakes.


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