While the Tories head right, the Republicans are beginning to modernise

The GOP is embracing immigration reform and is under grassroots pressure to reverse its opposition to gay marriage.

When staring down the barrel of a gun, most political parties seek drastic change to reverse their electoral fortunes. Such is the case with both the Republicans in the United States and the Conservative Party here.

The former has sought to alter its image following a presidential election it should have won. The Tories are still reeling from not winning an outright majority in 2010; still disgusted they share power with the Lib Dems; still concerned that a resurgent Labour Party and UKIP will render them useless in 2015.

These right-leaning parties have taken different routes in order to become winners. One has become more reactionary, peddling its old messages in a drastic attempt to excite the base; the other is accepting that the political parameters are shifting and that it needs to modernise its message.

Yes, that’s right; the Republicans are becoming more liberal than the Conservatives. The Tea Party had its day in the US in 2010; now it’s having its day in the UK in 2013. Two major issues – gay marriage and immigration – clearly show this shift in conservatism on both sides of the Atlantic.

Gay marriage, an issue many in Britain thought had been resolved, once again came to the forefront due to rebellious Tory MPs. One doesn’t need to go far to witness the dread in Conservative eyes at the issue and what it could mean. Gerald Howarth yesterday declared, "There are plenty in the aggressive homosexual community who see this as but a stepping stone to something even further." One can dismiss this as the ramblings of a backbencher, but members of the cabinet have their own gripes: Welsh Secretary David Jones said that gay couples "clearly" could not provide a "warm and safe environment" in which to raise children.

The GOP may not seem as if it is leading the charge in terms of marriage equality, with the Republican National Committee voting to reaffirm the party’s commitment to upholding the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. Yet there are growing calls for it to embrace gay marriage to attract younger voters. While in Britain Tory activists complain about Cameron’s stance and protest against the reform, grassroots Republicans in the United States are doing the exact opposite: they’re mobilising to embrace gay marriage.

When Rhode Island State Senate passed a same-sex marriage bill in April, all five Republicans in the chamber voted in favour. They had been extensively lobbied by the American Unity Fund, a Republican advocacy group that pushes its elected officials to embrace the gay equality agenda. Contrast what fund organiser Paul E. Singer told The New York Times with the words of David Jones above: "The concept of gay unions fits very well within our framework of individual liberty and our belief that strong families make for a stronger society."

Embracing change is something Conservative Party members appear unwilling to do. A letter signed by 30 present and former local party chairmen ignored the fact that more than 60 per cent of the British public have consistently supported same-sex marriage. It read: "The Prime Minister's bizarre drive to ram this legislation through Parliament, without any democratic mandate and without the support of party members has been a disaster and has driven thousands of voters to Ukip." Do they believe that if put to the vote, the UK would side with their stance?

This focus on the electoral advantages of supporting gay marriage brings us to the immigration debate, something that, alongside withdrawal from the EU, has been a staple of the UKIP manifesto.

One difference between Tory activist attitudes towards immigration and gay marriage is that a tougher stance on the former is supported by large sections of the public, whereas their stance on the latter is a vote loser. While in the US, the GOP is embracing immigration reform to allow illegal migrants to become citizens, in Britain, our public discourse has taken a negative turn. Whereas Tory activists are the Tea Partiers when it comes to gay marriage, the British public is increasingly becoming the Tea Party when it comes to immigration.

A NatCen Social Research back in September showed that British attitudes towards immigration had  hardened over the years, with 51% wanting to see immigration levels "reduced a lot", a rise of 12% since 1995. Britons focus particularly on illegal immigrants. Recent Pew Research in the US shows almost 75% of Americans believe that there should be ways for illegal immigrants to stay within the country legally. The United States, a country born through immigration and proud of it, clearly has a different perspective on the matter – but now the GOP, a party whose immigration line was previously similar to that of the Conservatives, is embracing immigrants as potential voters.

In his New Yorker article "The Party Next Time", Ryan Lizza detailed the growing non-white American electorate and how traditionally red states, like Texas, were, in demographic terms, becoming more like blue states: growing numbers of Hispanic, African-American and minority voters who tend to lean Democratic. While some conservatives on Fox News bemoaned the decline of white America, others realised the need to approach these growing minority bases.

This is particularly important in Texas, a huge state whose large number of electoral colleges is needed by every Republican presidential candidate. Steve Munisteri, the chairman of the party in Texas, told Lizza: "You cannot have a situation with the Hispanic community that we’ve had for forty years with the African-American community, where it’s a bloc of votes that you almost write off." As Republicans begin to transform their approach towards Hispanics and other minorities, Conservatives in Britain are beginning once more to bemoan immigrants, pander to UKIP over the EU, and vocally oppose gay marriage. Worrying,  large sections of the public also agree with some of these stances.

The British press always loves to focus on the ridiculousness of America: its gun culture, its capital punishment, its racism. Yet as we have laughed and ridiculed those across the pond, we have become blind to the fact that as the GOP has started to move away from its own loony past, the Tories are becoming the new heirs of Sarah Palin and her dropouts.

Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal speaks during the second day of the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) March 15, 2013 in National Harbor, Maryland. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kiran Moodley is a freelance journalist at CNBC who has written for GQ, the Atlantic, PBS NewsHour and The Daily Beast.

Photo: Getty
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“If not evolution then revolution”: temperature rises in Catalonia as independence vote looms

Clashes between Barcelona and Madrid over the disputed referendum lead to protests and arrests.

Summer may finish today according to astronomers, but the heat in Barcelona has been steadily rising over the past few weeks. Things reached boiling point yesterday when the Spanish police arrested 14 Catalan officials responsible for organising a referendum on independence for the region. They also seized about 9.8 million ballots intended for this vote, which the Catalan government wants to hold on 1 October.

The Spanish central government, the conservative People’s Party (PP), is completely opposed to the referendum and has so far refused even to discuss it with the Catalan administration. This prompted the pro-independence Catalan parties in power to start planning it unilaterally.

On 6 September, the Catalan parliament passed the Self-Determination Referendum Act, which established how the vote will be organised and held. The question would be: “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state with the form of a republic?” And since the electoral register can only be accessed by the Spanish authorities, whoever is allowed to vote in the Catalan regional elections can have their say.

Legal experts are divided over whether this kind of independence referendum is allowed by the Spanish constitution, which was approved in 1978. This was just three years after the death of fascist dictator Francisco Franco, and one year after the first democratic elections since the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War.

According to the constitution, sovereignty resides with the Spanish people. Opponents of Catalan independence claim it is therefore up to the whole of Spain to decide such a matter – and that in any case, it would have to be approved by the Spanish government.

But those in favour of the Catalan process argue that, given the complete lack of political will in Madrid regarding the referendum, the unilateral way is legitimate even if it may be declared illegal according to Spanish law.

As expected, two weeks ago the constitutional court suspended the Catalan Self-Determination Referendum Act, and yesterday’s police operation followed. Shortly after the raid began, during a government control session in the Spanish parliament in Madrid, prime minister Mariano Rajoy said “the rule of law has worked and it’ll continue doing so”. He insisted that the government was just “doing its duty”.

In this charged atmosphere, while Rajoy was still speaking, the MPs of the Catalan parties supporting the referendum walked out of the room, while those of the ruling PP chanted: “Leave here your salaries!”

Later in Barcelona, the Catalan regional prime minister, Carles Puigdemont, said Spain had “de facto suspended self-government in Catalonia and de facto applied the state of emergency”. Surrounding him during his speech, several other high officials looked funereal.

Applying further heat to the situation, the head of the Spanish tax agency signed an order on Tuesday that gave control of the Catalan public finances to the Spanish state. From then on, and at least until the end of the year, the Catalan administration isn’t allowed to allocate any money that hasn’t been sanctioned by Madrid.

However, the Spanish central government could still go even further and, using Article 155 of the constitution, suspend self-government in Catalonia – not de facto but officially. This extreme measure, never used in modern Spain, would in theory make possible what Catalans often joke about: tanks from the Spanish army would drive down the avenues of Barcelona.

Catalonia is the richest Spanish region, last year contributing 19 per cent of the country's GDP, while its population represents about 18 per cent of the total. It has long considered itself historically and culturally different from the rest of Spain, and yet just a decade ago an independence referendum would have been inconceivable.

In 2006, just 15 per cent of Catalans wanted “an independent state”. But that year the ruling PP referred the Catalan statute to the constitutional court, which declared part of it illegal. Then, after the PP won the general elections in 2011, the Spanish government started refusing to engage with Catalonia on the issue. 

Support for Catalonia becoming an independent state remains at around 41 per cent in favour and just under 50 per cent against. However, when Catalans were asked if they would vote in a referendum not sanctioned by Madrid, 67.5 per cent said yes, and of those, 62.4 per cent would vote “Yes”.

As of today ballot boxes are still being kept in a secret location, and Puigdemont and other Catalan officials insist the referendum will be held one way or another. In the past, the Catalan PM has said that if “Yes” wins, Catalonia will declare its independence within 48 hours.

For now the atmosphere is tense. On Tuesday, thousands of people took to the streets of Barcelona to protest against the police operation, in front of several offices of the regional government that were being searched.

The biggest demonstration was next to the Catalan finance ministry, which was being searched by the Guardia Civil, the Spanish paramilitary police. Many protesters were carrying the estelada, the unofficial flag of the independence movement – some worn it as a cape, others waved it in the air.

“We are protesting against this unjust situation”, said 47-year-old sales rep Ferran Batalla. “[The referendum] is not an aggression, it’s an option to have justice, an option to ask the people what they think."

The protesters chanted in Catalan, “We will vote!”, and in Spanish, “We want to vote!” Some were distributing flyers that read in Catalan, “We vote to be free”, and graffiti on a telephone booth said in Catalan, “Voting is not a crime.”

In English a giant banner on top of the building that hosts the Catalan finance ministry read: “Welcome to the Catalan Republic”. At one point, police coming out of the building were met with deafening whistles before the crowd started chanting in Catalan: “Out with the occupying forces!”

“I don’t want to fight anybody in Spain, but we’ve reached a point in which we can’t understand each other any more”, said Batalla, who complained about the fact that the central government has always sternly refused to talk about planning a referendum. “When the state doesn’t want to negotiate, and doesn’t want you to leave, and doesn’t want to hear from you, and mistreats you… They think we are stupid, and we are fed up and this is over, because they are making us feel as if we are the bad ones."

In nearby Plaça de Catalunya just a month ago, barely a flag could be seen among the huge vigil following the terror attack on Barcelona. And if that proved to be a show of social and political unity between Madrid and Barcelona, today the Spanish government on the one side, and the Catalan authorities and many of their people on the other, couldn’t be more polarised.

Many Catalans mention the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, and the agreement with Westminster that preceded it, as an example of how things could and should happen. But the two situations are actually very different.

Catalonia makes up a far larger chunk of Spain's population and economic output than Scotland does of the UK. Meanwhile, Spain has a constitution that the government considers untouchable, while there is nothing similar in the British legal framework.

Late Tuesday, Rajoy made an official statement urging the Catalan government to get back to  law and to democracy, and stop at last this “escalation of extremism”.

"This referendum can’t be held, it has never been legal nor legitimate,” he said, before adding: “And every illegal act and every infringement will get its response, which will be determined, proportional and rigorous”.

The PM’s intervention was followed by a huge cacerolada in Barcelona and many other Catalan cities – meaning people started banging pans in their windows in protest. In the streets, demonstrations went on through the night as people tried to prevent the Guardia Civil from leaving the Catalan finance ministry. The protest was mostly peaceful, but police cars parked outside were destroyed while people chanted a rhyme in Spanish: “¡Esta noche os vais sin coche!”, or “Tonight you will leave without a car!”

Finally, at around 4am the first Guardia Civil agents started leaving the building. There were moments of tension between the protesters and the Mossos d’Esquadra, the Catalan regional police, who opened the way for the Guardia Civil.

Wednesday began calmer, as both sides considered their next steps. The Spanish government remains focused on preventing the vote from happening, but has said it will be open to dialogue afterwards. “On 2 (October) we will talk and this new dynamic will take us to look for solutions because the coexistence of all Spaniards must continue in Spain... We’ll have to sit together and talk, and that we will do”, Íñigo Méndez de Vigo, the spokesperson for the government, told Spanish Radio. 

By the afternoon, there hadn’t been word of response from the Catalan authorities, but having invested so much in the referendum and seeing the atmosphere in the streets, it’s not clear how they could backtrack.

In a bar in the Eixample area of Barcelona, right outside the city centre, people discuss the situation over their mid-morning coffee. “What happened yesterday was shocking, independently of whether one supports independence or not,” says 37-year-old Italian IT consultant Paolo Mosca, who has lived Barcelona since 2013.

“I understand that within the Spanish legal frame the referendum isn’t legal, I know this, but within the Catalan legal frame it is legal because it was approved in the Catalan parliament”, says Sergi Pedraza, a developer and who was born in Catalonia as the son of Andalusian parents.

“The only possible solution, because the situation has become unsustainable, is a referendum, but one well planned and agreed with the state”, says Álex Castaño, 28, also a developer, originally from Seville and who has lived in Barcelona since 2015.

All three would be eligible to vote and Sergi says he’d vote “Yes” while Álex says he wouldn’t vote. Paolo says he’d vote “Yes” because he understands and supports the will of those who want independence. But he and Álex say they’d probably leave if Catalonia becomes independent, because of the uncertainty of what may happen to today’s cosmopolitan Barcelona.

By noon the street demonstrations had resumed, this time in front of the Catalan High Court, where hundreds of people, many of them again carrying and wearing esteladas, were protesting against yesterday’s arrests. Loud Catalan music could be heard.

“The government in Madrid is insulting the intelligence of the Catalan people,” says retired businessman Enric T Coromina, who adds that he studied law and is “politically from the right”. He is wearing a barretina, a Catalan traditional red wool hat, and a T-shirt saying in English: “Make no mistake, I’m Catalan, not Spanish”. He’s sitting on a folding chair; has brought food, water and a blanket, and says he’s ready to spend the night here. He’s sure the vote will happen – he will back “Yes”– and will be legitimate even if not legal under Spanish law.

"If evolution is not possible from within the system, then there’s only one other way left and that’s revolution, civil disobedience,” he concludes, as more and more people join the protest.