A lesson in not over promising

Politicians beware. The media is always watching and once they sense a story they will run with it and not stop until we have all become bored. This may seem an obvious statement and yet the Catalan referendum coverage has once again showed us how exposed politicians are in the media glare.

This time last week, Catalan separatists were full of fighting talk following the weekend’s referendum and the Spanish PR calamity that saw pictures of policemen beating up civilians beamed around the world.

As emotions ran high, the Catalan Parliament got carried away on the wave and signalled that it would declare independence within the week. Naturally this sent journalists into a feeding frenzy and over the past few days pundits have feasted heartily on this ready-made media meal, ruminating over every potential plot twist – from the breakup of the EU to the resumption of Spanish civil war

Yet a week later, the separatists are discovering that they have somewhat painted themselves into a corner with their bravado. A 90% vote based on a 43% turnout (and reports of ‘irregularities’) has not given them the legitimacy they need to fulfil their vision, and the sight of hundreds of thousands of pro-Spain supporters marching through the same streets that witnessed the police brutality of the previous weekend hasn’t helped either.

Having promised to declare independence Catalunya’s President Carles Puigdemont – a former mayor of Girona and unknown outside of the region a few days ago – has now backtracked on his initial rhetoric. He has declared that although the region had “won the right to independence”, he is now “suspending the effects of the declaration of independence” in order to talk to the Madrid government.

Cue a descending fug of confusion… Have you declared independence or not? everyone is asking, from the Spanish PM to the Washington Post to many of the pro-independence Catalans who thought their referendum was a done deal. Riding the populist tide rarely ends satisfactorily, as we have become used to seeing, and the separatist block could be said to have shown political naivety for riding it this far.

The Brits of course are referendum experts and thank goodness we can still count ourselves as a European powerhouse in this respect! In spite of the unravelling turmoil caused by Brexit, at least the vote was embarked upon with everyone in mind and the Scottish referendum is an even more obvious example the Catalans should have heeded. If you set the ground rules first, then nobody can contest the result.

But that is the problem with letting the cat out of the bag before it is ready to jump. This current knee jerk style of politics is perhaps a reflection of our social media culture where it is far too easy to post now and worry about the consequences later. Bring back the art of the persuasive argument!

For Carles Puigdemont and his colleagues, no doubt the allure of booking a place in Catalan history had great appeal but did they really think the ride would be that easy? As this story runs, the Catalan politicians risk being thrown under the bus by their own supporters just as much as by their opponents. Making a promise is easy. Delivering a promise is a different matter entirely. The only thing the separatists can be thankful for is that their referendum campaign did not feature a bus with the number 350 written on the side of it…

Luan de Burgh

October 2017

Luan de Burgh is a speaker, writer and founder of de Burgh Training – a specialist business communication training provider dedicated to helping people perform at their highest potential.