The UK Government has backed away from condemning the violent scenes that have marked Catalonia’s unofficial independence vote, a position that has contrasted starkly to the fierce criticism from other British political leaders.
Hundreds of people have been injured, some seriously, as baton-wielding riot police moved to shut down the vote, which was declared illegal by Spain’s central government.
Police burst into polling stations across Catalonia on Sunday, confiscating ballot boxes and voting papers as Madrid asserted its authority over the rebel region.
As rubber bullets were fired to disperse crowds protecting polling stations in Barcelona and other towns and cities, videos posted on social media showed police dragging voters from polling stations by their hair, throwing people down stairs and attacking Catalan firefighters who were protecting polling stations.
The number of people injured by police on Sunday rose above 800, health services in Catalonia said.
The Labour Party condemned the police’s actions, with Jeremy Corbyn urging Theresa May to appeal to Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy to “end police violence”.
Corbyn tweeted: “Police violence against citizens in #Catalonia is shocking. The Spanish government must act to end it now.”
Emily Thornberry Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, added:
“Police violence in Catalonia today is shocking, and the Spanish government should take action to end it now.
“While we believe disputes over sovereignty should be resolved in accordance with rules and laws, and any referendum on these issues needs to be both democratic and fair, it is unacceptable for the Spanish authorities to overreact to today’s events through aggressive police action and the forcible closure of polling stations.
“They must respect the right to peaceful protest, and all sides must strive to come together and reach a political solution to this constitutional crisis. Violence of any sort will simply worsen divisions, and make a resolution harder to reach.”
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable insisted Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson should call in the Spanish ambassador and tell him that the police response was “unacceptable”. Sir Vince said:
“Police in a democracy should never drag people violently out of polling stations, whatever the arguments for or against holding a referendum.
“The police response looks to have been brutal and completely disproportionate.
“The Foreign Secretary should break off from conspiring against the Prime Minister and call in the Spanish ambassador to tell him that this is completely unacceptable.”
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon called on the Spanish government to “change course” and let people “vote peacefully” in the Catalan poll. Sturgeon expressed her concerns on Twitter, stating:
“Some of the scenes in #Catalonia this morning are quite shocking and surely unnecessary. Just let people vote.
“Increasingly concerned by images from #Catalonia.
“Regardless of views on independence, we should all condemn the scenes being witnessed and call on Spain to change course before someone is seriously hurt. Let people vote peacefully.”
But the UK Government response appeared anxious to show solidarity with Madrid, and made no mention of the police violence.
“The Catalonian referendum is a matter for the Spanish govt & people,” wrote Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, adding: “Spain is a close ally and a good friend, whose strength and unity matters to the UK.”
The Foreign Offce’s response was swiftly criticised.
Guy Verhofstadt, EU Parliament’s Brexit chief, said: “I don’t want to interfere in the domestic issues of Spain but I absolutely condemn what happened today in Catalonia.”
In a televised address, Spain’s prime minister Rajoy said police acted with “firmness and serenity”.