The Consell de Mallorca. | M. NADAL


An old friend of mine sent me an email the other day in which he said that the lockdown in the UK had exposed the dangers of too much devolution. All UK countries, he noted, have different lockdown rules. Apart from confusion that has arisen during the lockdown, there is a more general point to be made, and it relates to the costs of duplication - more civil servants, more parliamentary authorities, more ministers, more legislators and more advisors in each of the UK countries.

I have to say this made me chuckle. I responded by pointing out that Spain is something of a world beater in the devolution stakes. Seventeen regions with their individual governments, plus provincial administrations, the large cities and all the municipalities, most of them far from large - 62% of Spain's 8,131 municipalities have populations of under 1,000 inhabitants.

Of the provincial administrations (or akin to provincial), there is the Council of Majorca, its own quasi-government and for which, when he was president, Miquel Ensenyat had ambitions of furthering this quasi-governmental status. Ensenyat would always offer a rider about ensuring that there wasn't duplication (and therefore the additional costs), but I doubt that many could have believed that there wouldn't be - the Council has form in this regard.

Javier Mato, a journalist who is typically good value, recently wrote a stinging criticism of the Council. This was apropos a suggestion from the Council's president, Catalina Cladera, for a kind of "twinning" arrangement with the UN's World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), whereby Majorca would play host to events held by the Madrid-based UNWTO. He didn't think much of the UNWTO, and he isn't alone in this regard, or the Council. "Two institutions which speak the same language ... and make as many speeches as necessary, all of them empty."

The suggestion was thus one for an alliance between "nothingness and the absurd". Seldom has there been a proposal for "a more useless marriage". Why hasn't the Council been dissolved? The reason why not is in order to "feed hundreds of members of political parties".

The role of the Council and the need for the Council is an old theme. Part of this role is to ensure that autonomy in the Balearics is "closer to the citizens", yet if one takes recent experience (lockdown, aka the state of alarm), was it the Council that was close to the citizens? I would suggest that this closeness was from the Balearic government but more so from the town halls. The Council, while not redundant, wasn't a focal point.

While accepting the argument about the costs of duplication that stem from devolution, it seems to me that rather than the lockdown (in Spain) having exposed the dangers of too much devolution, it in fact highlighted the advantages of certain tiers of administration, especially given the context of what the state of alarm actually entailed. A difference with the UK was the very clear assumption of central government powers and the equally clear (for the most part anyway) communications.

All the regions, all provinces, all municipalities were governed from the centre. Some didn't like this, but the Constitution allowed for the fact that at a time of great crisis, the Spanish government had the legal means to step in, take control and issue the rules.

While Madrid was calling the shots, the regional governments were of course responsible for some of the key responses to the crisis - the health services, most obviously. The messaging was coming from the Balearic government as much as it was from Madrid, while it was the town halls which really got close. They did this in a variety of ways, e.g. the constant updates through social media, local police doing cheer-up drive-pasts, collaborating on supplies of basic needs.

It might seem nonsensical that there are as many municipalities as there are, but this number did provide one very good means of applying control. You could be stopped within your municipality, but if you crossed the municipal border, you really did need to have a very good reason for doing so. The municipalities thus acted as an in-built mechanism to limit the spread of the virus.

This isn't to say that the Council didn't play its role, but it hadn't, for example, been the Council which had called on the Spanish government to treat the island (and the other three) as if they were provinces and therefore further limit mobility. The Balearic government had wanted this, and Madrid agreed. The Balearic government is Madrid's "interlocutor", not the Council.

The costs of devolution aside, the state of alarm in Spain did actually show how devolution can function very effectively. The circumstances were admittedly very unusual, but this devolution did offer a convenient and effective mechanism. Where the Council is concerned, perhaps one might conclude that there is good and there is less good devolution.