Found guilty

Is suspension of freedom and movement by a central government justified by the outbreak of a virus? If, like me, you were tormented by this question during last spring's quarantine, and if you experienced powerless anger at the way Spain's government was behaving, convinced that the legality of suspending fundamental liberties must be very shaky, whatever the context, there was something to celebrate this week: vindication.

The retrospective enormity of this week's ruling by Spain's Constitutional Court - that last spring's government-enforced lockdown was illegal - takes a few minutes to absorb. Think back to March and April 2020, when police presence on empty streets made one wonder why a health problem was turning into a quasi-criminal affair. It was also hard to avoid suspicion that the blurring of that distinction, by both the government and law enforcement authorities, was surely verging on criminal itself.

During all of those days that police officers scoured Spain's cities, towns and villages, handing out over a million fines to people caught doing anything other than food shopping, none of their actions had a legal foundation. If, last spring, it was impossible to believe that any such behaviour COULD have its basis and defence in the Spanish Constitution, it turns out that that was for very good reason - because none of it did.

Pedro Sánchez's government says that it had no time to introduce a more serious "state of exception", which may have permitted lockdown but which would have required prior parliamentary consent to introduce. A state of alarm doesn't need approval in advance by parliament, precisely because it's the least serious of three states of emergency outlined in the Spanish Constitution - it can be activated first and debated later. Sánchez is thus ensnared in a paradox: the situation last March wasn't serious enough to impose a state of exception, but it was serious enough to enforce an unprecedented suspension of liberties.

Even claiming lack of time begs a hard question, though. Arguably, because the Spanish government's actions last March had a direct impact on the lives of every person in the country - unlike most of the time - it should have been subject to tighter procedures and parliamentary approval, rather than allowed to act in the absence of such checks. If more time was required to attempt to proceed properly, running the "risk" that lockdown would be blocked by congress, then it should have been taken.

Other fascinating and important questions are raised by this week's ruling, but at least it's answered one viscerally-felt one, a nagging question that dominated the thoughts of lockdown sceptics in Spain last spring: "Is this right? Is this... OK?" Over a year later, the verdict's finally been returned: no, it isn't.