Gerald Ford, US president from 1974 to 1977, entitled his autobiography A Time to Heal. “If I’m remembered, it will probably be for healing the land,” he wrote.

Ford had in mind the measures he took to extricate the US from the traumas of defeat in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal. Among them was his pardon of Richard Nixon for any crimes his predecessor might have committed during his presidency, including those connected to Watergate. The pardon plunged Ford’s presidency into controversy before it had got into its stride.

Like Ford in 1974, Spain’s ruling leftist coalition this week took a decision of the highest political and legal sensitivity. For the sake of national healing, Pedro Sánchez, prime minister, and his colleagues issued pardons for nine leaders of Catalonia’s separatist movement. They were jailed on charges of sedition after an unconstitutional attempt at creating an independent state in 2017.

It was no narrow legal question. For the power of pardon in western democracies is more than a legal instrument. To pardon is to make a political choice. A pardon is just as likely to infuriate opponents as to please supporters of the president or government that grants it.

In Spain’s case, fierce criticism of the pardons comes from Sánchez’s opponents on the right, not to mention the Supreme Court in Madrid. Undoubtedly, they have some strong arguments in their favour. But they miss the larger picture, which is about how the democratic order that replaced Francoism in the late 1970s should overcome the prolonged crisis in Catalonia.

The Spanish right suspects that Sánchez’s minority administration granted the pardons because it relies in parliament partly on the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), which leads the regional government in Barcelona. The right decries Sánchez’s cautious efforts to open a dialogue with the ERC, on the grounds that no government in Madrid should be soft on Catalan separatism. They are buoyed by recent electoral victories in the regions of Andalucía and Madrid that owe much to a backlash among Spanish voters against Catalan nationalism.

For its part, the Supreme Court contended last month that pardons would be unacceptable because the jailed separatists had shown no sign of remorse. This pronouncement denied Sánchez’s government the option of issuing full pardons. Instead, it has retained a ban on public office for the separatists and reserved the right to cancel the pardons if they reoffend. It is already clear that these conditions do not satisfy many pro-independence Catalans.

The Spanish right goes too far in suggesting that Sánchez is motivated largely by considerations of parliamentary arithmetic, or that he is insufficiently committed to Spain’s “indissoluble unity”, as set out in the 1978 constitution. His chief point is that “there is a time for punishment and a time for concord”, and about that he is surely right.

Between 2011 and 2018 conservative governments in Madrid inadvertently stoked the fires of Catalan separatism by showing little or no interest in dialogue even with moderate nationalists in Barcelona. A Spanish constitutional court ruling in 2010 was equally unhelpful. It struck down parts of an updated autonomy statute for Catalonia, even though Spain’s parliament had passed it and the region’s voters had approved it in a referendum. By torpedoing this statute, the court destroyed what was then the best chance for a workable settlement in Catalonia.

True, the jailed separatists appear unrepentant about their political beliefs. But the government is going ahead with the pardons on the grounds that they will promote social harmony in Catalonia and thereby serve Spain’s national interests.

The pardons are a gamble and an act of faith. They are unlikely to lead to a breakthrough on the Catalonia question. Public opinion in the province is sharply divided, but pro-independence sentiment is too strong to fade away quickly. The essential point is that the government is sending a powerful signal to everyone, whether Catalan separatists or supporters of a united Spanish state, about its desire to search for a settlement in a spirit of generosity.

Ford, too, wanted the US to move on. His pardon of Nixon stuck in the throats of millions of Americans, but a less lenient approach might have resulted in lengthy investigations and trials, including of the ex-president, and rubbed salt in the wounds of Watergate. Sánchez’s choice was no easier. The pardons will anger many Spaniards without solving Catalonia’s troubles overnight. But they may set the stage for a more creative effort at addressing one of Europe’s most intractable regional problems.