Notes From the Margins…

Catalonia Dreaming

  • September 30, 2015
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Last Friday morning I was on the top of Mount Canigou, ‘the sacred mountain of Catalonia’,  with my staunchly independentista friend from Barcelona,  Andreu.   Andreu had brought a Catalan flag with him to mark the occasion, and he wasn’t the only one.  A seventy-five-year-old  Barcelones  named Joan had climbed the summit with his daughter Anna in the hope that it would bring the Independence bloc luck in last Sunday’s elections.

Joan had no doubt what he hoped to achieve.  Halfway up the mountain he explained to a two French Catalans from Roussillon that, ‘ We want to escape from this shit that is Spain. I don’t mean the Spanish.  I mean Spain.’  Joan wanted this escape to be achieved by  mutual agreement.  He described it to the two Frenchmen as a mixture of divorce and a settling of accounts, in which Spain and Catalonia would give each other what they owed and each of them would go their separate ways.

The problem, as Joan and every other independentista like him knows well, is that Spain does not want such a divorce, and refuses to allow its increasingly unhappy Catalan spouse to walk away from a relationship that it considers crucial to its own national self-image.   On the summit Joan and his daughter took photographs of themselves draped in the Catalan flag while Andreu attached his own flag to the iron cross – a symbolic gesture that would once have earned him a long spell in jail under the Franco dictatorship.

The desire for an independent Catalan state is not a recent phenomenon.   Its roots can be traced back to the nineteenth century, when so many would-be states across Europe began to hatch from the shells of larger states and crumbling geopolitical empires.   Like many forms of nationalism, Catalanism has spanned the political spectrum from left to right, and incorporates different class forces, from  the  industrial magnates of the pre-World War I Lliga to rural farmers and the working class.

Traditionally one of the richest, if not the richest, regions in Spain, Catalonia’s nationalist sentiments have been driven not only a shared sense of Catalan identity rooted in language, culture, history and territory, but by the belief that it has given more to Spain than it receives in return, and by a sense of entrapment inside a corrupt, inefficient and even decadent Spanish state.

Those who remember the Spanish Civil War as a confrontation between left and right often forget that it was also a conflict between an army that saw itself as the armed embodiment of a centralist Spanish state and the nationalist aspirations of Catalonia and the Basque Country, which the Franco dictatorship spent decades attempting to suppress.

Even after Spain’s democratic transition and the autonomy statutes granted to the Basques and Catalans under the post-Franco constitution, that desire for independence has never subsided.

When I lived in Catalonia in the 1990s, it was more of a background hum.   In those years Jordi Pujol’s conservative  Convergència i Unió federation controlled the Catalan regional government and adroitly used a succession of high-profile events like the Olympic Games to promote Catalonia on the European and international stage, while exacting various political and economic concessions from successive Spanish governments that depended on its votes.

What is happening today is very different.  In the last decade, support for independence has soared, to the point when many independentistas feel closer to their goal than at any time in history.    The  main reasons for this resurgence are two-fold: firstly the strongly centralist, authoritarian, corrupt and startlingly politically inept governance of the ruling Partido Popular (PP), a conservative party with strong Francoist roots that appears to many Catalans the embodiment of the worst of Spain.

In the second place the 2007/8 financial crisis has brought Spain’s two-party system under pressure and produced new forms of civic activism, protest and new social movements.   In Catalonia, the crisis has acted as a political catalyst which has induced many Catalans, like the Scots,  to see independence as a progressive alternative to the austerity politics which the PP has attempted to forced down the throats of the Spanish population.

Neoliberal globalists such as the Peruvian novelist and Andean Thatcherite Mario Vargas Llosa often make spurious comparisons between Catalanism and Nazism, using the shallow argument that all forms of nationalism are essentially the same.   But  Catalan nationalism is not Golden Dawn, or the Ustacha, or Radovan Karadzic.   And the ‘all nationalisms are the same’ argument entirely ignores the search for social justice and for a new kind of politics that are driving the pro-independence surge of recent years.

In Scotland, proponents of ‘better together’ often appealed to notions of British social solidarity as an alternative to independence, even as these notions were being  made effectively redundant by the political domination of a small – mostly English – political elite in hoc to powerful financial interests and collectively wedded to the bitter medicine of economic ‘realism’ and its ugly sister Ms Austerity.

Similar sentiments have been expressed by writers such as Javier Marias and others who lament and mourn the Catalans antipathy towards Spain or present as a reactionary and essentially neurotic political manifestation.

To point this out doesn’t necessarily mean, of course, that self-determination offers the solutions to the problems that its proponents have identified.   But many Catalans clearly believe it will,  and their quest for independence is part of a search for a new kind of politics that has taken many different forms in many countries over the last few years.

The Catalans have been trying hard to achieve their aspirations,  through a skillful campaign of civic participation, rooted in an umbrella of local assemblies or  asambleas  and powerful popular mobilisations such as the massive 2012 I million march in Barcelona, which have assumed the proportions of a genuine social movement.

Using these methods they have sought to promote their cause nationally and internationally and increase the political pressure on a Spanish government that has remained resolutely tone-deaf and determined to resist any negotiations or concessions regarding Catalonia’s future.

Last Sunday’s elections were seen by many Catalans as a  de facto  referendum on independence, following repeated refusals  by the PP to allow the kind of referendum that took place in Scotland last year.   The elections were preceded by a Spanish version of ‘project fear’, which warned among other things of dried-up ATM machines and limits on cash withdrawals in an Argentina-style  corralito.

Unlike the Scots, the Catalans have resoundingly rejected these scenarios, and delivered 62 seats for the coalition of leftist and centre-right nationalist parties  Junts pel Sí  (‘Together for Yes’).  If the coalition can reach an agreement with the leftist pro-Independence CUP, the pro-independence bloc will have an absolute majority of 72 seats out of 135.

So Joan’s communion with the ancestral spirits of his native land may have borne fruit. But this victory is not quite a mandate for independence.  With less than 48 percent of the overall vote out of a record turnout of 78 percent, it is difficult to see how the pro-independence bloc can proceed to establish their own national institutions, as some have promised to do.

But it is equally difficult to see how the current Spanish government or its successors can ignore this result and pretend that it hasn’t happened. In fact  it is difficult to imagine than any future Spanish government will willingly grant independence to Catalonia – a process that would almost certainly be followed by independence for the Basques and possibly by other autonomous regions as well.

The election results don’t resolve this conundrum, and it is difficult to see how it will resolve itself in the future.    Ultimately, as Juan Luís Cebrián argued recently in the anti-independence  El País, the political crisis in Catalonia is the product of the failings of the Spanish state itself.

Cebrián believes these failings can be addressed.    Last Sunday’s elections make it clear than nearly two million Catalans don’t have the same opinion, and the government that takes power after December’s national elections will have a hard time convincing them otherwise.



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1 Comment

  1. Andreu

    30th Sep 2015 - 4:42 pm

    Good analysis Matt, I only disagree with the last paragraphs, regarding the ‘referendum’. This election was called as a last try to know wether Catalans want independence or not, because as you say, Spanish Gov. has always denied the referendum we want. Of course we wanted to achieve a higher result in votes but the rules of a normal election are different than those in a referendum. In a parliamentary election the victory is about seats, and the independentists have won 72 seats, an absolute majority out of 135.

    Cynically, those who have refused to allow a referendum in Catalonia (PP, PSOE, CS) now say ‘you have lost the referendum’.

    Besides, we have to take into account the fact that the 366,494 votes of ‘Catalunya Si Que Es Pot’ (brand of Podemos) according to their own recent statement, are not entirely ‘NO’ votes to independence. They stand for an agreed referendum between Spain and Catalonia and many of their voters are independentists. If only a third of these votes would go to ‘YES’, the global result would be different.

    Last but not least, many Spanish embassies have boycotted the votes of Catalans abroad. There are about 180,000 Catalans abroad with right to vote, many of them were unable to vote for bureaucratic reasons, simply they hadn’t got the papers on time. It seems that the Rome Spanish embassy has lost all Catalan votes.

    So, I think that though it will be difficult, the 72 MPs are entitled to proceed with the roadmap to independence.
    PS: A small correction, the ‘local assemblies’ don’t act individually but under the frame of the Catalan National Assembly that has led with other association, Omnium Cultural, the massive demonstrations of 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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