Notes From the Margins…

The Revolt of the Catalans

  • September 24, 2012
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Barcelona is a city where I spent nine years of my life and where I have many good friends.     So I’ve been following with special interest – and not without some anxiety – the upsurge in separatist sentiment in Catalonia, which reached its apotheosis in the huge pro-independence demonstrations in Barcelona on 11 September.

The freefall of the Spanish economy is clearly the decisive factor in the largest demonstration in Barcelona’s history, and the recent opinion polls suggesting that 51 percent of Catalans would vote ‘yes’ to independence.

With most of Spain’s autonomous regions, including Catalonia,   on the verge of bankruptcy and unable to pay for the provision of basic public services, many Catalans have become even more resentful than usual at a financial relationship with central government that they argue benefits Spain more than it does Catalonia itself.

But the economic crisis is really the straw that broke the camel’s back.  Even before the crisis really began to bite, secessionist sentiment was already on the rise, in the form of the local referendums or consultes populars that were held in various Catalan municipalities in 2009  .

These developments were partly influenced by a series of Spanish Court rulings limiting the use of Catalan as the main language of instruction in the region’s schools – one of the great achievements of Catalan nationalists in the post-Franco era.

Catalonia certainly has a strong historical case for independence, with a powerful sense of national and cultural identity that can be traced back to the medieval Catalan empire.   As the wealthiest region in Spain, it has the economic potential to fulfil the dreams of Catalan nationalists and create a ‘Switzerland on the Pyrenees.’

So why am I less than thrilled by these developments? Well, history is one reason.   It’s often forgotten that the hostility of the Spanish army to Catalan and Basque secessionism was a decisive factor in the military coup that ignited the Spanish Civil War.

The Spanish army has always seen itself as the backbone of a Spanish state whose component parts have not willingly accepted Spanish rule, and it has intervened various times in history to suppress the rebellious Catalans.

In a recent interview with the online magazine Alerta Digital,   Colonel Francisco Alamán de Castro, a serving officer in the Spanish army,  declared that “Spain is not Yugoslavia nor Belgium” and that “Catalonia will become independent over my dead body and many others.”

De Castro warned the “carrion-eating vultures” circling over the “comatose body of the fatherland” and that “ Although the lion appears to be sleeping, do not provoke the lion, because he has given abundant proof of his ferocity over the centuries.”

Indeed he has, and these are not words to be taken lightly.   A Catalan friend of mine   believes that the Spanish army would not be able to enforce such threats because of Spain”s membership of the EU.

But it is not melodramatic   to imagine a future scenario in which the Spanish armed forces intervened in Catalonia, presenting themselves as the protectors of the region”s Spanish-speaking population and the upholders of constitutional legality.     If that did happen, it is difficult to believe that the armed forces would feel constrained by Spain”s membership of the EU, or that the EU would be willing or able to stop them.

Of course there are other less dramatic scenarios.  Catalonia and the Spanish government might agree to a political ‘divorce’ of the type that resulted in the division of Czechoslovakia into two states during the 1990s.

But in Czechoslovakia, there were only two states in question, both of which wanted the same thing. I can’t imagine that any Spanish government would agree to a process that would encourage the country’s other autonomous regions to go down the same route.

Catalonia often presents itself as a victim of Spanish chauvinism, and there have certainly periods in which it has been, such as the ruthless suppression of Catalan culture and political institutions under Franco.

But a recent declaration by a leading Catalan politician that Catalonia should not have to provide money to Spain, to enable its population to “go to the village bar” contains more than a little petit-bourgeois condescension not to mention an all-too-common tendency amongst richer regions in many countries to resent having to finance their poorer counterparts.

Such resentment was one of the driving forces behind the break-up of Yugoslavia, especially following the catastrophic IMF-enforced restructuring of the Yugoslav economy.

The severity of the Spanish economic crisis coupled with the monumental levels of corruption and financial incompetence that allowed it to happen has clearly encouraged a similar salvese quien pueda (everyone for himself) mentality in Spain, and I can”t help feeling that the revolt of the Catalans is partly an expression of  this tendency.

The EU should not be surprised by these developments.  Brussels may not be especially favourable to the idea of an independent Catalan state, but draconian economic ‘reforms’ that bail out banks, cut social services to the bone and produce mass unemployment tend to unleash political forces that are not easily contained by ‘shock doctrine’ economics.

It is difficult to predict where all this will lead.   The right-of-centre Catalan politicians who have dominated Catalonia during Spain’s democratic transition are adept at using popular pressure for independence to force concessions from the Spanish government, and Artur Mas, the current president of the Catalan Generalitat appears to be playing the same game.

One minute he was saying that he wouldn’t go to the Barcelona demonstration, then he announced that he would only go in a “personal capacity”.  Now he is calling for “more Catalonia and more Europe” while simultaneously evading the question of whether that means “less Spain.”

Mas may well limit his aspirations to a renegotiation of Catalonia’s fiscal pact.  Or he may find himself propelled by the secessionist wave to seek a more radical redefinition of Catalonia’s relationship with Spain, in line with the slogan of the Barcelona demonstration slogan ‘Catalonia: a new state in Europe.’

Should things reach that stage, there is no telling what might happen.  And that is why I can”t help regarding the surge of patriotic fervour in the city where I once spent nine years of my life, with more trepidation than enthusiasm.

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  1. Guillermo de la Vega.

    1st Oct 2012 - 10:49 pm

    Well put. Trepidation is a perfect term. Catalonia is Spain. Spain ceases being Spain once one its members ‘decides’ being part of the unit. To call ‘espanoles’ to the other people of the state is a poisonous misnomer, let alone the epithet of ‘espanolitos’ that brings to mind the one of ‘boys’ for African Americans in this country.

    • Matt

      2nd Oct 2012 - 6:43 am

      Guillermo, I ought to clarify that I’m opposed to Catalan self-determination in principle, and I don’t believe that Catalonia has to be a ‘member’ of Spain.

      Though I certainly have reservations about some aspects of Catalan nationalism, as I do about most nationalisms, I’m aware that Catalonia has often been at the sharp end of Castilian chauvinism over the years and I’m not surprised that so many Catalans have said ‘enough.’

      My ‘trepidation’ has more to do with the potentially negative consequences of a unilateral separatist drive – particularly from the Spanish armed forces, which would almost certainly prevent it.

      I fear that these consequences would be so bad and so serious that Catalonia would be hammered into submission, just as it has been in the past, and that the road to independence might open the way for another Yugoslavia.

  2. federico Rafael

    8th Oct 2012 - 9:18 am

    Your “revolt of the Catalans” is hyperbolic, ridiculously one-sided, poorly researched and crudely selective in its exposition of the current situation in Cataluña. Into the bargain, you do a disservice to the great historian J.H. Elliott from whom you have borrowed your title. You claim to be a historian and a journalist and credit a number of books in your name but you bring these noble professions into disrepute.

    Colonel Alaman is entitled to his opinion but he does not, in my view, represent the voice of the majority in Spain. To use this single source as constituting evidence for military intervention in Cataluña is wildly irresponsible. We are not maddened but saddened by developments in Cataluña. Catalans are our brethren as Spaniards and Europeans; we have a great deal more in common than Mas (or other nationalists) would admit. Our histories and our cultures as Iberians are entwined and have been, and continue to be, mutually reinforcing. We Spaniards are enrichened by our diversity of peoples. Gallegos, Andalucians, Catalans, etc, add to our identity not take away from it.

    Whilst 51% of Catalans may, according to ONE opinion poll only, want independence from Spain it leaves a sizeable 49% of Catalans who do not. Shall we just wish them away to suit your argument? I even doubt the genuine depth of your 51% as Mas, along with many leaders of his ilk throughout history, cynically exploit external issues to deflect attention from internal troubles. For Mas read Kirchner and the Malvinas or Israel and the Palestinians in the Arab world.

    I will remind you that Barcelona is closer to Madrid than it is to Brussels. It has a big voice in a big country at the EU table whereas Cataluña on its own would be just one more piddling little nation pottering about the bottom of the EU pork barrel. For Spaniards, Cataluña is of course not piddling but central to our hearts and our soul but in the eyes of the rest of Europe (assuming it could join the EU) it would likely be seen as just another junior member.

    Finally, Catalan is not just a beautiful language but is the language of Cataluña and so it should, along with other “big” Spanish regional languages like Basque and Gallego, be taught in schools throughout Spain as part of an Iberian language curriculum. This would certainly help unify the country and make politicians like Mas redundant. However, Castellano must have equal status in the regions not because it is superior or better or the language of the “occupier” but because it is spoken by 500 million people. It is not only the lingua franca in Spanish America but the 2nd most important language in the US – the biggest and richest economy on the planet. To position its use as a “foreign” language whether in Cataluña or elsewhere in Spain is effectively to deny opportunity to Catalans.

    • Matt

      8th Oct 2012 - 10:21 am

      You are entitled to your opinions. But aggressive ‘you claim to be a historian…bringing noble professions into disrepute etc’ attacks do nothing to advance your arguments.

      Essentially you don’t like my opinions, which you also have a right to do. But you are not entitled to dismiss books that you haven’t read, or make cheap accusations that I have ‘done a disservice’ to J.H. Elliot by referencing his book title.

      This is a blog, not an essay, and nothing you’ve said has given me any reason to change my mind. Alaman is not the only army officer to have made such threats recently, and probably won’t be the last. Do you deny the fact that the Spanish army has intervened various times in history against both Catalan and Basque seccesionism, in fulfilment of what it sees as its historic duty to uphold the unity of the Spanish state?

      There is no reason to think it wouldn’t it do so again, should current developments in Catalonia reach the stage of an open breach that could be interpreted as a violation of the Spanish constitution.

      Of course the 51 percent poll leaves 49 percent that presumably doesn’t want independence, and that is something that I haven’t seen recognized in the current upsurge in Catalanism.

      I personally don’t think that 51 percent is a sufficient mandate for an independent Catalan state (assuming that the poll is accurate). I also, as I thought I’d made clear in my piece, have serious reservations about the desirability and viability of such a political project.

      But then, your argument that’ Catalans are our brethren as Spaniards and Europeans’ ignores the fact that a substantial number of Catalans don’t share this affinity and want ‘more Europe, less Spain.’

      I can’t predict how these contradictions will resolve themselves, and nor can you. But really, try and be a bit more polite next time you express your opinions – which, like mine, is all they are.

      • federico Rafael

        8th Oct 2012 - 11:08 am

        I stand by what I say: you have selected your sources according to the dictates of your agenda. You are certainly right in one thing and one thing only: I have not read your books and neither do I intend to. If this blog is evidence of your competence in history than I pass. You claim to have lived 9 years in Cataluña yet you appear to have learnt very little from the experience. Of course there will always be Catalans who want Europe and not Spain but I intuit that they are, like you, a noisy minority and nothing more.

        Suggest you read the following for a more balanced appraisal of the situation in Cataluña and also instruction on how to write “proper”, i.e., impartially :

        Can I also suggest you stick to the history of your own country before passing ill-conceived judgement on mine. Polite? Anybody who talks about my country in 2012 in terms of “Castillian chauvinism” and Cataluña being “hammered into submission” by the army isn’t deserving of my respect.

        • Matt

          8th Oct 2012 - 11:50 am

          My ‘agenda’ being what exactly? Catalan national independence? If you think that, you clearly haven’t understood my piece at all. Anyway, I leave you with your lofty disdain, and I can certainly live without your patronage, but I have no more time to waste responding to your contempt.

          • federico Rafael

            8th Oct 2012 - 12:18 pm

            Your “agenda”? I can only wonder whether it is to create noise, bring attention to your blog, hence the provocative use of Elliott’s book title and your intemperate use of language such as “chauvinism” and “submission”.

            Whether you are for or against Catalan independence is not the point. You are free to have an opinion as you are in Spain – one of the most progressive democracies in the world (the Zapatero government had, for all its sins, more women in government than ANY country in the EU).

            The issue is not your political position but the selective and crude language you have employed which you then try to pass off as learned, reasoned discourse which it is not. You do not understand my country so don’t pretend that you do.

            I too will not dedicate more time to your blog than it deserves. I have other, more important, fish to fry.

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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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