Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.
On 1st October, 2017, Catalonia’s independence referendum –deemed illegal by Madrid– reached a worldwide audience via TV screens that showed riot-police bludgeoning Catalans trying to vote. Weeks later, its parliament declared independence and found itself immediately dissolved as Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy invoked article 155 of Spain’s constitution for the first time and imposed direct rule.
Doubtless many spectators were familiar with Catalonia’s robust identity, whether through Barcelona FC, Gaudí and Adrià, sardanes and castelleres, or the Romanesque churches of Lleida. The same can be said for awareness that its differences amounted to a powerful desire for independence from Spain. Fewer, however, will know whether such wishes are, in fact, legitimate. Is Spain right to assert that this is regionalism getting ideas above its station, or is Catalonia more accurate in stating that it has been forcibly digested by a bully-state?
The answer is circuitous. It doesn’t just bring up the bugbears of nationalism (with its essentialism an anathema to postmodern norms), but also relates to more fashionable notions of agency and self-determination: do nations need states to express themselves, for instance? Moreover, none of these queries takes place in a vacuum. If Catalonia successfully seceded, the EU –brimming with countries loathe to address their own separatist movements– would most likely force it to re-apply to the bloc, meaning Catalexit would follow Brexit. Finally, and perhaps most pertinently, the issue digs up historical skeletons that have been long curated in contrasting manners.
To judge the merits of each suppliant, it helps to delve into the past to see which narrative (the paisos Catalans [Catalan homelands] vs Spain) best reflects realities on the ground. As is typical with the Mediterranean, there’s an earlier record of Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans settling, trading and generally lording over the indigenous peoples of coastal Hispania. Spanish particularism, however, didn’t really appear until the Visigoth elites split over whether to assimilate to the Catholicism of the locals or retain their own Arian beliefs.
Making the most of this dilemma, the Muslims invaded in AD 711, taking over most of the peninsula except for the northern mountain ranges such as the Cantabrian and the Pyrenees. Dissent arose around AD 1000, when the Caliphate collapsed into a number of statelets known as taifas (from the Arabic for “band”).
Though at this stage, cohesion was largely reliant on a shared Roman and Visigothic past, Christianity as a faith, and Latin as linguistic glue, the peninsula was divided into numerous kingdoms with strongholds on the Caliphate’s periphery: Portugal and Galicia in the west; Asturias, León and Castile in the north, and Navarre, Aragón and Catalonia springing from the Pyrenees in the north-east. Within this roiling crucible, it isn’t clear which units, from counties (such as Basque Biscay) to kingdoms, deserve to have the status of nationhood applied. Catalonia clearly belongs in this grey area; a position maybe paralleled by Wales in Britain where a people, a nation, occupies a principality and not a kingdom.
Much of this ambiguity was born from Catalonia’s feudal status as part of the Pyrenean counties that once constituted the Marca Hispanica (Spanish March) of the Carolingian empire; which had similar fortified territories at its extremities, including the Danemark and Ostmark we know as Denmark and Austria today. The strength of the empire’s reputation usefully deflected interest from other Spanish kingdoms, which were engaged in a complicated game of mergers and acquisitions, swallowing up their neighbours in various (and frequently officious) constitutional arrangements.
This aegis collapsed under Almanzor, the last Islamic warlord who, for twenty years, terrorised almost every Spanish territory until his death in AD 1002. Angered by French reluctance (or inability) to come to his aid, Guifre el Pilos (Wilfred the Hairy) –the Count of Barcelona and primus inter pares– refused to pay fealty to the Carolingians and instead began a dynasty of his own. (According to legend, the French didn’t properly exit the story until Charles the Bald, in what must have been a rather belated sortie against the Muslims, dunked his hand into the mortally injured Hairy William to enjoin the Catalans to follow him into battle after daubing four bloody fingers on a golden shield that would be vexillologically traduced as the “Senyera”).
In reality, Almanzor’s antics only delayed the creep of Spanish kingdoms on to the plains that lay between the Duero river and the mountains. León was quickly established, and Toledo’s subjugation in AD 1085, together with that of Valencia nine years later, showed which way the tide had turned. In the conflagration of conquest, Asturias, Galicia, León and Castile merged into a single kingdom, with the latter and youngest of these realms emerging as the spearhead among them, and giving the entity its name. This was imitated by several Pyrenean counties to the east, which united to form the kingdom of Aragón in AD 1035.
The great push-back that would later be known as the “Reconquista” took the form of a crusade. Mirroring Germans pushing east at the expense of the Slavs, the Spanish took the offensive, capturing Lisbon with the help of the English and winning Navas de Tolosa, a decisive battle that opened up the Andalusian plains with the aid of the French in AD 1212.
The prosperity that followed created its own sort of turmoil in Catalonia (which is curiously first mentioned, together with the “Catalans”, in a document by an eleventh century Italian poet). Escalating rivalries meant assemblies known as pau i treva, or “peace and truces,” had to be held. Though contemporary Catalans claim these fall under the politically charged notion of the fet diferencial —the fact of difference or the differential fact i.e., traits that are undeniable and unassimilable to the greater Spanish narrative— they often run counter to facts: it’s hard to argue, for example, that Catalonia had a more democratic flavour than the rest of the peninsula, when ultimately it was more of a French feud than a Spanish frontier society.
Tensions simmered as the Caliphate receded. In the lifetime of El Cid, kingdoms competed to absorb the coastal taifas of Valencia, Murcia and Huelva, among others, and two players rose to dominance in the upheaval: Castile and the fanatic Almoravids. Sensing the opportunity to defer being devoured by either, Ramón Berenguer IV united Barcelona with the kingdom of Aragón by marrying the heiress Petronila in 1151. Though each territory was ruled separately and retained its own distinct language and administration, their shared oath to the monarch is tinged with pugnacity:
“We, who are as good as you, swear to you, who are no better than us, to accept you as our king and sovereign lord, provided you observe all our liberties and laws – but if not, not.”
If nationhood is synonymous with claiming a kingdom’s genealogy, the Catalans don’t fit the brief. Going from dependent to independent counts, then to rulers of a composite monarchy, the French did not officially surrender their sovereignty of the Catalan marcher states until 1258 —more than a century after the union of Aragón and Barcelona—.
Despite their clear supremacy, the Aragonese and their Catalan constituents were hardly passive in the face of Castilian power. Jaime I the Conqueror took Mallorca in 1229 and Valencia in 1245. Sicily fell in 1282 and Sardinia in 1323, with time in between to send an expedition under Roger de Flor to the Byzantine Emperor, Andronikos II, against the Turks. These almogavers (privateer-types whose deeds were most notoriously recorded by Ramón Muntaner, one of their own) even managed to acquire two Catalan duchies on Roman territory: Athens and Neopatria.
This was also the golden age of the Catalan corts, which effectively preformed the legislature-like Parliament in England or the Diets in Germany. They were dominated by the nobility until Pedro IV checked their privileges in the Battle at Epila (1348). Tearing up the Privilege of the Union with a small dagger, he had molten bronze poured down the throats of the rebel leaders in a manner reminiscent of Crassus or the Emperor Valerian, and set up the Generalitat to sit whenever the corts were in recess.
A series of poor harvests and the plague meant social ills spread fast. In Barcelona, discontents organised themselves into two armed groups in an odd play on Matthew 7:1-5: the biga “beam” (aristocrats favouring free-trade) versus the busca “mote” (lower nobility and productive classes favouring protectionism). Meanwhile, in the countryside, Catalan nobles still subjected peasants to humiliating exactions known as malos usos (bad customs), for which the only way out was to pay a remensa, or exorbitant ransom.
It is with the marriage of Fernando of Aragón to Isabel of Castile that historiographies (and hagiographies) are spliced. For Spanish historians, Fernando is the epitome —as he was, in fact, an inspiration for— Machiavelli’s Prince: a military commander who recovered for his kingdom the counties of Roussillon and Cerdanya previously ceded to France and who, paleo-enlightened despot that he was, abolished malos usos in favour of the right of emphyteusis (a type of long-term lease). Conversely, to the Catalans, Ferdinand —the descendent of a Castilian dynasty through his mother— was responsible for introducing the Inquisition to Spain and the initiator of the great centripetal steamroller of Spanish centralism, uniformity and reaction, which he got off to a flying start with the conquest of Granada (1492), Naples (1504) and Navarre (1512).
The truth cuts both ways. While Catalonia undoubtedly went from being Aragón’s partner-in-crime to simply just another subject of Castile, the benefits of this arrangement became readily apparent when the latter sent its soldiers to defend Aragón’s most prized overseas possession, Naples. While Catalans today are quick to add that, as a part of the kingdom of Aragón, their corts carried on strong in demonstration of their democratic vigour, Elliott (1984, p.16) may hew closer to the facts when he writes:
“The true contrast is not between a ‘free’ Crown of Aragon and an ‘enslaved’ Castile; it is a more subtle contrast between a Castile which enjoyed justice and good government, but had little defence against the arbitrary and fiscal demands of the Crown and a Crown of Aragon well protected against arbitrary taxation and royal absolutism, but possessed of a constitution easily abused by an irresponsible aristocracy”.
In short, though not particularly rich, the corts were very argumentative, and Spanish kings preferred to stay away than put up with the onslaught of dissentiments and greuges (problems and grievances) for very few in subsidies or men. For most Spaniards, this accounts for Catalonia’s relative absence in the nation’s grand imperial schemes.
Following the 1588 defeat of its Armada, Spain experienced over a century of depression and military misfortune. Propelled into disaster by intellectual sclerosis and the constant effort of defending patrimonies that far outweighed its economic resources, Felipe III began to debase the vellon coin, almost ruining the country in the process.
It was no different in Catalonia, where gangs of bandits splintered into factions —the nyerros and cadells after their founding leaders— who roamed the countryside in search of silver convoys on their way to Flanders. Nor did this brigandage amount to much when compared to the commotion caused by the Count-Duke of Olivares’ plan to homogenise and pool Spain’s resources, so that no regions were undertaxed, even as Spanish troops were being billeted in Catalonia to fight the French troops sent by Richelieu during the Thirty Years’ War.
All of these currents converged in what became known as the Reaper’s War. Ne’er-do-wells joined the segadors (reapers/harvesters) who typically entered Barcelona around the time of Corpus Christi to solicit work, and together they ended up sacking the viceroy’s palace before knifing Santa Coloma as he tried to escape aboard a galley. In the chaos ensuing, Pau Claris, a priest and lawyer, proclaimed a Catalan Republic and returned it to French sovereignty in return for its protection of Barcelona city from the certain wrath of Felipe IV.
The ploy worked —for a while. The country was in disarray because of the English-backed Portuguese secession of the year before, and the Spanish army was stopped at the gates of Barcelona thanks to French help at the Battle of Montjuic (1641). The Peace of Westphalia of 1648 signalled the end of Spanish hegemony, and the start of French dominance. In Catalonia, however, the idea of being reduced to a French colony was fast rejected and Barcelona capitulated to Felipe in 1652, on the condition that its fueros (charters/laws) were respected.
But for many in Catalonia and Castile, the die had been cast. Each had shown their true colours. Catalonia had called itself a principality and wed itself to a pluralistic model of Spain; Castile had called itself a kingdom and desired absolute monarchy. While the latter may sound more enlightened to contemporary sensibilities, Vicens observed (1970, p.111) that the former:
“Was precisely the system that had led to the agony of the last Hapsburg kings and … without a broad margin of reforms (both of the laws and of the traditional regional fueros) it would be impossible to put the country back on its feet”.
Speaking of Hapsburgs: as Carlos II, one of the last of the Spanish variety, lay dying; a succession crisis loomed. The powers of Europe lined up behind their two contenders: Charles, Archduke of Austria, another Hapsburg, and Philip of Anjou, a Bourbon. At first, Catalonia stood by the legitimist, Felipe, named in Carlos’ royal testament and his closest male relative by birth. But a crafty British agent, Mitford Crowe, organised a pro-Austrian party, securing Barcelona for Charles to disembark in. Once there, he was sworn in as Carlos III.
Britain took Gibraltar in 1704 and Menorca in 1708, proving its dominance of the Mediterranean. Between those dates, Charles entered Madrid, and Castile remained hostile. In 1707, the tables turned in the strangest of ways when another British agent, the Duke of Berwick —the illegitimate son of James II and Arabella Churchill, sister of John, the first duke of Marlborough— routed Charles’ English-Dutch-Portuguese army, commanded by the Marquis of Ruvigny, a Frenchman who had switched sides on account of his Huguenot faith.
The stalemate was broken in 1711, when the Emperor Joseph I died unexpectedly without male issue and Charles departed for Vienna to seize the bigger prize. Barcelona was besieged and, after heroic resistance, fell. Viewing Catalonia as a den of traitors, Felipe had a citadel built to police the city, abolished the old privileges and institutions in their entirety and appointed non-Catalans to political posts.
In lieu of the old ways (such as the fueros, corts and Generalitat) stood the Nueva Planta, or New Plan. Whether this was a wise decision that paved the way for economic growth —turning lighter, arbitrary taxes into heavier, but more transparent and predictable ones— or a brazen act of cultural vandalism is another moot point between Spanish and Catalan historians. The former see it in terms of post-war growth, as when Germany and Japan submitted to reforms after the Second World War, while the victors became burdened with older, anachronistic attitudes. The latter see it simply as another attempt to abolish Catalonia, which included a rather farcical attempt to move the University of Barcelona to Cervera, doomed to infamy by the apocryphal uttering: “Lejos de nosotros la funesta manía de pensar” (Far be it from us this nefarious craze for thought).
Whichever view is taken; the fact remains that through these measures Catalonia began to develop not just immediately, but faster than Madrid. Growing on a solid agrarian base and making the most of the abolition of internal tolls between Castile and Aragón, the Catalans lent sums to bishoprics, communities and individuals but, more importantly, invested in the vine. One of the fastest-growing crops in the Mediterranean, it supplied Catalonia with its two most important exports, aiguardent (firewater) and brandy, at a time when Spain had finally ditched its most regressive monopoly: its restriction that all trade with the Americas must pass through Seville (1765) and Cádiz (1717).
Before long, Catalonia became the “Manchester of the Mediterranean,” exporting silk handicrafts, ironware, musical instruments, cotton textiles, felt hats, leather goods, paper, books and soap. Reinvesting returns to import second-hand machinery and coal from England, so many were successful that the period soon became known as the Febre d’Or (Gold Fever).
The bonanza came to a halt, however, when in 1806, Napoleon tried to enforce a continental blockade against Britain. The latter’s oldest ally, Portugal, refused to participate and Spain naively allowed a French army to yomp across Iberia to bring the Portuguese into line. In March, 1808, the marshal Murat entered Madrid claiming to play the arbitrator between King Carlos and his heir Fernando. Napoleon then invited them to Bayonne, where he encouraged both to renounce the Spanish throne in favour of his brother, Joseph. When they did, the War of Spanish Independence, known as the Peninsula War to the Anglophone world, commenced.
Despite a Catalan victory at El Bruch and a surprise triumph at Bailén, most of Spain was lost. It was not until the British general Arthur Wellesley invaded and took Lisbon that Spain truly rallied. At Arapiles (1812) and Vitoria (1813), the French were driven out of Spain, but whether the victory spoke to the power of nationalism or regionalism —with the provincial juntas taking many by surprise with their combative vigour— is debatable. As nationalisms rose across Europe, the question as to whether Spain was a nation or a nation of nations —the singular España or the plural las Españas— became yet more pointed.
This enquiry took a particularly mordant turn as regional gaps increased and pricklier identities, such as the Basque and Catalonians, became the prime-movers of industrialisation; melding radical vision with separatist or federalist tendencies. Madrid provided little leadership as the country floundered between every variation of nineteeth century ideology, from reactionary Carlism —a rural movement that provoked three civil wars, one of which was put down by general Espartero, the man who famously pronounced “[y]ou have to bomb Barcelona once every 50 years [to keep it in line with Spain]”)— to British-backed “progressivism,” in a situation that would lead to the cantonalist rebellions of 1873, in which towns and cities —famously among them, Cartagena— sought autonomy through anarchy.
It took a disaster of the first magnitude to shake Spain from its torpor. In 1898, defeat in the Spanish-American War marked the end of its empire and its demotion to a third-rate power. By then, Catalonia prided itself on being la fábrica de España. The paradox, however, was that few of its products could compete in international markets, so even as its sense of nationalism escalated, Catalonia became ever more dependent on the Spanish market, arguing for ever greater tariffs to sit behind. Any reasoning to the contrary was dismissed as revealing oneself as too “fond of the English”, “too English” —period—, or possessed of a “scholastic fanaticism”.
This economic cosiness cosseted a cultural embryo. Inspired by Mazzini’s example in Italy, at the turn of the nineteenth century the Catalans began reviving medieval traditions such as the Jocs Florals (an annual poetry contest in Catalan) and making way for ventures such as the La Renaixenca (the Renaissance) review, which sought to bring the Catalan tongue back into the cities from the countryside. The Spanish state, conversely, spent little on education, and so its culture soon became associated with narrowness, passivity and indifference.
In this period, the lawyer and politician Prat de la Riba began to argue that Catalonia had never participated in Spanish colonial policy, stretching the truth of its tacit exclusion into a powerful lie (since Catalonia had become invested in Cuba by the nineteenth century). De la Riba’s Catalonia clearly formed ballast to a Spain that had gone, as it were, too native, resembling “a disorderly bunch of African tribes” instead of a proud European nation.
No matter the historical accuracy of his claims, they hit a chord with Catalans who rioted, insisting that their wealthy counterparts were now avoiding conscription as soldiers embarked from Barcelona for war in Morocco in 1909. In the clashes that followed, known as the “Tragic Week,” the three-way battle between anarchists, middle-class gunmen and the Spanish armed forces killed over 100 civilians. Afterwards, severe punishments were meted out, some of which included death sentences. The role of victims such as Francesc Ferrer, a teacher accused with little evidence of instigating the revolt, caused ripples in the international community.
In a penitential mood, the Spanish government acquiesced to the creation of a Mancomunitat, an autonomous government for Catalonia, in 1914, which was quickly crowned a new Generalitat to play on the medieval echoes. It was short-lived, though, as in seeking to combat caciquismo (or big-boss-ism), the dictator Primo de Rivera abolished it in 1925 and went on to prohibit the flying of any flag but the Spanish, to suppress the Catalan tongue and to enforce harsh penalties for disobedience. This bluntness alienated most Catalans and turned identification with Catalonia from a secondary identity into a potentially primary one. This newfound fervour also ensured that, when Primo de Rivera fell in 1930, it wasn’t just a Spanish republic that was announced, but a Catalan one too. Francesc Macià proclaimed its birth as part of an “Iberian Federation,” and Madrid immediately sent out a team to negotiate. The compromise reached held that Catalonia would be an autonomous region within the Spanish republic, with the Catalan language co-official (alongside Castilian) and all previous references to Catalan sovereignty or nationhood erased.
But a bond had been broken, and this was made obvious when the Supreme Court ruled in favour of landlords against vineyard tenants (who measured their tenancies against the growth of the vines) known as rabassaires, and the Generalitat (under Lluis Companys) decided to ignore, and ultimately disobey, the government. Indeed, Companys went on to proclaim Barcelona as the capital of a “federal republic” against the fascist forces that would betray it. General Batet was forced to besiege the Generalitat. Casualties numbered roughly 30 dead and more than 100 wounded. Companys was condemned to 30 years’ imprisonment.
When the Civil War broke out soon after, Barcelona suffered its own civil ructions, memorably documented by George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia (1938), with PSUC (communist socialists) and the smaller POUM (anarchists and intellectuals) confronting one another in 1937. Less renowned, however, are the left’s movements against the right (including Catholics), which resulted in over 9,000 deaths (and the results of which lend Catalonia its peculiarly homogeneous brand of leftist politics today).
But the real war was won by Franco when he drubbed the Republicans at Ebro in July, 1938. What arrived a year later was not peace, but defeat, with 14,500 people incarcerated, almost 4,000 (Companys included) condemned, and many sacked for being “disaffected,” i.e. not happy enough with fascism. The use of Catalan was, again, prohibited; institutions were expelled, street-names changed, and the term rojoseparatistas (or red separatists) was coined to smear anyone harbouring Catalan sentiments from feeling a part of the Spanish state. But whether this picture amounted to prejudice against Catalonia per se is dubious. Franco’s oppression was impartial: even gallego, the Galician dialect of his home-town of Ferrol, was put under the cosh.
As in Pan’s Labyrinth, the Guillermo del Toro film that juxtaposes a young girl’s subterranean fantasies with the heartless violence of the early Francoist era, Catalonia went underground or, perhaps more accurately, it went private, not to re-emerge into the public sphere until the international climate had become hostile enough for Franco to change tack. The dictator who had once sent 50,000 men to fight alongside the Nazis in Russia was also keenly sensitive to Spanish absence in the EEC and the UN. Leaning towards political moderation and economic liberalism in his later years, the Catalans found his weak spot by operating under the patronage of the Church.
This didn’t always work: an abbot of Montserrat was forced into exile in 1965 for criticising the dictatorship in Le Monde. But having student unions in the sanctuary of monasteries, making sure priests demonstrated over the torture of political prisoners, and having figures such as Jordi Pujol launching slogans like “We want Catalan bishops!” was, for the most part, a strategic success.
Despite Franco’s terrible impact on Catalonia’s culture, he did favour the region’s industry, which presented his military mindset with a model image of what economic growth should be. The INI (Instituto Nacional de Industria) created the SEAT car company in the Freeport Zone of Barcelona (by the end of the dictatorship, approximately 20% of INI’s assets were in Catalonia). It accounts for why Catalonia had 45.5% of all highways built in Spain by 1975, and for why it came second only to Castile-León in the distances covered by railroads (though admittedly, it is scandalous that Tarragona —part of the busiest land corridor in southern Europe— suffers from 35 km of one-direction rail, while Madrid is served by high-speed trains).
In light of this, anti-Catalan commentators often place the blame of resurgent Catalan nationalism since the eighties on the shoulders of Madrid. After all, the identity’s truculence is par for the course, but Spain’s indulgence isn’t. So while CiU, the party of Pujol, has banged the drum of “el fet diferencial”, “fer pais” (building the country) and a “Spain of Spains” (as the UK is a “nation of nations”); Spain, in the singular, has let the region dictate wriggle-room into the constitution and disobey court sentences at will. Likewise, while the Catalans have expressed the high achievements of their literature (Ausiàs March, Joanot Martorell et al.), few Spaniards have balanced these claims with the Castilian works of Catalans such as Juan Boscán, Antoni de Capmany, José María Gironella or Ana María Matute.
The Spanish have, moreover, failed to accuse the Catalans of a certain cynicism. Though the latter are fond of citing the fact there is an annual fiscal deficit of 16 billion euros each year (roughly 8% of Catalan GDP) as evidence that Spain “robs” it, the fact is that though the region (16% of the Spanish population) produces roughly 20% of the nation’s GDP, it also possesses 35% of its debt. Independence becomes more appetising in scenarios such as these, due to the belief that these debts can be “renegotiated” come exit-time.
The Spanish have also refused to call the Catalan bluff on corruption. This carries political consequences, because though the region often portrays itself as a humble, sober and respectable left-wing outfit, members of its ruling class can be easily accused of abusing the notion of sovereignty to act with impunity. A loud example of this is the Banca Catalana, whose directors —according to officials from Madrid— “lied shamelessly through their beards” about conduct involving double accounting, among other things. They were not prosecuted after the Supreme Court declined to take up the case when Pujol, who in 2015 confessed to having defrauded the state for decades, whipped up a political firestorm to turn his personal affairs into an affront to the Catalan national consciousness.
Much of this behaviour has passed muster thanks to the fact that the 1978 Constitution is ambiguous enough to, in polite terms, contain multitudes; and to, less politely, reflect cognitive dissonance. So, according to Article II, Spain holds the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation,” though the same text states that Spain also consists of “nationalities” (translated into seventeen autonomous communities, despite just three of them —Catalonia, Basque Country and Galicia— possessing statutes of autonomy before the Civil War) that could in theory, though clearly not in practice, result in the dismemberment of the patria. This is sometimes, rather tactfully, called the “integrationalist” model, and it is less a Bach concerto than an atonal catch-22, because while Catalonia’s exit is not legally feasible in the current framework, this framework is effectively impossible to change.
This tension ensures that the Generalitat can blame most of Catalonia’s problems on the incomprehension, parsimony or enmity of the Spanish state, often to its bewilderment, as it is left to question the wisdom of financial transfers to a state that uses them to chase a separatist agenda involving as many as seventy offices abroad, highly subsidised Catalan publishing activities, and so on. This political agenda has trumped good governance to such a degree that, according to a study by the EU Commission in 2012, Catalonia received the lowest score out of the Spanish communities for the quality of its government. And this is accepted because, at a national level, the socialists are wedded to the notion that decentralisation is inherent to what a progressive programme should be (thanks mainly to how Franco stigmatised centralisation). Locally, it is tolerated because nationalist politicians have manoeuvred the opposition into a place that makes them look as if they are against Catalonia in toto if their narratives are not upheld.
To avoid confusion, what being for Catalonia means is spelled out in an agonisingly hip, twenty-first century manner by the Generalitat in an interesting document. According to its guidelines, Catalonia must define the “positive axes” of its personality; disclose how the “Catalan national fact” reveals itself historically; show how the borderless EU can encourage new nations to emerge; memorialise the discriminations suffered and grudges developed etc. In the meantime, monolithic Spain is indistinguishable from the blunt notions of military force, centralisation and reaction, in a narrative that contains overtones of Benjamin’s bitter dismissal that “there is no document of civilisation that cannot also become a document of barbarism”.
To be fair, the main leg many of these claims and grudges rest on is valid. Spain’s fiscal system distorts regional ranking by income (thanks mainly to the special status claimed by “foral” territories, which typically have their medieval charters respected), effectively swindling places like Catalonia. But it demotes Madrid and the Balearic Islands, among others (this is standard fare across the world: most famously the UK’s Barnett formula), and so adds up less to an argument for independence than for an overhauling of the system.
But if independence is the way Catalonia believes it can best achieve its goals, then it must prepare for a swift exit and hopefully equally rapid re-entry into the EU. At the moment, the EU refuses to play the interlocutor between Madrid and Barcelona, indicating that it will not jeopardise the unity of member states (especially as France, Italy and Belgium have their own potentially troublesome separatists), which means no preparations can be made in advance.
Despite these arguments, which seem to run squarely against Catalonia’s grain, the fact it does seem to want independence (according to the 2017 referendum in which 92% of a 43% turn-out voted to leave Spain) means its secessionism is a sui generis matter. To paraphrase Aldous Huxley: sovereignty is never given, only taken.
Whether this secessionism is wise or reflects a fair assessment of Spanish history is clearly, to many Catalans, beside the point. And in one very important sense, this is true because, even if Catalan history is not considered extraordinary in its Spanish context, its persistence in pursuing the extraordinary makes it so. There is a good reason why the Latin root of nation is the verb nascere – “to be born”; it speaks of the sui generis nature behind any national consciousness; the volksgeist does not seek affirmation, it simply is.
The reason much of this mystical element to the conversation has been lost is that Catalan and Scottish nationalisms have assumed a curiously leftist form (it was a Catalan, Enric Miralles, who designed Scotland’s parliament after all). This guise is well articulated by the author Quim Monzo, who, in an interview with Avui in the 1980s noted that “I’m not a nationalist, or any nonsense like that; the thing is, I’m not Spanish”.
If the old nationalisms, with their emphasis on ethnic characteristics and war were an anathema to the left; nowadays, the focus is on victimhood by larger, bully states that have assimilated smaller units. And so the Catalan casus belli revolves less around the achievements of the empire of Aragón and more on its spoliation, the incremental provocations suffered (which often hold less legal than symbolic force); and the vigour of Catalan culture that –as with Francophonie for the French– amounts to a form of soft, friendly power.
What’s salient is not whether this spoliation or litany of slights is true, but more that, in the case of Catalonia, secessionism seems to have assumed not so much the character of a roots-up resistance movement (though it undoubtedly has these elements) than of a cynical, bourgeois means of either seizing the assets of a region or retaining the status quo in which they are favoured by Madrid as kingmakers come election-time (as with the case of socialist president J. L. R. Zapatero).
Money received from Madrid then goes on to produce more agitprop and rewards for those who toe the line in a process (of subsidised newspapers, “embassies”, TV networks and civil organisations) that casts Catalonia ever further from Spain’s orbit. Linking this cynical process to genuine nationalism and a working-class sense of solidarity ensures the Catalans can be the richest victims in the land. They can claim they are still enchained; tethered to —in the words of Artur Mas I Gavarro, ex president of Catalonia— “a state that neither protects us, defends us, nor respects us”.
This is ultimately why, despite the recent change in personnel (with Quim Torra replacing the exile in Belgium, Carles Puigdemont, and the socialist Pedro Sánchez taking over from Mariano Rajoy) 69% of Spaniards consider the situation in Catalonia today to be even worse than last year, with only 15% believing that it has improved. The dynamic hasn’t changed: a stand-off benefits Catalonia, and no matter how hard-headed Spain is (under say, PP or Ciudadanos) there is no appetite to force direct rule or, alternatively, offer further carrots, lending credence to one of the most renowned Catalan mottos:
Som i serem
(We are, and shall be).
A regular contributor to Lapsus Lima, Henry Hopwood-Phillips is a Byzantine historian, travel-guide hack(er) and book reviewer. Follow him on Twitter @byzantinepower or at Excvbitor (www.excvbitor.com) for jottings.