12 October 2017
The trouble in Catalonia
by J.R. Thomas
A week, the late Harold Wilson observed, is a long time in politics. In Spanish politics last week seemed a lifetime. Spain, as our readers must have observed, has had some little local difficulties. To most people, and to the Spanish government in Madrid, the crisis caused by the Catalan independence referendum seems to have come almost from nowhere, to such an extent that little preparation had been done. And when it was necessary to do something, the government moved instantly from “It’s not going to happen” to full scale panic, with an almost inevitable overreaction by the Spanish police.
A number of people were hurt on referendum day – impossible to say how many because both sides are rather coy on the point, the government saying only that it was few and the Catalan administration saying that it was many, and the media showing endless picture of students being pushed and old ladies with blood on their faces. They do tend to be the same students and old ladies who figure, so we might conclude not many were hurt, and not too seriously. The whole thing thus begins to take on the air of a minor farce, with state police trying to grab polling boxes and the regional police trying to stop them. But to have such a brawl is not a farce; it is a serious indictment of a modern political system that this fighting, pushing, and grabbing could occur where talking would have been so much better.
A week ago the popular media view was “brave Catalonia, standing up for democracy and independence, trying for freedom, but being denied even the people’s right to vote”. But in a week, things have moved on apace; the line now seems to be “naughty Catalonia, breaching the laws of the land and springing a left inspired and driven vote onto an unsuspecting Spain.” By next week, indeed even by the time this is published, things may have moved on more, but we will attempt to stop the roundabout for a moment and try to draw out a few facts.
Firstly, of course the vote was not a surprise to the politicians of Madrid, to the rightist government of premier Mariano Rajoy, or to the Spanish media. There have been threats from the Catalonian regional government for some time that if central government did not make concessions to localism in the region, then there would be a serious push to procure independence. Catalonia does not have a history of independence – this is not Scotland or Wales, independent nations absorbed into their neighbour – Catalonia was a part of the ancient Kingdom of Aragon, which in the late fifteenth century drove out the Moors and united Spain. But Catalonia had a different language, a different culture and style, created largely by its isolation from the core of Spain in the north and centre. In the nineteenth century much of the rise of Republicanism and the Left began in Catalonia; its leaders tended to be Catalonian. Catalonians are great writers and poets so many of the ideas of the left wing revolutionaries were heavily filtered through Catalonian minds and voices. It was one of the last regions to hold out against the troops of General Franco in 1939; Franco hated it and Catalonia cordially hated him back.
But the idea of Catalonia as a nation is something new. Support for independence has varied wildly – in 2007 only about a sixth of the local population said they would vote for independence; by 2012, 51% said they would. Recent polls have suggested small majorities against striking loose from Spain. Catalonia has for at least one hundred and fifty years been politically leftist, but the left is deeply split when it comes to the concept of a sovereign Catalonian Republic. On the one hand independence represents that urge to get away from that Spain of devout Catholicism, traditionalism, conservative right wing politics; on the other independence is rejected by those who see Catalonia as a left leaning conscience, that radical driver of new democratic free Spain.
Within the Catalonian left, which controls the provincial government, there has recently been a sort of internal coup; the longstanding regional president Artur Mas, who played the game of threatening to secede to secure negotiating advantage but never went so far as to do anything about it, was elegantly pushed aside in 2016 by Carles Puigdemont, former journalist, leftist, and enthusiast for unilateral independence. Unlike Mas, he aimed at independence, with a socialist government to follow.
There is another factor to be taken into account; Catalonia was historically one of the poorest parts of Spain; it vied with Andalusia in the rural poverty stakes. Both have changed, but Catalonia more so; it has become wealthy through industrialisation, and recently through tourism. Barcelona, its capital, has become one the wealthiest cities of Spain. It suffered especially badly in the 2008 recession, and has been slow to recover – not least because the independence noises of Mas were believed by some major Catalonian companies who moved their head offices (and thus tax revenues) elsewhere. Recently economic recovery has accelerated and Catalonia finds itself a net contributor to the central Spanish treasury in Madrid – unlike, for instance, the Basque Country which has an arrangement that it pays no more to Madrid than it gets back. Whilst nobody says the independence movement is just about economics, the inequality of treatment is loudly resented.
Snr Puigdemont is a clever politician, and Snr Rajoy, who famously prefers to do nothing if he possibly can, has fallen into a trap, albeit one of his own making. By the time he realised things were getting serious, it was too late to do anything subtle. So he had to be unsubtle, and send in the federal police.
King Felipe VI, in the first test of his reign, was equally unsubtle and told the Catalonians to behave themselves. This has been heard with astonishment in Europe which is used to monarchs saying as little as possible and certainly keeping out of politics. “Look” the liberal intelligentsia say, “his father was bold in the cause of democracy in the attempted coup of 1981, but what is Felipe doing?” (we look at a fascinating book on 1981 in our review section this week). Felipe is of course being equally bold for democracy, as most Spanish people have now realised and the actions of monarch and government are now widely supported. It is also true to say, no doubt, that Felipe knew that a left wing independence heading government in Catalonia was unlikely to listen to any words, however honeyed, from a Bourbon monarch, so he might as well go for broke.
Snr Rajoy’s strategy seems to be going reasonably well. Behind the scenes there have been suggestions that the tax payment issue could be addressed. In front of the scenes the government is threatening to suspend the regional government, as it can do under article 155 of the constitution, has sent several naval vessels to the port of Barcelona, and has threatened to have Snr Puigdemont arrested (for sedition, presumably). Carles has backed off declaring independence (or technically has said he has declared it, but suspended it). His left wing support group has split, between those who wish to negotiate and those who want to close the border now. And there have been a series of marches in Barcelona and elsewhere by anti-independence protestors, who make the not altogether surprising point that they are indeed Catalan; but also and very proudly Spanish.
Which brings into focus the result of that ballot just over a week ago. Ninety percent voted for independence, yes, but only 45% of those eligible voted. It is not at all clear if there would be a majority for independence if another ballot were held. The result could be, for instance, 48% to remain and 52% to go. And we know how much trouble tight results like that can cause.
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