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.