A Parallel Catalan Universe

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I read John McTernan’s latest Scotsman column – an account of a recent trip to Barcelona – in a state of wide-eyed disbelief.

According to McTernan, Spain’s economic crisis is acting as a kind of constitutional adhesive on the country, until recently sharply divided along regional and sub-national lines. Faced with the reality of a stagnant economy, McTernan argues, Catalans are putting their separatist ambitions to one side and accepting that they are, in fact, “better together” with Madrid.

McTernan doesn’t offer any evidence to back up his claim, just a few tangential (and typically Blairite) observations about the growth of ‘vagrancy’ and prostitution on Barcelona’s streets: ‘With failing social services which cannot, or will not, handle the street homeless and police who do not clean up red-light districts, the question [among Catalans] is who can give us what we need now. It is no wonder Catalan civil society is increasingly taking the view “we need bread, not circuses”’.

I have no idea how (although I have a pretty good idea why) McTernan reached this conclusion, because it is almost the exact opposite of the truth.

A poll earlier this year (March) showed that just under 60 per cent of Catalans want to leave Spain – 5 per cent more than in December. These numbers reflect the make-up of the Catalan parliament, which has had a nationalist majority since the last devolved elections in late 2012. Moreover, the popularity of Catalonia’s biggest party, Convergence and Union (CiU), which has a long-running habit of trading on the ambiguity between ‘independence’ and ‘enhanced autonomy’ for its own political ends, is waning in favour of the more radical and explicitly separatist Esquerra Republicana.

Equally puzzling is McTernan’s claim that Catalan ‘civil society’ is turning its back on independence. One of the distinctive features of Catalan nationalism is that it draws much of its support from the Catalan-speaking middle classes. When I visited Barcelona last year I met and talked to many people, such as Muriel Casals, president of Ominium Cultural, an organisation dedicated to the promotion of Catalan culture, and Dr Carles Boix, a professor of political science at Princeton and the Barcelona Institute for Political Economy, who hail from a ‘civil society’ background but are also firm supporters of independence.

Indeed, far from cementing Spanish unity, the financial crisis has reinforced a widespread sense of resentment among middle class Catalans about the revenues Catalonia – one of the richest of Spain’s 17 ‘autonomous communities’ – sends to Madrid. Why, they ask (legitimately, in my view), should Catalonia channel its taxes to a central government hell-bent on implementing some of the most ferocious austerity cuts anywhere in the EU?

Yet, despite his woefully skewed and inadequate analysis, McTernan raises an interesting question about the way so-called ‘peripheral’ nationalism works, in Scotland and Britain as well in Catalonia and Spain.

Most Catalans were lukewarm about the idea of complete political separation from Spain until 2010, when the Spanish Supreme Court ruled the Catalan Statue of Autonomy – a document asserting Catalonia’s right to determine its own constitutional status – illegal under Spanish law. Since then, the Catalan appetite for greater autonomy, including outright independence, has grown, fuelled in no small part by Madrid’s increasingly petulant refusal to allow the Catalans a vote on their future. This belligerence has pushed Catalonia from a position of relatively settled self-government within the Spanish ‘union’ to one of ever heightening agitation.

As things currently stand, Catalonia’s devolved government, led by the CiU’s Artur Mas, plans to hold a plebiscitary election – or ‘informal consultation’, as he calls it – in early November. If the Catalan electorate returns another nationalist majority, Mas says he will begin trying to negotiate Catalonia’s independence.

Catalan Human Chain

Catalan Human Chain

Perhaps the most striking thing about the Catalan independence movement, however, is its capacity to mobilise people on mass scale. I was in Barcelona on September 11 – Catalan National Day – and watched, from the scenic vantage point of Sagrada Familia, as Catalans formed a 1.5 million-strong human chain stretching from the country’s northern border with France to its southern periphery some way down the Spanish Mediterranean coast.

It was an impressive sight – and one that shines a slightly chilly light on our own Yes campaign here in Scotland.

Scottish nationalism is not ‘popular’ in the sense Catalan nationalism is. Independence marches in this country attract tens of thousands of people, not hundreds of thousands. The drive to take Scotland out the UK is led by a single, dominant political party pulling a fairly reluctant public behind in its wake.

I’m not trying to talk down the efforts of Women for Independence, Radical Independence, National Collective or any of the other Yes groups that have built themselves up from nothing over just a few years (or months) and now have a national presence in the referendum debate. It is organisations such as these that are leading the grassroots revival of Scottish politics in the run-up to September. But they are, for the most part, run by a select core of activists and haven’t yet managed to generate the sort of widespread nationalist enthusiasm that exists in Catalonia.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It simply reflects the contrasting dynamics of Scottish and Catalan nationalism. Had Westminster reacted to the SNP’s landslide victory in 2011 as Madrid did to the Catalan elections of 2012 – by, for instance, angrily stamping its foot in opposition to the suggestion that Scotland has a right to set its own course, or even by denying that Scotland is a distinct national entity – we’d probably have our independence majority by now. But it didn’t, and its decision to try and persuade Scots to stay in the UK, rather than to force them, has helped ensure support for a Yes vote is yet to breach the 50 per cent mark.

The irony, of course, is that Catalan nationalists envy the Scots their legally-binding referendum while Scottish nationalists would give their right arm for Catalan levels of support. That said, regardless of the noises being made by Spanish chauvinists (and Blairite true-believers), there’s a better than average chance the Catalans will opt for statehood later this year. Let’s hope we’re already there, waiting for them, if they do.


Comments (17)

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  1. Whenever I see something in print with the John McTernan by-line on it, my default position is that of Karen Dunbar’s wonderful “Kelvinside matron” character in Chewing the Fat – to wrinkle my Nose and say: “I smell shite”.

  2. bellacaledonia says:

    McTernan’s modus operandi, no doubt learnt at some finishing school, is to always write the exact opposite of the truth and sit back and wait for a provoked reaction. Its called enrage rather than engage. He’s pretty good at it. The Scotsman humour him with a column because its click-bait.

    1. dennis mclaughlin says:

      McTiernan’s fox has been well & truly shot on this and every other Independence blog worth it’s salt….Bloody Cyberjocks :).

  3. A little background on the man from Australia’s ABC doesn’t suggest he’s a good man to have on your side!

    “Mr McTernan was hired on a 457 skilled worker visa as Ms Gillard’s chief spin doctor in late 2011 after former communications director Russell Mahoney stood down earlier that year.

    He was a controversial figure who acquired more enemies as Ms Gillard’s prospects waned and her communications errors mounted.

    The emails show he encouraged Labor staffers to mobilise so called “Twitter armies”‘ to ridicule the Tony Abbott-led opposition and attack individual Coalition MPs online, which he would later point out to journalists as proof of public opinion.

    He would forward flattering articles, pictures and memes about himself to staff but lacked basic knowledge of some of Labor’s key policies and attacks, and regularly responded to media and stakeholder criticism with ridicule and abuse.”

  4. MBC says:

    An interesting article. I think the situations are however quite different in that Spain lost her empire in the 19th century whereas Britain lost hers between 1948 and the 1960s. So unionism still has strong roots, not only in the memory and reality of empire, including post-imperial neo-colonialism but also from WW2 and the post-war reconstruction efforts which saw a triumphant Labour party nationalise British industries. But during this time Spain was under the dictatorship of Franco. This means that unionism still has strong roots in Scotland in the way that it doesn’t in Catalonia where the lack of rationale for belonging to Spain is that much clearer. Also, the language aspect in Catalonia does a huge amount to establish a sense of difference. Scots are only beginning to wake up to the fact that the major reasons for being part of the British union (trade, and defence) have now been supplanted by other international organisations like the EU, NATO, UN, and that London rule simply no longer has any rationale, and brings with it more disbenefits than benefits. The only thing really holding the union together is fear. OK, some of the population living in Scotland feels British rather than Scottish (I wouldn’t want to speculate who those individuals are) but most of the Scottish population feels either only Scottish, or more Scottish than British, so unionism is not based on identity politics, but on fear and lack of self-confidence.

  5. MBC says:

    I forgot to add that the positions of the middle classes are also different. In Scotland the traditional comfortably off middle class is unlikely to favour Yes. There is however, more recently, a new middle class in Scotland, which might be called ‘the squeezed middle’. This educated middle class is likely to be younger, and to be employed not in the traditional professions, but in more recently developed parts of the economy, including the public sector. This new younger squeezed middle class is more left of centre and ‘gets’ the reasons for independence, and follows Scottish affairs closely. Fortunately for the Yes campaign the traditional middle class in Scotland has never been particularly strong or influential in numbers of votes cast, but institutionally it wields influence.

  6. Robert Graham says:

    broadly agree with most of the comments on this , its hard to describe someone whose grasp on reality is so far removed from everyone elses i am really not sure this creature should be allowed out on his own if the is an example of care in the community i really think the people responsible for him being out without a leash need to be questioned as to their judgment in such matters ,just a thought

  7. david raventos says:

    As a catalan independentist I endorse the article fully.Sadly in Catalonia we won’t have independence thought the majority of catalans want it, cause catalan political parties don’t want it.Thats why they put double a question to bring down 15-20 % the results for indepednence.It opens a third way artificially, is impossible to make a ordinance(reglament on how to vote) an is unacceptable internationally.Our leaders have sold us out at the beck and call of catalan-Spanish political powers.I suffer censorship and political persecution for defendeing this view.We have been betrayed.Else we wont vote, or vote and not win.There’s a Cuban style blockade in catalans press, can some good hearted scotish person help us? the only way spain could avoid Catalan independence was through a question and a delayed date, and thats what they have done.I made a video that PROVED the betrayal, but every media received orders not to broadcast it.Please help.

  8. david raventos says:

    With the Scottish Question and a date before your election we were ahead in the polls by 70-30.we would have won and helped the scottish cause.Now the tricked us and if you lose it would help the unionist campaing in Catalonia.Please,help us break the information blackout in Catalonia.They want us to lose!

  9. In modern times the Catalans have a history of political and cultural radicalism. Measured by such Scotland appears a conservative country. The suppression of Catalan culture under the Franco regime, ironically Franco was born in Galicia, has rebounded with a resurgence of interest in it. Although we have two, some would say three, indigenous languages in addition to English they carry little political weight. Possible seen as divisive or eccentric the language question has been confined to the far outer limits of Scottish politics. Consequently we are fed entertainment, culture and news through the medium of English, metropolitan English, which means, as we know, it comes pre-packed with the appropriate outlook from the suppliers. With media of their own the Catalans have a choice of perspectives we can only look on with envy. Do they have the equivalent of the quiescent North Brit prepared to sit through “main news” stuffed with items extraneous and irrelevant to them and never wonder why?

  10. Douglas says:

    Jamie, I wouldn’t read too much importance into the numbers of the demos, they love in that in Spain, they have demonstrations constantly, both the Right and the Left, involving hundreds and thousands of people, all the time.

    When Zapatero was in power, the Catholic church and the PP would bus hundreds of thousands of protesters from all over Spain into Madrid every second week or so to protest about gay marriage or whatever it was, and these people would afterwards go shopping or our to the theatre or a musical and then out to dinner and make a weekend of it. You get the idea?

    Anyway, you’re right, the drive for indie is from the grassroots up in Catalonia whereas here it is more top down. But personally I am delighted we don’t have the huge demonstrations here they have in Spain, it can be a logistical nightmare, and given they have them all the time, they eventually become meaningless.

    As for the indie thing, yes, somebody took the linguistic question to the Constitutional Court which overturned a policy common since democracy began in 1978 which was the use of Catalan as the vehicular language in Catalan schools, ie, all subjects are taught in Catalan. So the Constitutional Court ruled in favour of the family resident in Catalonia who wanted their children to be taught biology and chemistry and home economics in Spanish.

    That’s when it all went haywire and the desire for indie really jumped. .

    Frew-Bell nothing was translated into Catalan for 300 years and Catalan was dead as a literary language, much deader than Scots or Gaelic, until the Catalan Renaissance in the late 19th century. But the case of Catalan is more or less unique in Europe Most languages have gone the ways of Scots and Gaelic, and the American influence here and everywhere is massive.

    And yes, the Catalans do have a tradition of political radicalism which in the 20th century was anarchism..
    But the irony is that it was the Andalusian peasants who emigrated to Catalonia in the 19th century who brought the anarchism with them.

    These illiterate peasants had learned about Anarchism in turn from a mesmerizing Italian called Giuseppe Fanelli who toured Spain and didn’t speak Spanish, but didn’t have to do so for anarchism to catch on in Andalusia and then Catalonia.

    It should also be said that the anarchists were no angels during the Civil War either.

    1. True we do not have an equivalent of Catalanisme and our move towards autonomy, home rule and independence has been a 20/21 century phenomenon. Romantic notions of Volk, Blut und Boden which inspired aspects of the search for Catalan identity barely register here. However there is a connexion with the decline of empire ( earlier in the Spanish case), middle classes gradually deserting the centre because opportunities for influence have waned and the realisation that perspectives on what we need differ from those of the centre. We have not experienced in modern times anything akin to civil war or systematic cultural repression, having been roughly reminded in the 18th century who was now running the show we pragmatically fell in with the new system.
      Catalan and Scottish nationalisms are actually nationalisms of modernity. They fit well into a century of globalisation, economic uncertainty, decline of America etc. They are new phenomena which defy easy classification by origin or intention or political outlook. The attempt by some to label Scottish nationalism as some species of neo-fascism indicates a need for updates.

  11. Douglas says:

    By the way, I know all this shit because I used to live in Spain for a very, very long time, in Barcelona and Madrid.

    When I arrived in Barcelona, I taught English briefly in a nauseating bourgeois town called Granollers, at least I remember it as nauseatingly bourgeois, maybe it wasn’t really like that.

    Anyway, what I do remember is that one day a student of mine, a woman in a fur coat, said to me: “I don’t how you can possibly live in Barcelona, it’s full of foreigners!!!”.

    And I said, “What about me, I’m a foreigner!

    And she said “No, but you’re a good foreigner. I mean the Andalusians!!!”.

    I didn’t know back then about Giuseppe Fanelli who had converted hundred of thousands of Andalusian peasants to anarchism without even speaking a word of Spanish, but I wish I had, I would have been right back at her and her fur coat.

    The thing about Spanish anarchism which most people don’t know is that it was an ascetic movement. The idea was to consume as little as possible.

    Coffee or tobacco, for example, were seen as corrupting influences. Capitalism was about the the never ending proliferation of needs, which were to be resisted. So it was almost a religion.

    I am uneasy and in fact queasy about Catalan nationalism. I would prefer a federal Spain, though I don’t blame the Catalans for telling the crazy right wing in Madrid where to get off. But federalism, or Spain could actually become balkanised.

  12. DP says:

    From my limited experience of talking to Catalans here in Edinburgh most of their reasons for indy are purely economic (we make more money than the rest of Spain therefore we want to leave). It strikes me as a little hollow and selfish – indeed the world would be in chaos if all the wealthy parts of countries decided to secede rather than pooling their national resources and distributing wealth to the poorer parts of the country . Also as far as I am aware Catalonia was never actually a country right? This is coming from a Spanish guy I know from the south, a girl from Madrid and a supporter of Catalan independence from Barca?

    I’m not trying to be disparaging and I’d be curious to know otherwise? I’m English and supporting Scots Indy driven out of disgust at the British establishment, but secession based on regional economic strength is a philosophy that I cannot get on board with.

    1. bb says:

      You’re totally wrong in all of your conclusions. Do your research, please.

  13. gonzalo1 says:

    Visca Catalunya.

  14. Dewey Almarza says:

    Via gladiola

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