A Parallel Catalan Universe
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.
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.