Spaniards weren’t talking to each other in October 2017 – at least, not the ones who needed to. They were instead broadcasting past each other as though inhabiting two different telenovelas.
Prime Minister Rajoy took to the television screens on the evening of 1 October to announce that no referendum had taken place that day. Legality and constitutional order must be upheld, and the voting in Catalonia did not qualify on either count. Catalan President Puigdemont went before the cameras to proclaim a victory for democracy and a mandate for independence.
Both sides were in denial. Rajoy failed to acknowledge the aspirations of a large sector of the Catalan population, just as his party has used the courts to chip away at Catalan autonomy for the past decade. Puigdemont neglected that his movement, growing though it may be, had not yet demonstrated enough support across Catalan society to justify a contested, overnight secession. Sensible countries require supermajorities, eg two-thirds of the legislature, for far-reaching constitutional reform. Here in the UK we are all too aware how problematic it is to push through major change on the basis of an unconvincing majority.
More practically, the soberanistas lacked the institutional framework for a sovereign state. Once the Catalan parliament had declared independence, they ran out of script, despite the masses howling approval in the street. The consellers either handed themselves over to the Spanish courts or absconded, lending an unexpected note of bathos to the end of a dramatic month.
For independentista Catalans, it would be comforting to assume that there is a master plan. Perhaps the Generalitat always knew that its referendum and declaration of independence would not really bring about a new republic, but went through with them to highlight the case for self-determination and to polarise Catalan opinion, generating a pro-independence surge in new elections. This in turn would morally oblige Madrid to discuss constitutional reform, opening a legal and legitimate path to ‘Catalexit’.
Time will tell.
The argument against independence rests on the principle that Spanish unity is a core element of the 1978 Constitution – the pact which enabled all factions in Spain to sign up to the new democracy. The Constitution represents a delicate balance between the demands for regional identity – quashed by the Franco regime – and the unitary state. The regions became autonomías, but they could only change their constitutional status with the consent of the Spanish parliament.
To its proponents, this pact has delivered peace, democracy and prosperity. By contrast, on the streets of Barcelona in October 2017, many Catalans embraced independence as a way of asserting their personal and collective identity. Younger protestors in particular seemed eager to cock a snook at a Spanish central government associated with heavy-handed conservatism and corruption.
Why is Catalonia so essential to Spain when, for example, the British were nonchalantly prepared to contemplate Scotland breaking away? This may be partly historical: the centuries of warfare needed to unite Spain are still commemorated at village fiesta level (moros y cristianos), giving the concept of national unity particular resonance. Spain was born of the alliance of Castilla and Aragón: Catalonia’s departure would break that alliance. There is also the fear that, if one Spanish region breaks away, others may follow, undermining a more fragile economic and political system than that of the UK.
Beyond those practical considerations, many Spaniards resent the Catalan push for independence. The soberanistas are suspected of a self-serving agenda: an urge to self-aggrandisement, or to prevent Catalonia’s relative wealth from being shared with the rest of Spain. Some accuse Catalan schools of cultural intolerance and indoctrinating pupils – a leyenda negra for these times.
October ended without violence. The soberanista leadership emphasised the need for protest to remain peaceful and, in practice if not in principle, accepted Madrid’s authority to impose direct rule. The Spanish security forces had learned from their 1 October public relations debacle and exercised restraint. The political leadership on both sides was careful to act in a gradual and predictable manner. Everyone remembers where civil violence got Spain in the past, and no one wants to go back there.
Nonetheless, the crisis brought a reminder of the tradition of intolerance in Spanish politics and society. Under Hapsburg rule (and beyond) this was embodied in the Inquisition, which policed what some consider Europe’s first totalitarian state. The 19th century was bedevilled by crispación between reformers and conservatives that generated both civil war and coups, prefiguring the breakdown in Spanish society of the 1930s. Even now, the acrimony in televised leaders’ debates at election time or exchanges in parliament is sharper than the UK equivalent.
Earlier this year I found an antidote to such tensions in the admirably even-handed displays in the Museum of Catalan History in Barcelona. I was struck by the recurrent historical accidents – dynastic convulsions, foreign influence, political intrigue, etc – that had, often at the last moment, frustrated the formation of an independent Catalan state or kingdom, just when conditions had seemed to favour it.
The question this autumn has been whether 2017 constituted another such opportune moment to form an independent Catalonia. Or should the 21st century be, as Joaquín Sabina recently declared, “el siglo de borrar fronteras en lugar de hacer fronteras nuevas”?
One thing is certain: the aspirations of pro-independence Catalans cannot be met while their region remains a part of Spain. The 21 December elections will determine what proportion of the electorate shares those aspirations.
By BAS editor Robin Wallis