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Guest Contributions

The Spanish spectre: Catalan separatism and la intolerancia

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.

RW articleMore 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.

Viva la constitucionThe 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.

catalonia:spainNonetheless, 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

Guest Contributions

Catalonia: a call for international understanding and solidarity

On 27 October the Catalan government declared independence unilaterally. A few days later, Catalan vice-president Oriol Junqueras along with seven cabinet ministers were charged with sedition and sent to prison without bail. The decision, taken by a Spanish judge, was based on an outdated penal code from Spain’s Francoist regime. The same occurred to Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez, the presidents of the civil society organisations Omnium Cultural and the Catalan National Assembly – detained since 17 October. Extradition warrants were also issued for Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and several of his ministers – by then in Brussels – who surrendered to the Belgian police and were subsequently released. Wednesday 8 November marked Catalonia’s second general strike this autumn, during which tens of thousands of people took to the streets once again to demand freedom for their political prisoners and to denounce Spain’s abuses of power.

Abroad, the situation in Catalonia is often presented by the mainstream media in an ahistorical, de-contextualised way. However, we cannot sufficiently stress that the Catalan question did not appear ‘out of nowhere’ on 1 October (referendum day); to understand why independence was declared unilaterally, we need to examine current events in their historical context.

The Catalan experience of oppression

1. Concentracio-Placa-Catedral-Vaga-General_EDIIMA20171108_1024_5The history of repression in Catalonia is long, but the history of its people is even longer; it starts centuries before the formation of the Spanish state, with a Catalan Constitution dating back to 1283 (the Spanish one can be traced back to 1812). After the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1714), Catalan institutions were destroyed and an oppressive military rule was established by the Bourbons. Throughout the centuries that followed, these institutions, rights, language and other cultural traditions were abolished and restored numerous times. The repression against Catalans was especially brutal during Franco’s fascist regime (1936-1975) and included executions, purges, physical violence, economic repression, social control and cultural domination. As a result, this history of repression became an integral part of the memory of Catalan people and their sense of collective identity.

The repression, however, did not end with Franco. Many Catalans still consider that they are incapable of having a say in the decisions that affect them or make their voices heard under the current status quo. This is largely due to the constant belittling of their power by the Spanish government, like in 2010, when the Partido Popular (PP) in Spain filed an objection to the Spanish Constitutional Court, leading to serious cuts and amendments of the new Statute of Autonomy – initially agreed upon between Spain and Catalonia and approved by referendum in 2006. Since then, many progressive laws conflicting with the right-wing agenda of the PP were turned down by the Spanish government after being approved by the Catalan Parliament: laws against fuel poverty, fracking and evictions as well as reforms promoting gender equality, social security, taxation on nuclear energy and banks, etc. In total, 25 laws approved by the Catalan Parliament could not come into force because they were repealed by the Constitutional Court at the request of Mariano Rajoy’s government.

Dialogue and legality 

Calls for dialogue and political negotiations to deal with the Catalan question were issued eighteen times by Catalan leaders since 2006. Madrid dismissed them every time. Faced with the impossibility of Spain ever agreeing to a referendum, the Catalan Parliament finally voted in favor of organising one unilaterally. During his speech on 10 October, instead of declaring independence, Puigdemont attempted to reach out to Spain once more by temporarily suspending the declaration of independence with the hopes of starting a dialogue with Madrid. President Mariano Rajoy responded with the threat of direct rule, which he implemented later on through Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution. Yet Catalonia’s wish to dialogue with Spain could not be clearer; it is outlined in its new declaration of independence, stating: “[w]e affirm our will to open negotiations with the Spanish state”. The declaration of independence also came with a call for tolerance, peace, inclusiveness and collaboration, as well as an explicit willingness to incorporate the voices of those who disagree with independence into shaping the formation of the new Republic.

2. DSC_0369

Where Catalonia has asked for dialogue and understanding, Spain has responded with violence and repression. So far, the number of Catalan political prisoners amounts to ten. This does not come as a surprise in a country that ranks 58th in the World Economic Forum’s ranking of judicial independence, directly below Kenya, Lithuania and Botswana. However, Spain fails to understand that the independence project is not dictated by high-ranking politicians; it is a process led by the people. It is precisely the grassroots nature of the pro-independence movement that allowed for the successful organisation of the referendum. It is the people who mobilized en masse to prevent the arrest of 14 politicians charged with sedition on 20 September. It is the people who took part in the general strike against police violence after the referendum. It is the people who are now organised peacefully to resist direct rule and defend their institutions. These same people went on general strike on 8 November to demand freedom for their political prisoners. Rajoy’s government can imprison as many politicians as he wants, but there are not enough prisons in Spain to imprison all Catalans fighting for independence.

The referendum is presented over and over again as “illegal” – an argument that Spain uses to justify the implementation of direct rule and the detention of political prisoners. However, legality comes to mean very little in a country with a corrupt judicial system, whose government represses the people living in its territory and violates the fundamental right to self-determination of the Human Rights Charter (as recently highlighted by UN Human Rights Council Independent Expert Alfred de Zayas). Indeed, the Spanish Government itself has been acting outside its own Constitution. According to Articles 10.2 and 96, Spain must abide by international law, which includes the right to self-determination. Furthermore, the implementation of direct rule on 27 October, justified through the application of Article 155 of the Constitution, is not within the remit of the Constitution either: Article 155 only enables the central government to issue instructions to autonomic governments or authorities, not to take over the autonomic government and its functions, as is currently the case. Taking control of the Catalan government is not only illegal, it is also undemocratic. To implement direct rule and govern a territory where the PP only won 8% of the votes in the past elections would hardly constitute a measure to “restore democracy” and “give Catalonia back to Catalans” as Rajoy previously claimed.

The legitimacy of the ballot box

4. DSC_0359Many Catalans would have liked nothing more than to be able to vote in a referendum that was not blocked by Spain through the confiscation of letters on voting procedures, shutting down of websites, censorship of media and police brutality, amongst other things. Yet, despite these measures, the people managed successfully to organise and carry out the referedum of 1 October. Despite the Spanish coercion, it is estimated that around 56.8% of the electorate voted on 1 October, but that only 43% of ballots could be counted as the rest were seized by the police. Amongst the votes that could be counted, 90.2% of the voters supported independence. For ‘no’ to have won this referendum, over 77.6% of the population would have needed to vote, with all the additional and stolen votes being cast against independence. Considering that the highest turnout in the history of Catalan elections is 77%, it is extremely unlikely that the majority of the population was against independence.

New regional electitons are scheduled for 21 December, which will supposedely determine the road Catalonia will take. Some pro-independence parties have stated that, should a majority of voters support pro-unity parties, they would respect the people’s will and drop their demands for independence. However, considering the imprisonment of pro-independence leaders and the great lengths to which Spain has gone to maintain control over Catalonia, the fairness of these elections is not a given.

The future of Catalonia

In legal terms, we are witnessing an instance of ‘dual conflicting legality’, in which the “Transition Law” (passed by the Catalan Parliament) co-exists with Spain’s direct rule (based on an interpretation of Article 155). Both claim to govern Catalonia today. However, ultimately, it is up to the Catalans to decide on their future, and their decision should be understood and respected by foreign countries. This is why so many calls for international solidarity have been issued. After the police violence of 1 October, many people claimed there was no way back. As one pro-independence Catalan said: “[w]e are accused of disobedience, and the Spanish government uses our disobedience to justify the implementation of direct rule. Please know that we have no other options but to disobey”. Indeed, had Catalans held off from declaring independence and called for regional elections, the Spanish government would still have implemented direct rule under Article 155. Furthermore, PP leaders recently indicated that, even if pro-independence parties were to win the 21 December elections, direct rule would be maintained so long as their electoral programme advocated Catalonia’s independence.

5. Twitter PhotoIn other words, Catalans were put in the situation of choosing between declaring independence unilaterally or losing all of their autonomy. That choice cannot be condemned, especially when faced with a state that represses people, abuses the justice system and manipulates the media. The Catalan question is not an internal problem; it is an international one, which requires the combined mobilisation of people worldwide. So far, solidarity protests have been staged all over the world and (inter)national committees are being set up to put pressure on governments to condemn Spanish repression and recognise the Republic of Catalonia. In the same vein, this article has sought to provide an analysis of the current situation in Catalonia to an international audience, with the aim of explaining the case for international understanding and solidarity.

Readers who wish to show their support can share this article, write to their representatives, visit supportcatalonia.eu or contact their local branch of the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) for information on future events, publications or ways to be involved.

By Júlia Muntanyà López and Marta Musić

 

Júlia Muntanyà López is a Catalan political activist and epidemiologist who divides her time between Mozambique and Barcelona working on a malaria eradication campaign. She is also involved in advocacy work to increase access to medicines worldwide. 

Marta Musić is a Serbian and French political activist, freelance journalist and photographer. She is currently doing research for a PhD project on the Latin American Left, social movements and alternatives to neoliberalism.

Guest Contributions

“I am Catalan” : el impacto del conflicto Cataluña-España en mi vida 

Twin flagsSe ha escrito mucho sobre los orígenes históricos, políticos y culturales de la crisis catalana actual. No tengo mucho que añadir a ello, por lo tanto he decidido simplemente explicar cómo he vivido yo la identidad catalana y la relación conflictiva entre Cataluña y España en mi vida personal.

Nací en Igualada, provincia de Barcelona, en 1965. Mi padre era contable; mi madre profesora de inglés. Los dos eran catalanohablantes. Siempre he hablado catalán con toda mi familia y con la inmensa mayoría de mis amigos. Sin embargo, no recuerdo ninguna época de mi vida en que no hablara y comprendiera el castellano también.

Empecé la enseñanza primaria en 1969 en Escola Mowgli, un colegio privado donde todos los maestros daban las clases en catalán, excepto la profesora de Lengua Castellana y el profesor de Matemáticas. Allí aprendí a leer y a escribir en catalán. Estábamos todavía bajo el régimen franquista y, según parece, el colegio tenía un ingenioso sistema para despistar a los inspectores del gobierno, ya que oficialmente estaba prohibido tanto enseñar catalán como enseñar en catalán.

Mis primeros recuerdos de Franco son de los partes médicos diarios en los meses precedentes a su muerte. Era evidente que la salud de ese señor era de una importancia crucial para los adultos que me rodeaban. El dictador murió en 1975 y en 1977 se celebraron las primeras elecciones democráticas desde 1936. Recuerdo perfectamente el intenso ambiente político de esa época.

Ja Soc AquiEl 23 de octubre de 1977, el presidente de la Generalitat (el gobierno catalán), Josep Tarradellas, volvió a Cataluña después de un exilio de casi cuarenta años. Ese día escribí en mi diario: “Día histórico. He visto por televisión el reportaje en directo sobre el regreso de Josep Tarradellas. Ha sido muy bonito, emocionante y gozoso.” Yo tenía doce años.

En 1978 se celebró el referéndum para refrendar la Constitución española. En contraste con los otros dos acontecimientos mencionados, no recuerdo absolutamente nada de éste y no tengo ni idea de qué votaron mis padres. Por supuesto, yo no voté. Por eso me irrito cada vez que oigo, actualmente, que “los catalanes votaron a favor de la Constitución”. Sí, pero sólo los muertos y los mayores de 57 años.

Poco después fui a otro colegio privado para cursar estudios secundarios y nuevamente recibí la enseñanza íntegramente en catalán con la excepción de las clases de Lengua y Literatura Castellanas. Ésta última era una de mis asignaturas favoritas. Recuerdo la emoción con que fui a buscar mi copia de El Cantar de Mío Cid y el fervor y la avidez con que leí este clásico y otros como El libro de Buen Amor o las poesías completas de Garcilaso de la Vega. El colegio no me inculcó ninguna antipatía ni odio hacia la lengua o la cultura españolas.

Tot Per CatalunyaA pesar de mi amor por la literatura castellana, me incliné por estudiar Filología Anglogermánica en la Universidad de Barcelona. Mis años de adolescente y de universitaria coincidieron con los 80. Fue la primera década de Jordi Pujol, que presidiría la Generalitat durante 23 años. El autogobierno catalán y la democracia en España no me parecían una realidad nueva sino algo estable y consolidado. No me gustaba mucho oír a la gente mayor hablar de la guerra civil o del franquismo: para mí eran períodos lejanos y tristes que sólo podía imaginar en blanco y negro. Yo era hija de la democracia, la libertad y la tolerancia; no quería pensar en épocas trágicas que consideraba definitivamente enterradas. Qué inocente era!

Desde siempre tuve muy claro que ser catalán y ser español no eran lo mismo y durante toda mi vida me he considerado catalana antes que nada. Cuando en 1992 me casé con un inglés y me fui a vivir a Inglaterra, me encontré que muchas personas me preguntaban de dónde era. Durante años, respondí normalmente “España”, porque era mucho más fácil (y educado) ofrecer a la gente un cajón conocido donde meterme, que endosarles una lección de historia o un discurso político. Sólo mis amigos íntimos y mis parientes políticos sabían que yo era catalana y lo que eso significaba para mí.

Cuando nació mi hija en 1997 le hablé en catalán desde el principio y todavía lo hago ahora. Ella aprendió también castellano fácilmente en el colegio y en la universidad y ahora habla las dos lenguas.

En el año 2010 tuvo lugar en Barcelona una enorme manifestación contra la decisión del Tribunal Constitucional que anulaba o recortaba una gran parte del nuevo Estatut de Cataluña de 2006, que ya había sido aprobado por los parlamentos catalán y español y ratificado en un referéndum. Quedó claro entonces que el Tribunal Constitucional estaba controlado por el conservador Partido Popular (PP), que lo utilizó para impedir la ampliación de la autonomía catalana.

Desde aquel momento he seguido con pasión los múltiples estadios del llamado “Procés”. Vi crecer exponencialmente al independentismo desde la subida al poder del PP, con Mariano Rajoy al frente, en 2011. Llegué a la conclusión de que hacía falta un referéndum sobre la independencia acordado con el estado español. Yo votaría sí a la independencia en este hipotético (y repetidamente negado) referéndum, pero aceptaría deportivamente un resultado contrario. Entiendo muchas de las razones de los unionistas; lo que no entiendo es el españolismo violento de extrema derecha ni la negación del principio de autodeterminación a un pueblo que lo reclama a voces.

Participé en el referéndum informal del noviembre de 2014, haciendo cola durante tres horas en Londres con otros ilusionados catalanes. Voté también por correo en el referéndum del 1 de octubre y vi con horror como en Cataluña padres y madres de familia, ancianos y estudiantes eran aporreados vergonzosamente por la policía y la guardia civil españolas. Se despertó, por lo visto, el fantasma del franquismo.

locked up leadersAhora el gobierno y la justicia españolas (que parecen ser lo mismo), al encarcelar a dos líderes sociales pacíficos y a varios miembros del gobierno catalán elegidos democráticamente, está criminalizando a una gran parte de la ciudadanía catalana. Y al tomar el control directo del gobierno catalán, está perjudicando a todos los catalanes, incluídos los unionistas, la mayoría de los cuales no vota al Partido Popular. El gobierno español me insulta y no me escucha. El gobierno español me considera una ilusa y una golpista. El gobierno español me ha metido en la cárcel.

Victòria Gual Godó, profesora de lengua española en Winchester College y traductora del inglés al catalán.

 

Guest Contributions

Cataluña: ¿todo cambia para que todo siga igual?

dkrambla
Dominic Keown at the Font de Canaletes

At the top of the Rambla, the emblematic boulevard of Barcelona, about twenty yards down from the Plaça de Catalunya, stands the Font de Canaletes. The famous fountain holds a special significance for all visitors to the Catalan capital. Legend has it that, if you drink from its waters, you will return to this magnificent city.

It was precisely here in 1974, with the country in lock-down awaiting the death of General Franco, that I had my introduction to life under a military dictatorship. I could not have chosen a worse moment. As the autocrat drew closer to death, rather than mellowing with age, his regime hardened with his “bunker” rekindling the authoritarian values of old in the face of change.

At this very spot, in wonder and disbelief, I watched police vans and jeeps speeding up the centre of the pedestrian precinct to put down a demonstration which only existed in the imagination of some paranoid official. Wonder, because as I looked towards the port I saw the parting of a sea of people scrambling out of the way of this convoy, a magical vision like Moses dividing the waves in DeMille’s Hollywood classic. Disbelief, since it was only as the motorcade charged towards me that I realised the desperate threat it supposed to life and limb and took evasive action.

It was not until August of this year that I witnessed anything similar, when 22-year-old Younes Abouyaaqoub drove his hired van into an unsuspecting crowd at the self-same place, killing 14 and seriously injuring hundreds more.

Shortly after the atrocity, a multitudinous homage was led by the city’s leaders, including dignitaries from elsewhere: King Felipe, the prime minister Mariano Rajoy and, representing the Opposition, Pedro Sanchez (PSOE) and Albert Rivera (Ciudadanos). After the ceremony, those assembled heaped praise on the professionalism of the Catalan police who had rapidly tracked down and neutralised the perpetrators, in two perilous gun battles, saving countless more lives. Finally, in a gesture of defiance and civic pride, the assembled multitude broke out in the chants “Som gent de pau” (We’re people of peace) and “No tinc por” (I am not afraid). In the face of aggression, life would go on in Barcelona: the people would not be coerced by terror.

No Tinc Por

Sadly, any apparent solidarity from the rest of Spain was short-lived. Snap elections, called as a plebiscite in 2015 on the single issue of holding a binding vote on independence, had returned an absolute majority of independentist deputies who duly called the referendum for 1 October this year. As such, the poll was manifestly democratic in origin and organisation. The Spanish government, however, moved to declare the consultation illegal, a decision which was confirmed by the Constitutional Tribunal. This outcome was hardly surprising since ten of the twelve judges of Spain’s highest court are appointed by politicians in Madrid; and their rulings seldom disappoint their sponsors.

Central government had elegantly ignored a previous consultation on the issue in 2014 and simply declared the result unconstitutional. But this time — with a logic reminiscent of a previous era — the executive resolved to suppress the process at all costs. The Mossos d’Esquadra attempted to prevent the poll by restricting voting to those institutions where action to the contrary might provoke violence and injury. The state-police and the Civil Guard, however, would show no such restraint or respect for good policing. Polling stations were ransacked, those queuing to vote manhandled, election officials assaulted, with the result that, after indiscriminate baton charges and the firing of rubber bullets, 893 civilians required hospital treatment. Hands aloft to show they were unarmed, voters repeated the same chants in the face of their Spanish aggressors.

DK articleThe world bore witness to this brutality which brought denunciations from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN Commission for Human Rights. Central government, supported in all areas by the state-wide Opposition, claimed the violence to be “proportionate” and “legitimate”. Caucuses in Spain labelled those casting a ballot as “Nazis”, “fascists” and “demophobes”. For the less confused, these epithets are more commonly applied to those who use intimidation to prevent the exercise of democracy.

In the wake of the referendum, the legal recriminations have begun. The director of the Mossos d’Esquadra stands indicted for sedition: his force’s policing, which had previously faced down terrorists, was “insufficiently robust”. President Puigdemont is exiled in Belgium with half of his cabinet.The other half are on remand, accused of sedition or worse. Since this offence requires the presence of violence — an option insistently rejected by the Catalans —, the charge appears bogus and the detainees are now considered political prisoners, guilty of fulfilling a manifesto promise. Fresh autonomous elections are called for December as direct rule is imposed by a party which, in 2015, returned a mere 11 seats out of 135 in Catalonia. And with half of the local political leadership in jail or on the run, this “restoration” of law and order is more reminiscent of the “organic democracy” of the Franco dictatorship.

The whole shameful episode is crowned by the indifference shown by the European Union. Brussels, that greatest of moralists, has buried its head in the sand, refusing to apply political pressure or the life-line of mediation. The posture worryingly recalls the 1930s when, with appeasement and non-intervention, Western Europe turned a blind eye to a conflict in the Peninsula to disastrous effect. Todo cambia para que todo siga igual intones the Spanish version of a well-known French saying. Once again, as I look down the Rambla — which has witnessed repression and violence so many times before — I am left fearing the worst.

Dominic Keown is Professor of Catalan Studies at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge.

Guest Contributions

The interview: prepare for nerves

Rachel Naylor (Cambridge applicant 2016)

St John's College
St John’s College, Cambridge

‘Nervous’ doesn’t come close to explaining how I felt before my Cambridge interview.

The best way to control the nerves is to be as prepared as possible. For me, this meant reading. Annoyingly, you can never do too much. For each book I mentioned in my personal statement, I made sure I could say one thing that I liked about it, one thing I didn’t like and one aspect I found interesting that I would like to explore further. I made sure I could give my opinions on key themes, and also have maybe a couple of questions about certain aspects I didn’t understand so well. Academic articles are also helpful; obviously you’re not expected to quote faultlessly from six different journals, but to be able to talk about the main points in one or two shows how you are taking your interests beyond your curriculum.

Actual interview practice is crucial. Interviews are about not just having opinions but being able to articulate them and form clear, coherent arguments. Practice with subject teachers is very helpful, but so too is practice with parents, friends and teachers unrelated to your subject, for reasons I shall explain.

John'sI applied to study Spanish and Portuguese (ab initio) at St John’s college. All MML applicants through to this stage have two interviews – one subject-specific and one general – as well as a written exam. First for me was the subject interview, conducted by a professor of Portuguese, a Spanish lecturer and the college’s head of Modern Languages – all of us on sofas in the professor’s study.

Before the interview I was given a choice of two short texts in Spanish – one prose, the other poetry. I was given 20 minutes to go to the library and, with the use of a dictionary, read over/analyse the text for discussion. This part of the interview scared me most, since at that point in my course I had never studied literature. Before the interview, I made sure I went over some basic terminology, as well as reading up on methods/checklists of what to do when analysing an unfamiliar text.

In my interview, we spent only about two minutes talking about the poem. I was asked to read out a stanza so they could hear my accent, then give a brief summary and comment on what I thought to be the major themes. After that, the conversation moved on to my particular interests; for example, what I’d read and why I wanted to continue Spanish and begin Portuguese. You can’t anticipate every question you’re going to be asked, but the interviewers usually begin with the basics just to get you talking a bit. Your answers will determine the way in which the conversation progresses.

If there’s something you really want to talk about, it is possible to steer the conversation that way. Raising particular interests is likely to count in your favour, and you shouldn’t feel scared to take control of the conversation to show this. However, the most important thing is to be ready to justify any position you take. This is an intrinsic part of studying at Cambridge: there’s no right or wrong answer, just make sure you can explain your reasoning – you will undoubtedly be asked, ‘So WHY do you think this?’.

The general interview is very different. Whilst the subject interview is based on uncovering your areas of interest and dedication to your chosen subject, the general interview is more focussed on finding out about your character and whether or not Cambridge would be the right place for you. My two general interviewers were unrelated to my subjects (one I think was a professor of Archaeology) and most of their questions were drawn from my personal statement. Broader questions included ‘How do you deal with stress?’ and ‘Tell us about your extra-curricular interests’.

The final part of the interview process was an entrance exam. Be sure you practise all available past papers. They may seem daunting at first, as the articles to discuss tend to be on unfamiliar topics, but practice lets you understand the mark scheme and get advice from teachers. I did my first practice paper using as much time as I needed, but after that I practised under timed conditions, so I would know how to manage my time.

It’s rare to comes out of an interview thinking it went well – they are meant to be challenging. The experience is not a horrible one, and it’s over in what feels like thirty seconds. The important thing is not to worry; Cambridge interviewers do not set out to be intimidating. If you are asked a question that stumps you, don’t panic! It’s okay to admit you’re not sure, or to ask for a couple of moments to think. In fact, it’s probably beneficial: pausing to think and formulate a clearer opinion is better than blurting out the first thing that comes into your head.

Whatever the outcome, knowing that you have prepared and tried your best is what matters most.