Is the sun setting on Catalan nationalism?

Just like in Scotland, Catalan separatism has failed to increase momentum. On the contrary, many have been surprised by how quickly it seems to have fallen away. The SNP should take note

Not as strong as they look
Tom Gallagher
On 19 December 2017 11:52

In 1932 the Spanish political thinker Jose Ortega y Gasset described Catalonia as ‘a problem that cannot be resolved, it can only be put up with’.

The granting of autonomy to Catalonia in 1978 highlighted how Spain was breaking from the centralised dictatorship of General Franco. It proved a boon for the region’s middle-class nationalists. They have used lavishly subsidised culture and media and, above all, the education system, to assert an identity increasingly at variance wth the rest of Spain.

The response of Madrid has been complacency and occasional sharp displeasure. Thus in 2010 the Constitutional Court struck down a 2006 charter on Catalan autonomy in which the region’s government had described this part of north-east Spain as a nation.

 A build-up towards outright secession then occurred. Bourgeois nationalists teamed up with the radical left and, on 6 September, the Catalan parliament approved legislation for a referendum on going it alone.

The 1978 constitution does not allow regions to secede or hold referenda with that aim in mind. On 1 October forceful police efforts to stop the referendum going ahead, provided a propaganda windfall for the separatists.

The media, especially in English-speaking countries, treated the stand-off as a replay of the duel between plucky Baltic peoples and an oppressive Soviet Union at the end of its life. A narrative of age-old Spanish oppression running up against resistance from middle-class progressives was how  the story was often framed.

But ten weeks on, the Catalan crisis has evolved in surprising  ways: nationalists are plagued by uncertainty as they face regional elections on 21 December. These were called by the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy  after article 155 of the constitution was invoked to dissolve the regional parliament on 27 October.

Independence had been declared shortly beforehand, but to the surprise of many, Spanish authority did not melt away. After leading nationalists were placed in detention, accused of a range of crimes, the Catalan administration submitted to temporary rule from Madrid. Large protest rallies occurred  but it was the surprisingly large pro-Spain demonstrations in Barcelona which drew most notice.

They brought together Catalans who thought the region’s autonomy statute was a very good deal and who were not gripped by memories of a stormy past when Catalonia was often at the heart of struggles between radical and reactionary forces.

There were also Catalans whose families hailed from the rest of Spain, many feeling that they did not fit into the ethno-linguistic framework of Catalan nationalism.

Finally, there were those immigrants who had figured out that their life chances were better if Spain remained intact.

Muslim immigrants, particularly from North Africa, have been encouraged to settle in Catalonia. Many young Muslims have been won over to separatism and it is not unusual for political posters to have Arabic script.

It is just one sign of the militant direction that the independence cause has taken. Another is the determination of the movement’s radical left wing to lay claim to the streets with provocative graffiti even where they are in a minority.

The world has woken up to the fact that there are two large Catalan communities not very different in size. A growing number of polls have shown that most Catalans lack the appetite to plunge into the political unknown. The region lacks the tradition of political violence which soured life in the Basque Country. But many find it hard to forget the Islamist attack on the centre of Barcelona  on 19 August which left 13 dead.

This autumn the wish of many Catalans not to be held back by the rest of Spain has been overshadowed by the realisation that the push for independence could have massive social costs.

Nationalist leaders had assumed that the business world would bow to the realities of separation. But no less than 2,900 companies have moved their headquarters out of the region since the crisis erupted.

Neither has the independence cause received any serious international support. Hopes that the EU would be sympathetic because, for the most part, the separatists were relaxed with being part of a federal super-state, were soon dashed.

In Madrid, the parties of the democratic left and right, set aside their rivalries in the crisis. They backed the suspension of the regional parliament and agreed that the desire of a segment of the Catalan elite to place itself above the law must be countered.

Separatists were caught un-awares by the decision to hold pre-Christmas elections. The different parties resisted the temptation to boycott the poll but were unable to form a united front. Instead, they campaigned around the theme of oppression which lost its bite when judges set free most of the detained politicians.

Polls show that support for the separatists has dropped but they benefit from an electoral law which rewards rural areas where support for independence is often very strong.

It is often difficult to express a moderate pro-Spain perspective in these rather closed communities. In Barcelona’s middle-class suburbs flags flutter from many a window. The Spanish flag and the Catalan Estella flag (modelled on the Cuban one) stand for unity or else radical separatism. The historic flag of Catalonia and Spain’s, placed together, express a longing for common ground.

It is clear that a deep longing for social harmony unites many ordinary citizens in the two communities. 90 percent of voters say they intend to vote and if turnout is this high, it increases the likelihood of a moderate coalition taking charge, emphasising reform rather than confrontation.

With regional militancy on the rise in different parts of Europe, it seems to have over-reached itself in Catalonia, one of its strongest redoubts. The arrogance of separatists towards the material needs of everyday folk, and their desire for co-existence, appears to have badly backfired.

But they are entrenched in the worlds of information, education and culture. They could have their day again if political games in Madrid take precedence over the search for a new and durable balance between Spain’s two most dynamic poles, Madrid and Barcelona.

Too much is at stake for the central government to behave in an opportunistic manner. There is now a chance of widening the dialogue partners in Catalonia to include moderate mainly pro-Union citizens. Much benefit could flow for Spain and the Catalan region if this happens.

Tom Gallagher, a retired political scientist, was in Catalonia earlier this month. His novel, Flight of Evil: A North British Intrigue will be published next spring @cultfree54

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