I lived in Barcelona for eleven years (from 2003 to 2014), and, although I now live in Oxford, I still visit regularly with my family. My wife is Catalan, and one of my daughters is an Anglo-Catalan teenager – at home we switch constantly between Catalan, English and Spanish.
I mention this to underline that I have first-hand knowledge of Catalan society and the roots of the present conflict over the referendum for self-determination called by the Catalan government for October 1: a conflict that Madrid-based politicians and journalists try to portray as an act of lunacy led by a handful of “retrograde nationalists” who, in the 21st century, seek to revive a debate over identity and erect frontiers between peoples. They shamelessly describe those fighting for Catalan sovereignty as fascists, and compare the situation in Catalonia to that in Germany in the 1930s. Rather than attempt to find a political solution to the political problem Catalonia has had since 2006, politicians who will not even re- pudiate Francoism continually parade the ghost of Hitler in interviews and television debates to delegitimise the Catalan movement for independence.
Catalonia certainly has its own language and culture and has defended them tooth and nail over the centuries. Neither the Decreto de Nueva Planta issued by Philip V in 1716, abolishing the institutions of Catalonia, nor successive waves of repression, including the 40 years of the Franco dictatorship, succeeded in making Cat- alans renounce their wish to regain self- government, use their language or develop their rich literary tradition. Nevertheless, what is now happening in Catalonia has very little in common with European nationalist movements of the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Catalans don’t base their demand for independence on questions of race, national identity, language, or even their long history as a nation. They emphasise their wish to build a more democratic, more feminist, more plural and inclusive republic, with greater social justice and equality of opportunity. One only has to read and listen to what journalists and politicians who want independence write and say and what people call for at demonstrations. It is a modern discourse that challenges the centralist conservatism of Madrid.
The Catalans are proud to be a plural, welcoming society that is generally more tolerant of immigrants than the rest of Spanish society. This is clear from their policies and legislative initiatives (often opposed by the Constitutional Court), and their attitude, for example, during the recent terrorist attack on the Ramblas of Barcelona. One has only to recall the emotional way the father of a child who was killed embraced an imam (an embrace that was virulently criticised in many Madrid newspapers and radio and TV channels).
I was living in Barcelona in 2006 when the anti-independence party Citizens (Ciudadanos) started up and when, in that same year, the Popular Party – also opposed to independence – was the driving force behind a campaign throughout Spain to collect signatures against the new Statute of Autonomy that had been passed by the Catalan parliament. The Popular Party’s campaign clearly aimed to instigate a wave of “Catalanophobia” (Both the Popular Party and increasingly the Socialist Party have resorted to stoking resentment against Catalonia, in order to win votes in the rest of Spain). The campaign led to indignation among Catalans, unjustly accused of “lacking solidarity” and “retrograde nationalism”, and ultimately triggered the movement that has now culminated in this referendum.
In 2010 the Constitutional Court declared that many of the articles of the Statute were unconstitutional – even though they are constitutional in other statutes in other regions – and proceeded to drain it of all content. Ever since, the movement for independence has grown, bringing together voters on the Left and the Right, nationalists and those who have been historically anti-nationalist, Catalans of diverse origins, Catalan-speakers and Spanish-speakers. The movement has been spurred on by constant provocations and legislative initiatives from Madrid against the Catalan language, culture, infrastructure, economy and Catalan institutions of government. Over a million Catalans have marched in the streets calling for the right to self-determination, and over two and a half million voted in the popular referendum that took place two years ago
Quebec and Scotland had their right to a referendum on self-determination recognized by the Canadian and UK governments respectively. Westminster’s All-Party Group on the Catalan referendum has called for Catalonia’s right to a referendum to be recognised by Madrid. Fifty years ago, as a graduate student, I was involved in the underground Spanish opposition to Franco’s dictatorship. It is a disgrace that in modern democratic Europe the Catalans are being forced to organise their referendum in a clandestine fashion.
Note: This article was first published in the Times Literary Supplement on September 20.
- Catalonia Today 08-10-2017 Pàgina 8