As I write this post the police and the Guardia Civil are on the streets of Barcelona and other Catalan towns and cities engaged in running battles with supporters of Catalan independence. Many of today’s UK Sunday newspapers ( at least those which retain any outward facing ethos ) carry articles about the ‘referendum’ and there is much comment on Twitter and other social media. The images, of riot police grabbing protesters by the hair and throwing young and old down stairways as they ‘clear’ the polling stations are just not what Madrid wants and play into the hands of the separatists. Many Spanish people too will see this as not only a complete misuse of state power but a massive misjudgment, escalating what is already an incendiary situation, driving Catalans into supporting independence.
That’s because, as even surveys by the Catalan nationalists showed, most Catalans don’t seem to want independence. A poll in June showed 42% for and 49% against, with 9% undecided. That’s too close to call, I admit, but is hardly the overwhelming demand for separation which the Catalan separatists claim. They cite the 86% vote for independence in the Catalan non-binding ‘popular consultation’ in 2014, but this drew only 37% turnout and only 4% voted ‘No’ which suggested a boycott by non-separatists, even at the time.
Nonetheless, Rajoy’s right of centre PP government has mishandled this whole episode very, very badly and Spain has just lost in the court of public opinion, what ever happens next. It is only forty years since the Francoist era ended and people have long memories of the centrist state using police and army to quell popular opposition.
An interesting article in the Observer today interviewed some survivors of that era, from the cinturon roja around Barcelona, those out-lying industrial towns which were always stronghold of left-wing ideology. Their view was that the, predominantly young, supporters of separatism were being radicalised by the wrong cause. One even claimed that the separatist movement was but a smokescreen for the Catalan governments own austerity measures and that it was easier to blame Catalonia’s ills on Spain rather than have them blamed on its own autonomous government.
Modern Spain is a country in which many powers are devolved to autonomous regional governments, including Catalonia. Under Article 2 of the Constitution of 1978 the Spanish nation is the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards, which consists of nationalities and regions which the constitution recognises. It guarantees their right to self-government. No central Spanish government can recognise a separatist referendum, unless it first changes, or finds a way around, the constitution. That said, it seems to me that this particular government simply isn’t sufficiently fleet of foot or imaginative enough to deal with Catalan separatists who have outmaneuvered them, some would say irresponsibly.
It’s an old trick, as Orwell knew, to blame the ills of a society on ‘the enemy’ outside. Are those old antifascists right? Are the separatists blaming all Catalonia’s ills on the wider body of Spain, rather than taking a more truthful and realistic view, just in the way that Brexiteers blamed all Britain’s ills on the EU? Orwell was in Barcelona when it was the seat of Republican government, before Franco, and the International Brigades were formed, to fight fascism, most immediately in Spain, 81 years ago last month. In Britain and the US the old forces of the right are re-surfacing. How far are they re-surfacing in Spain and is this reflected in how the PP have dealt with and will deal with this crisis?
Yet a large proportion, who knows how many, of Catalans, want independence. I suspect there will be rather more after this display of brute force. The only way they will stop agitating for it will be if they lose at the ballot box (and some will continue regardless, witness Nicola Sturgeon). Many of those protesting have idealistic and sincerely held beliefs, likewise many Spaniards who do not wish to see the dissolution of their democracy. Perhaps none of them are particularly well served by this set of politicians?
Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell’s account of fighting in the Spanish Civil War is still a best seller.