On 1 October 2017, the world’s attention was unexpectedly drawn to Catalonia by the unrestrained police violence seeking to prevent an unofficial referendum on Catalan independence from Spain. The Catalan question suddenly became one of the most salient contemporary issues in Europe and its implications continue to reverberate.

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and more than 700 mayors from Catalonia meet to show support for holding an independence referendum. Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Catalonia, a nation without a state, has embarked on a political project of separation from Spain. By late October, this led to a unilateral declaration of independence, followed by the removal of its government and direct rule imposed from Madrid. Strikingly, the turn to secession is an entirely new one and, as late as 2005, support for independence rarely rose above 15 per cent. Even this figure is higher than that found decades earlier, leading us to reiterate that the turn to independence within important sectors of the Catalan political community is an overwhelmingly recent development. Part of the present impasse can be explained by the fact that support for Catalan independence has not reached a clear 50% of the population, which has partly facilitated its current defeat by Madrid.

However, the apparent newness of Catalan independence does not mean that Catalonia has been an island of tranquillity. The events of September to November 2017 can only be accounted for by the intensification of a low intensity conflict between the region and the authorities in Madrid. While it would be simplistic (and ahistorical) to claim that Catalonia has been trying to free itself from Spain for centuries, we can certainly detect a near permanent dispute of varying degrees of intensity between Catalonia and the rest of Spain. The key point of contention has been the location of political power: Barcelona or Madrid.

Spain’s trajectory from the early modern period was one of decline and its subsequent role was as a passive agent of the geo-politics of other European states. Territorial loss occurred with the independence of Portugal, the loss of the northern Catalan counties to France in 1659, of Gibraltar in 1713, and for a period, the loss of the island of Minorca to Britain in the eighteenth century. This territorial contraction was compounded by the loss of Spain’s Latin American territories in the 1820s and its last remaining overseas colonies in 1898. Subsequently Spain’s political elites wrestled with how to achieve a form of political stability after the turbulence of the country’s civil wars; how to achieve democratisation without losing control of state institutions; and what were the most appropriate strategies to reverse centuries of economic decline.

The nineteenth century is often termed the century of nationalism, yet it was only partially so in the Spanish case. Spain’s encounter with nationalism occurred on the periphery, in the Basque Country and Catalonia, and Spain proved unable to successfully incorporate Basques and Catalans into the political nation. Under the Franco regime of 1939 to 1975, the opinion was held that only destruction of these counter-nationalisms could build the Spanish political nation and ensure permanent loyalty. The historical memory of Francoism has been a key component in the present grievances of both Basque and Catalan nationalism.

With no national state to speak of and periodic phases of cultural and political repression, expressed in most brutally under the Franco regime, the Catalan national movement has been defensive. The Catalan nation has inherited a narrative of defeat and survival from various attempts at assimilation. For most of its existence, the movement called ‘Catalanism’ represented a state project for the modernisation of Spain and a cultural project for Catalonia. While Catalan leadership in Spain was not achieved, the cultural element of Catalanism was largely successful and the Catalan question in the twenty-first century is inexplicable without understanding this achievement. Language has been a key symbolic issue for Catalanism as an important facet of identity. Catalan remained the dominant, if not exclusive, language in the majority of households in every social stratum of the region through the nineteenth century and beyond.

The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), a conflict that saw Spanish democracy overthrown, was multi-layered. The Spanish Civil War was not an external conflict transposed onto Catalan territory: it was expressive of profound internal divisions within Catalan society. Spain’s nationalisms were one of many variables that led to war. Legitimacy for Francoism came from victory in war, which became the foundational myth of the regime, and purification was undertaken of all deemed to be ‘anti-Spanish’. Republican and oppositional cultures were decimated. This included targeting and purging of complementary or alternative identities within Spain amongst Basques, Catalans, Galicians and others. However, the Catalans and Basques mounted some of the strongest movements in opposition to the Franco regime in its final years. While the Basque insurgency attracted greater international attention, the institutional priority following Franco’s death in 1975 was to find an adequate resolution to the Catalan question. The state was forced to make a number of strategic concession in the 1970s, but the crisis of the Spanish state in this period mirrored that experienced by other European states in the 1970s, from Italy to the United Kingdom, as did its crisis in the period post-2008.

Catalan society remained substantially homogenous until the end of the Civil War, with new arrivals from other parts of Spain totalling no more than 20% of the population. Dramatic demographic expansion in the 1960s led to the greatest transformation of Catalan society since the 1880s. Catalan cultural revival rapidly expanded, taking advantage of a booming economy and the gradual abandonment of the harsh repression of culture by the regime. Catalan-language publishing expanded into new zones of cultural life. An increasing rapprochement was evident between the two most important cultures under Francoism, Catholicism and communism, as churches and religious buildings became locations for communist-led trade union organisations.

Catalan protest, combining Catalanist demands with calls for popular democratisation, continually mobilised the largest numbers of any protest culture throughout Spain. Whether labour oriented or cultural in focus, Catalan protests sought democratisation, restoration of autonomous institutions and a generally progressive solution to the problems of the region.  In September 1977, on Catalan national day, one million people protested in Barcelona calling for freedom, amnesty for political prisoners and the restoration of a Statute of Autonomy. Repression of Catalan identity under Francoism facilitated the development of a minimal programme for the restoration of Catalan autonomy which enlisted support from across the political spectrum. The struggle to deny the multi-national reality of the state gave impetus to the Basque and Catalan movements as legitimate representatives resisting repression.

Demonstrators blocking Spanish police trying to close polling stations for the Catalan independence referendum, which was declared illegal by the Spanish government. Wikipedia Creative Commons.

By the late 1970s, Catalan society was unified in its basic political demands. The post-Franco Spanish Constitution of 1978 recognised ‘the right to autonomy of the nationalities and regions which form’ Spain, and had overwhelming popular support. This settlement was strongly embedded until the economic crisis of 2008 shattered its generalised social acceptance. The Catalan crisis we are currently witnessing is the territorial expression of Spain’s economic crisis, which has produced a profound generational and political rupture to the political system established in 1978. More significantly, the crisis has shattered the Spanish middle classes’ dreams of prosperity, a causation that explains both the rise of Podemos at a Spanish level and Catalan secession. Simply put, Catalan independence is a middle-class revolt and this social character explains the movement’s political apparatus, character, tactics and general moderation.

Whilst the current Spanish conservative government has achieved a clear political victory over the secessionist movement which has been notably unable to resist direct rule, Catalan independence is also of sufficient strength to ensure that containment can only be a temporary salve to the crisis. Sooner or later, the Spanish Constitution of 1978 will be revised and the political class nurtured during the 1970s will hand the destiny of both Spain and Catalonia to new political expressions.

Dr Andrew Dowling (Cardiff University) is the author of The Rise of Catalan Independence: Spain’s Territorial Crisis published by Routledge in December 2017. He has previously written La Reconstrucció Nacional de Catalunya, 1939-2012 (Pasado y Presente, 2013).

Twitter: @painesrepublic

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