Catalonia, Spain and the Referendum

Sad times. Despite having the law on their side with regards to the October 2017 referendum, the Spanish Government of the Conservative Partido Popular (PP) has showed a formidable degree of political incompetence on a number of fronts, not to mention the clumsiness of the police actions. My solidarity goes with all those good Catalans who today suffered from their brutality.

As the possibility of a referendum became clearer during 2016, the Spanish Government’s sole reliance on the Rule of Law and law enforcement, legitimate as it might look, became a self-defeating excuse not to deal with the underlying political dispute. When the Catalan Government set in motion its illegal referendum in September 2017, violating even the rules and procedures of the Catalan Parliament, this process of self-determination had gone too far for it to be simply stopped with the intervention of the judiciary and the police.

People injured in the streets. Polling Stations shut down by the police. Members of the Catalan Administration arrested and charged with Contempt of Court or Misconduct in Public Office. These scenes are pathetic. A Government should never resort to the Criminal Justice System to deal with an uncomfortable popular movement and with an entire branch of the State (remember that the Catalan Government, autonomous as it is, is also part of the Spanish State). We all know that the referendum is technically illegal. The actions of the Government of Spain in the run up to the vote have already rendered the referendum logistically unfit for purpose. Its celebration has just turned into an act of protest. There is no point in confronting people who want to use it to express their discontent. That is the wrong “policing” approach.

It is difficult to imagine why the Spanish Government would have wanted to pursue this suicidal strategy, but we need to bear in mind that the Conservatives in Spain are being sieged by the Spanish Judiciary itself. The corruption cases are far too serious and too numerous. Distracting the attention with Catalonia may prove a last attempt to survive. The recent appearance of enthusiastic unionist demonstrations across Spain where Spanish flags are waived, something quite unusual except for tiny far right groups or anti-terrorist demonstrations, may prevent the loss of votes of the Conservatives amongst their traditional voters, who now see the PP as the staunch defenders of the Rule of Law and the unity of the motherland. The chances of Ciudadanos (“Citizens”, the Catalan-born Spanish party that shares with them the centre-right of the Spanish political spectrum) to challenge PP’s hegemony diminish as voters may prioritise a strong majority government over a divided centre-right in opposition.

One factor that must be taken into account to explain the reluctance of the Conservatives to engage with the Catalan issue is the personality of their leader, Mariano Rajoy. Starchy and hard to read, he seems to live on a fence, or rather sleep on it. Some accuse him also of procrastinating, and the far-right call him a coward for not acting more harshly on Catalan independentists, or for not having sent “the tanks” some years ago.

A lot of negative energy has been accumulated for several years and, sooner or later, it was going to explode. Obviously, the Government in Spain must go. At the end of the day, it was the Conservative Partido Popular (PP) who promoted, with some degree of success, the annulment of key sections of the enhanced Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia, that had been passed by the Catalan and Spanish Parliaments in 2006. This was a humiliation and a provocation to the Catalan Nationalist parties and to the Catalan Left that changed the course of Spanish politics. Elections should be called in Spain. The PP have disqualified themselves automatically as interlocutors of a necessary dialogue. Alternatively, the rest of parties of the Spanish Parliament should create a provisional coalition government to deal with the situation. PP are in minority, just supported by Ciudadanos. There is no time to waste.

The evil is in the nation

In order to envisage a solution to this mess, I think it is necessary to reflect upon some of the root causes of this confrontation. To me, the Catalan conflict is a confirmation that the Nation, a concept that is usually interchangeable (wrongly) with those of country, state, territory or community, an emotional and discursive construct that has caused wars and frustrations for two centuries, is still the main enemy of peace in Europe, if not in the entire World. Let us look at the case of Spain:

In Spain (the territory of the State) we have plenty of nations, almost as many as politicians.

These are some of them:

A Spanish nation with different ideological “variants” (the 1978 Constitutional nation, the pluri-national nation, the historic liberal nation, the republican nation…);

Autonomous communities
Figure 1. Map of the current Estado de las Autonomías, with the borders and flags of the Autonomous Communities.

A Basque nation that expands over the Spanish Basque Country, the Kingdom of Navarre in Spain and parts of France (7 territories), but whose political structure currently resides in the Spanish Autonomous Community of the Basque Country, made up of 3 territories of those 7 territories (Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa and Araba). (figure 2);

Euskal Herria
Figure 2. Euskal Herria (Greater Basque Country) stretches over territories of the French State to the North plus Navarre and is the area claimed by most Basque nationalists are their homeland, well beyond the current Autonomous Community of the Basque Country.

At least two Galician nations, one of which occupies parts of other regions where Galician is spoken;

And finally, at least two Catalonias:

The one whose territory coincides almost exactly with the current Autonomous Community of Spain (figure 1) and with the principality of Catalonia from the late Middle Ages;

And the so-called Països Catalans (Catalan-speaking countries), an idea that was made popular in the 1960’s, a cultural and linguistic nation that for the main Catalanist parties in Government is seen in the long-term as the true political subject of a future Catalan State. Mainstream Catalan nationalism, in power from 1980, has assigned to this nation a wide territory that comprises not only Catalonia but also the current Autonomous Community of Valencia (Alicante, Castellón and Valencia itself), the Balearic Islands, the French region of the Roussillon, a city in Sardinia, Italy, etc. Interestingly, bilingualism (Spanish or French or Italian and Catalan is the norm in those places. (figure 3). For Catalan nationalists, the political integrity of this “cultural nation” is a very vivid aspiration. Their parties and, even the Catalan Government, promote pro-Catalan groups and national ideology in those territories whose population, largely pro-Spain, regards this movement as a sort of intrusive cult.

Figure 3: The Catalan Countries, the homeland of most Catalan Nationalists.

Here lays one of the many complications brought about by the pro-independence referendum:

Spaniards do not have a default smaller “core” nation where to place their identity and historical references if the Spanish State, which is seen as their political expression of that nation, were to break up. Regional identities do not stretch so far in most places so as to become “national”.

In the Island of Great Britain, we have three recognisable nations (England, Wales and Scotland) which pretty much have territorial and cultural stable references. If Scotland were to break up, English people would always have England as a nation to venerate. Nations in Spain, however, are a different species all together, not just because of their overlapping and almost phagocytic nature, but because all the existing versions of the Spanish nation encompass the land and the population of the Autonomous Communities of Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque Country.

The reasons why we have such an overlapping national concoction are complex, but I will try to offer a take on it that readers will find hopefully illuminating:

The first legal formulation of a Spanish political nation whose sovereignty resided not just in the monarch but in its people, came about in the liberal Cádiz Constitution of 1812. Those “national statements”, passed by the Assembly of notables from the whole of Spain, predate the claims for modern nationhood of the rest of the nations in the Spanish territory, which can be traced back to the last third of the 19th Century in the form of initially minority regionalist movements.

I am not denying that the Principality of Catalonia, as well as the Kingdom of Aragón, the Kingdom of Valencia and the Kingdom of Majorca were distinctive political entities, some claim sovereign, before 1714 (The end of the War of Succession). I am not denying the fact that Catalan was the autochthonous language of three of these four territories. I am simply stating that there was not ever a Spanish nation, as a modern political formulation, that did not include the abovementioned Iberian territories. When the Cortes de Cádiz declared the Spanish nation in 1812, there was not another group of notables in Catalonia with a gathering and a programme remotely comparable to that of Cádiz at all. It is precisely because of this that the Spanish project as a nation-state grew the way it did, with all its imperfections and divisions. As a result of it, nowadays, for a majority of Spaniards, the territories of Catalonia, Basque Country and Galicia, are an integral part of their nation, as a cultural and historical representation that they feel emotionally attached to.

We can think of many different formulae to make State boundaries and national boundaries to reflect better what happens in life and politics. For instance, I could envisage an independent Catalonia where the Spanish nation is also recognised by a Catalan constitution as overlapping with their territory. At the end of the day, the majority of Catalans (still) have a dual national identity (Catalan and Spanish). However, in the current scenario this rosy solution is very hard to imagine.

Catalan Nationalism and manipulation

Nations are, primarily, emotional constructs, deeply embedded psycho-social phenomena. Unfortunately, media, politicians and the education system in Catalonia have not done much to prepare the terrain for a seamless future. Quite the opposite. In the last 35 years, the Government of Catalonia, that has been ruled one way or another by parties with a nationalist agenda since 1980, has engaged in a nation-building programme that involved, controversially, representing Spain as an external enemy of the Catalan people, whose spirit and institutions had been allegedly defeated by a military prone Spanish State.

These educational efforts were accompanied by the fostering of a popular culture of Catalan national distinctiveness by nationalist politicians and public figures that relied often in the worst of bigotry. I am not denying the friendliness and tolerance of the majority of Catalans I have come across in my life, but as much as I love my friends who live there, many of them in favour of the referendum, I would like also to tell them that Catalan voters should not have backed time and again the two political parties that harboured anti-Spanish bigotry since 1980, which are the current parties in Government in Catalonia today (hopefully for not much longer): ERC, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Republican Left of Catalonia) and PDeCat, “Democratic” Party of Catalonia, formerly Convergencia.

“The Subsidised Spain lives off the Productive Catalonia”, explains one of these posters. This is replicated in demonstrations and popular discourse.

The PP, a party that as you may have gathered I dislike, has recently shown a collection of public statements made by Catalan Nationalist politicians and public figures:

Spain is robbing our money. Anarchic Andalucians lay idle and live in spiritual, moral and cultural misery. We are more like the French. I would not like to see someone with a non-Catalan name as the President of the Government of Catalonia. You are only Catalan if you are born here. If you speak Spanish, you are a coloniser. Being Spanish and being a thief is the same thing.

These are some of the statements made by politicians and public figures in the video, in a more elaborate and inflammatory way.


Sadly, this persistent abuse has not been publicised and denounced widely throughout all these years. There was a sense of guilt in Spain about Franco’s cultural and political repression that prevented anyone in the Left and the Centre of politics to take issue at Catalan abusive nationalism in public. Catalans nationalist politicians were allowed to insult, probably because their outbursts were perceived as a form of legitimate catharsis or revenge against Spanish right-wing nationalism. For as long as these vociferous members of those parties respected the constitutional frame of 1978 and kept playing ball in the Spanish institutions, they got away with it, as if it all were just an extension of Real Madrid-Barca banter. If anyone in the Left or Centre of politics raised the issue of school and media brainwashing, or the insults, s/he would be accused by Catalan Nationalists to play into the hands of Spanish right-wing commentators, who, vile and despicable as they may be, were the only ones who denounced with some conviction these abuses.

Whilst the majority of Spain children have been learning at School since the 1980’s the 1978 Constitutional creed of a diverse pluri-cultural Spain where regions and “nacionalidades” (a term used by the Spanish Constitution -“nationalities”- in reference to Catalonia, Galicia, Basque Country and any others) lived under a revamped peaceful and democratic umbrella, in Catalonia, text books and media were offering a version of their “nation” that was rather less appeasing.

I have to recognise that the most recent discursive formulations of the Catalan national project, in the last 5 years or so, are much more intelligent than their predecessors’, as it can be appreciated in the words of Junqueras in that video, when he addresses this question. Currently, there is a concerted effort among Catalan Nationalist top politicians to offer some friendliness to Spain which has to be welcomed. This has allowed the pro-independence cause to grow in numbers, as many of the Catalans who support the referendum and independence are the children of Spanish migrants who went to Catalonia in the 1950s and 1960s.

Nevertheless, I dare to say that most Spaniards outside Catalonia do not really believe in the sincerity of this calculated change of emotions by the Catalan nationalist (populist, in the worst sense of the word) politicians. The damage has been done already, both educationally and in terms of intercultural relations. The politicians and public figures who appear insulting Spaniards in the video are very much in the driving seat of the current “Process”.

The intervention of the Government of Spain in the referendum, and the popular reaction of some sectors of Spanish society in support of the Spanish police forces, is certainly going to make it even harder for people to deal with their differences. Now that the gloves seem to be off, courtesy of Catalan Nationalism and the Conservative Spanish Government, both to be blamed for the current stalemate, I am not sure how much can be reasonably done for the sake of mutual understanding.

A reflection from a Democratic Left perspective

Radical Left parties such as Podemos support the celebration of a referendum and, naively, entertain the idea that an independent Catalonia resulting from this very process would be easily invited back into a new non-monarchic Spanish confederal State, made up by different Spanish republics with a renewed injection of popular, state-wide legitimacy, away from the corruption of previous Spanish Governments. Appealing as this may be for me, this formula is not really part of the agenda of most of the actors of this Catalan “Process”:

The current Catalan Government, sustained by the coalition Junts Pel Sí (Together for Yes) includes, alongside the moderate left-wing ERC, the Conservative-liberal PDeCat. This party, like their State-wide Conservative PP Spanish counter-parts, is riddled with corruption. They have been a dominant force in Catalan politics for decades and now the Courts of Justice are acting upon their abuses whilst in power.

The extremely confrontational attitude of PDeCat, who has only embraced independence demands over the last 6 years, was a result of their electoral decline provoked by corruption scandals, as much as a strategy to force the Spanish Government to negotiate concessions for Catalonia. As their strategy failed and the Spanish Government called their bluff, PDeCat could not be seen blinking on the question of the referendum.

One factor that accelerated the triggering of the referendum was the weakness of the minority Junts Pel Sí government in Catalonia. For them to pass the budget and all the legislative projects of the Referendum and Independence Process they needed the support of the radical left anti-capitalists CUP, who certainly do not see the referendum as a simple bargaining chip, as they believe that Catalonia’s independence is the start of an anti-capitalist grass-roots revolution. It is the CUP who precisely have made the referendum unavoidable, as they are propping up the Junts Pel Sí coalition on that condition. Moreover, in the tradition of PDeCat, there is no other scheme of relations with Spain than “bilateralidad”. They have no intention to engage in an exercise of State engineering, like their predecessors did, exceptionally. Convergencia’s (now PDeCat) Miquel Roca i Junyent participated in the Constitutional drafting group, made up 7 Spanish MPs that made possible the 1978 agreement. The Spanish Constitution of 1978 received overwhelming support in Catalonia partly for that reason (91%+ of affirmative votes!).

I believe in the need of a social and cultural revolution to deal with the failure of capitalism. I personally would defend a referendum on things like nationalisation of public utilities and key industries, for instance. But this Catalan Process, has little to do with anti-capitalist aspirations, as the CUP would like to think. It is a shame that left-wing activists who defend a no-borders approach to humanity and the unification of the working classes are wasting their energy in dividing people and playing a chess game by proxy, in the hope that the chaos brought about by the referendum will help them to spread their revolutionary message and over-throne the capitalist system. I think they are absolutely deluded. Look at the example of Brexit and “Lexit”: Where is the left-wing ingredient of Brexit in the current negotiations with the EU or in the dominant media and public opinion? Pathetic. I was recommended to read a Spanish intellectual called Joaquin Nim who theorised in 1934 about how working-class movements could be built on the back of nationalist movements and I really did not have the energy to finish reading such a flawed article.

Chaos benefits those who hold an alternative power, cultural and political. The alter ego of the Spanish State is not a democratic paradise of equality and socialist emancipation, but a Catalan Switzerland (or a Catalonia with the tax advantages of the Basque Country), as dreamed by many right-wing Catalan independentists, a Catalan Sweden, as per the aspirations of the more left-wing ERC or, hopefully not, a Catalan Bosnia.

Whilst I feel uneasy about politicians been arrested for organising a referendum, even though it is illegal, and I feel very strongly about the use of police force against innocent voters/protesters, I clearly would applaud the imprisonment of all the Catalan public figures who have incited anti-Spanish ethnic hatred. They have had a hand in this intercultural disaster.


We now have different groups of well-intentioned, not so well-informed, citizens trapped in overlapping, sprawling, imperfect “nations”. Democracy has been fetishised around this Catalan referendum, a totem which, to me, is not the start of a democratic revolution but the end of sad story.

When I saw the President of Catalonia in a recent interview with Al-Jazeera blatantly lying about some key, uncontroversial facts, just for the sake of effect, in front of an unprepared journalist, I could not avoid feeling despair. The same happens when I see people from Catalonia passionately wanting to take their country back. Like in Brexit, the Catalan Process responds very well to a perverse global tendency: one-off disposable democracy, fake news, identity politics and insults.

I recognise the right to self-determination of peoples, but who is, emotionally and politically, entitled to decide in Catalonia, which for most Spaniards is inhabited by members of their own people, their own nation? What types of majorities would you need in Catalonia to support independence?

It is time for both Governments, the Spanish and the Catalan, to resign and let other parties to take the lead and look for a long-term solution to all this. Both PP and Junts Pel Sí have pushed us all into this sorry situation with their blind populist pride. The European Parliament should investigate all abuses, including media abuse and indoctrination, and mediate.

Meanwhile, people need to calm down. Mutual trust has to be rebuilt. I suggest that we all post in social media one thing that we like of Catalonia or Spain every day. Despite my bitterness in this article, I get quite emotional when I think about friends there and the good times I always had in Catalonia.

I now expect fanatics and radicals, some more polite and educated than others, from all sides, Russian trolls, Little Spanish Francos, Catalan Cyborgs and Assanges to call me all sort of names or even ban me.

If they bark, we must be riding.

One Reply to “Catalonia, Spain and the Referendum”

  1. Excellent article, giving me a good insight on what is going on in Spain. Much better than the superficial Opinion(ated) pieces typically found in newspapers. Thanks for posting your thoughts!

    Liked by 1 person

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