What on earth is going on in Catalonia?

I am fortunate enough to have several contacts in Catalonia, the region around Barcelona – fortunate because they are a fascinating people and I had occasion to visit the region on average every other year from 1992 to 2008. However, since 2008 things have changed unbelievably.

The old line was that “Everyone knows the Catalans want independence, they just don’t like to talk about it”. To be fair, even that wasn’t strictly true. One host family told me (at least I think they did, they insisted on speaking Catalan a language I partially understand but don’t actually speak!) that what they really wanted was a properly diverse Spain, where for example they could use their own language (Catalan) in the Cortes in Madrid (the Spanish Parliament). The fact is, however, that patience is wearing thin.

To cut a long story outrageously short, contemporary Iberia could be said to consist of three linguistic nations (although even that is ludicrously simplistic), who reconquered the peninsula from the Muslim Moors in the centuries up to 1492. To the west, there were the Leonese/Galicians; in the middle the Castilians; and to the east the Aragonese/Catalans. Those who moved south on the western (Atlantic) side formed the Kingdom of Portugal; in the middle formed the Kingdom of Castile; and on the eastern (Mediterranean) side to Kingdom of Aragon incorporating the Duchy of Catalonia. Ultimately those who did not move south on the western side came together with those in the middle in a powerful kingdom with its capital eventually in Madrid, which through the usual combination of royal marriage and militaristic opportunism eventually also came to incorporate Aragon-Catalonia from the early 18th century (and that means incorporate fully – unlike Scotland, Aragon-Catalonia did not retain its laws or legal system). Thus the whole of Iberia except the area occupied by the Galician speakers who did move south early in the second millennium became “Spain”; those Galician speakers who did move came to form “Portugal”.

Even this brief outline is a gross injustice to Spain’s complexities. For example, where foreigners see Real Madrid versus Barcelona as the clash between “Castile” and “Catalonia”, it is also a clash between “Right” and “Left”; and between “Centralist” and “Regionalist”; and between “Unity” and “Multi-cultural”; and all sorts of other things. This becomes even more complex when you note the Balearic Islands and Valencian Region are also partly (historically majority) “Catalan”-speaking (as opposed to Spanish), yet many in those regions consider themselves absolutely Spanish (but not Castilian); still others consider themselves specifically Balearic (even, say, Majorcan) or specifically Valencian with no real credence given to shared linguistic and cultural heritage with the Barcelona area.

Why raise all this? Firstly, I am wary of the seemingly obvious parallel to Scotland. From 1707, Scotland remained a country, clearly distinct from England not least because it maintained its own laws and legal system; furthermore, there is little serious dispute about where the boundaries of that country are, and that it is also culturally distinct. This is quite different, in fact, from Catalonia even though it suits Nationalists in both to promote the similarities. Catalonia did not retain its own laws and legal system (that is not to say it did not retain its own customs); yet unlike Scotland its own language is flourishing, albeit spoken by a minority as a first language even now. Also, very notably, it is unclear where the boundaries of Catalonia are: if they are to include only the current Spanish region that seems a remarkable cession to Spain and to decisions made by the rest of Spain; on the other hand, the maximalist approach which would include Valencia, the Balearics, perhaps part of Aragon and also probably part of southern France (the French city of Perpignan/Perpinya and the surrounding area is traditionally culturally Catalan to a large extent) would be obviously ludicrous.

Secondly, there are significantly greater centralising forces on the Spanish Right (these forces are now, thankfully, merely political). The current Prime Minister who is resolutely determined that a separation referendum would be illegal is himself from Galicia. When he speaks, he does represent a significant section of the population in the entire country, including in Catalonia itself – not least a significant minority of the population who are (or whose family is) recent immigrants from elsewhere in Spain. Unlike, say, English people who move to Scotland accepting entirely that it is a different country, Spaniards moving to Catalonia have had no such sense – such a status is still contested. That is to leave aside those proud Catalans – by linguistic and cultural heritage – who would really prefer a properly federal Spain respecting their cultural and linguistic rights to outright separation (but who are currently swinging towards outright separation in frustration that those cultural and linguistic rights are not respected in much of the rest of Spain).

Thirdly, and most markedly, is that Catalan separatists have done much less planning for “independence”, and are perhaps as a consequence much more divided, than in Scotland. In some ways they are more like Irish Nationalists, using cultural and linguistic distinctiveness to make the case for separation while never really getting around to the practical legal and economic details. To be clear, an independent Catalonia could without question form an economically viable European state if it put its mind to it; but the details of how this should come to pass have never really been considered. What about a diplomatic corps? What about immigration control? What about FC Barcelona having to leave “La Liga”?

It is perhaps small wonder, then, that the recent conversation went something like this: Catalan government “We want a referendum on independence”; Spanish government “You can’t have one”; Catalan government “Er, okay then”. Politics is always a facade – but like Gaudi’s cathedral, in Catalonia it is particularly incomplete.

I am a huge admirer of the linguistic development of Catalan and of Catalan culture and architecture – it’s hard not to be. It is also, of course, the greatest single footballing region on the planet – what could be better than that?! However I can’t help, albeit from afar, still take the view that everyone knows Catalans want independence, but they don’t like to talk about it…


One thought on “What on earth is going on in Catalonia?

  1. Scots Anorak says:

    “Thirdly, and most markedly, is that Catalan separatists have done much less planning for “independence”, and are perhaps as a consequence much more divided, than in Scotland. In some ways they are more like Irish Nationalists, using cultural and linguistic distinctiveness to make the case for separation while never really getting around to the practical legal and economic details.”

    Not sure that it’s a direct comparison, since the Irish case would of course be one of accession rather than a tabula rasa (Republicans who refuse to recognise the Dáil are thin on the ground these days). The idea that Irish Nationalists use the language to wind people up has a good deal of traction among Unionists but is only marginally true. It would be much more correct to say that the lack of appropriate acknowledgment and support for the language is one of many drivers of political Nationalism. If Northern Ireland treated Irish in the same way as Wales treats Welsh or Scotland treats Gaelic, things might of course be different, and the economic debate could begin.

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