“When the first reports of serious disorders in Catalonia were reaching Madrid, the English ambassador wrote home that he saw ‘nothing in the business that is hard to settle’.”
No, not October 2017 but May 1640. The quotation comes from J H Elliott’s The Revolt of the Catalans—the story of a rebellion so great that it took nearly 20 years of warfare to restore Spanish rule over Catalonia.
War isn’t imminent today in Catalonia. But the Spanish ambassador to Britain said last Sunday that if the Catalan government resisted prime minister Mariano Rajoy’s decision to remove them they would become “rebels”.
A historical perspective casts a different light on Rajoy’s pledge that, “We are going to work so that all Catalans can feel united and participate in a common project in Europe and the world that has been known for centuries as Spain.”
The truth is that Spain “for centuries” was an imperial state based on the kingdom of Castile ruling over subordinate populations in the Americas and the Iberian peninsula itself.
Portugal also rebelled against Spanish rule in 1640, in its case successfully. Catalonia was reconciled to restored rule from Madrid by the preservation of its traditional autonomy. This was swept away when the present Bourbon dynasty took over at the beginning of the 18th century.
When the last remnants of Spain’s overseas empire were seized by the United States at the end of the 19th century, the monarchy went into crisis. Spain’s subject nations asserted themselves. In October 1934 Lluis Companys, the Catalan president, proclaimed the independence of Catalonia. He was sentenced to thirty years in prison and later executed under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco after the right won the civil war of 1936-9.
This isn’t just ancient history. A couple of weeks ago the spokesperson for the ruling Popular Party (PP) warned the current Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, that he might suffer Companys’ fate. The PP is the political heir of Franco’s regime. Like the old tyrant—and the new Bourbon king Felipe VI—it defends the old tradition of Castilian centralism.
Spain is one of a number of states that are the remnants of old multinational empires and now masquerade as nation states. Britain is the most important other example in western Europe. The same is true, in otherwise different conditions, of both Russia and China.
The economic crisis since 2007-8 has widened the fault-lines in both the British and Spanish states. The movements for independence in both Scotland and Catalonia have been fed by the experience of austerity imposed from respectively London and Madrid by right wing governments.
How these governments responded to the movements differed though. Tory prime minister David Cameron conceded a referendum on Scottish independence, which he won—though more narrowly than he had expected—in September 2014.
But he could rely on the buffer offered by the Labour Party. Labour in effect sacrificed itself in Scotland to save the Union. The Scottish National Party scooped up many of its traditional working class voters. Meanwhile the Tories were able to re-establish themselves as the most consistent defenders of the Union. The Corbyn effect is now beginning to make itself felt in Scotland too, however.
Although opinion polls tend to suggest that independence doesn’t have majority support in Catalonia, Rajoy refused to gamble on winning a referendum. So the Catalan independence movement defied him and held one anyway.
Rajoy’s refusal to negotiate seriously indicates the ideological strength of Castilian centralism—and no doubt of good old Francoism—in the PP.
His hard line has been backed by the likes of German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron. The Guardian smugly concluded its analysis, “Given that very few separatists are interested in leaving the EU, that is a devastating blow.”
But if growing repression from Madrid feeds greater popular defiance and mass mobilisation in Catalonia, it may be the European Union—and the heirs of Franco it is buttressing up—who end up paying the largest price.