Here In Catalonia, This Feels More Like A Revolution Than A Referendum
Adam Wilshaw is a writer based in Catalonia (Catalunya). He witnessed the chaotic referendum in the region on October 1st, where about 40% of Catalonians voted overwhelmingly (90%) for independence, amid a harsh crackdown by the central government (for a more comprehensive overview, check out Global Weekly). He provides a first-hand account of the atmosphere on the ground on that Sunday, and what may lie ahead.
There was an ugly mood here on Sunday in my adopted homeland of Catalunya. The referendum organizers were trying to be positive but the images on my local WhatsApp and Facebook feeds showed men and women on the streets with bleeding heads and torn clothes.
My own village, in common with many smaller places, was peaceful. It was a warm Mediterranean day in early autumn. Small tractors brought trailers full of grapes to the wine-making co-operative and the air smelled of crushed fruit. A local band played traditional Catalan music outside the polling station and food was provided. The single police officer I saw at the end of my street seemed relaxed as he stood with his shirtsleeves rolled up, away from a small amiable crowd, with his vague smile, and a crackling radio in his hand.
But by lunchtime the main Catalan TV station, TV3, had suspended normal programming and had rolling coverage of extraordinary scenes: a long way from the serenity of my village, massed ranks of Spanish Guardia Civil and Spanish national police (mostly anonymous and masked, with full riot gear) were smashing into polling stations at public schools and stuffing ballot boxes into what look like bin bags.
Although extraordinary, these seizures were perhaps unsurprising enough, given the fact the referendum had been declared illegal by the Spanish state. But then came the violence against peaceful protestors: the kicking, the punches, the hair-pulling, the baton blows, the rubber bullets.
Whatever the number of injuries, and even if it were only a handful, the violence is beyond doubt. Images such as that of a paramilitary-looking cop dragging a struggling woman along the ground, by her hair, have galvanized those separatists who are now saying: We told you what Spain was like!
With three different police forces on duty (the national Guardia Civil, the national Spanish police, and the local Catalan police), the bodies of law and order seemed confused and disunited. The Catalan force, the Mossos, often held back from removing protestors, apparently in defiance of Spanish law, and were filmed squabbling with national police. Even firefighters felt obliged to pick a side, and it wasn’t with the cops.
There have been no reports of mass arrests but who knows how many are under close surveillance. It wouldn’t surprise me if the mayor of my own village — hardly a hotbed of insurrection — might be arrested and absurdly charged with sedition.
The reaction to the violence was immediate. Just two days later, and in direct response to the police operation, a general strike was called in Catalunya. Many businesses and almost all public offices closed for the day. Public schools were locked. Hordes of teenagers draped themselves in the separatist flag and took to the streets in protest. People told me they were joining the protest because they had to condemn the police violence. Motorists and lorry drivers set up roadblocks on major roads all over Catalunya. Tractors paraded through town centres past cheering crowds. The country seemed to be in lockdown. Reports later emerged of Catalans forcing Spanish police officers out of the hotels where they had been staying during the referendum.
The following evening, Spain’s king, Felipe, made a rare and unsettling live public statement on TV. He accused the referendum organisers of trying to break the unity of Spain. And exactly twenty-four hours after that, the leader of the Catalan regional government, Carles Puigdemont, gave a similarly televised public statement, attacking the king for supporting the Spanish government, and also calling for “dialogue.”
So events this week show the crisis has gone well beyond the sophisticated legalistic question about a referendum and the Spanish constitution, and if you are for or against a new independent Catalan nation, whatever independent even means in the modern world or in the EU: this is now a revolutionary moment.
It is revolutionary because while the vast majority of secessionists have peaceful intentions and tactics, they are undoubtedly engaged, whether they like it or not, even whether they admit or not, in what they must believe is a justifiable rebellion.
And this rebellion is hardly a surprise to anybody who lives here.
The provably corrupt and reactionary Spanish government of the PP has over the past few years helped to blow a glowing separatist ember into a rampant nationalist wildfire, and a curable and debatable complaint into an unstoppable insurrection. This led to the police operation of October 1 and images beamed around the world of what is being condemned by international observers, such as Amnesty, as police, and therefore state, brutality. A knotty question about nationality has become a simple question about freedom of speech and democracy.
The Spanish government has helped its enemy before. When it supported the quashing of an important, and symbolic, element of Catalan autonomy in 2010, it confirmed its foolishness and short-sightedness, mobilising swathes of Catalans who felt they were being maltreated and disrespected.
In the seven years since, the secessionist movement has been further energised by the Spanish government’s non-negotiable refusal to allow a referendum under any context — ever — despite massive popular pressure for a vote. The administration in Madrid put its fingers in its ears and its hands over its eyes.
Rather than choose the intelligent option, as the UK government did with Scotland, and have a fair and open referendum campaign on the question of independence, with both sides energetically arguing their cases, the Spanish government chose via stolid inaction to fan the flames of division.
Meanwhile, an increasingly excitable populist Catalan nationalism (which is blurring some boundaries which should not be blurred: inaccurately equating Spanishness itself with authoritarianism and backwardness, for example) is becoming deeply entrenched and convinced of its own status as an oppressed beacon of democracy and freedom.
This week I have seen large banners, made by children, complete with their colourful handprints, hanging from a town hall balcony. The banners, made in direct response to the police operation on referendum day, do not include the word INDEPENDENCE. They shout: PEACE and LIBERTY.
Over the past few years I have seen boundaries blurring like this in almost every context of everyday life: a classical music concert in a public square ending one summer afternoon with adolescent choristers chanting a separatist slogan; infants spontaneously chanting the same slogan in a school playground at playtime; the secessionist flag flying above a public health centre …But perhaps the most serious case of a blurred boundary, in the minds of the separatists, is between the nation of Spain and the current Spanish government.
Separatist propaganda is often fuelled by a promise of a better future for Catalans purely and unequivocally as a result of separation from Spain. This ignores the awkward fact that Spain is a democracy, which can therefore elect more enlightened governments, and the fact that an independent Catalunya could elect a reactionary and idiotic government of its own. Party political aims (such as more progressive social policies or lower taxation for richer people) are, misleadingly and dangerously, regarded as the eternal foundation stones of a new nation.
Whichever “side” you support, separatist or unionist, (and recent polls suggest Catalans are probably divided almost 50/50) you are served badly by its propaganda, particularly when it comes to claims about history or money. Language is casually abused. Words, even the word independence itself (the separatists do not want to be independent from the EU), never seem to mean what they mean to say.
Catalans routinely, and rightly, condemn the endemic corruption of public life in Spain, and yet the most prominent Catalan leader of the past generation, Jordi Pujol, has admitted tax avoidance and been accused of corruption and money laundering. The flimsy idea that Catalans are noble and hard-working and Spaniards disreputable and lazy is a common prejudice here.
The 2017 “referendum” “campaign” (scare quotes and all) in Catalunya was nothing like any other democratic exercise I have seen in the UK or Catalunya. And not only in its dubious origins or its many absurd elements (police hunting for mysterious ballot boxes or sinister-looking cruise ships painted with cartoon characters, ready to unload a cargo of Spanish cops onto the streets of Barcelona).
On the day of the referendum, I saw on the live TV news a young man emerge from a polling station, hold aloft an unsealed plastic ballot box apparently full of ballot papers, and gleefully join in a chant of IN! INDE! INDEPENÇIA! Now that doesn’t happen in free and fair elections or referenda. One side of the argument should not administer the vote.
Maybe I haven’t been looking hard enough, but I have seen very little sustained and coherent and public argument against independence in Catalunya, and certainly not in the Catalan media or in public spaces; only in private or in the Madrid-based media and from the banal statements of Spanish nationalist politicians which treat Catalans like naughty children who need to learn their place. There has been no “no” campaign.
The unionist opinion, held perhaps (nobody knows) by millions of Catalans who probably favour some form of a federalist Spain, which is more or less the status quo, has not been made publicly or properly in Catalunya because their side believes October’s referendum was illegal, so they just didn’t take part. They hadn’t been waving flags, marching, sending out leaflets, or doing much at all.
There is, therefore, a severe risk that ignorance and zealotry on all sides of a poor quality debate — particularly the artificially-simple yes or no question, without much neutral analysis or fact-checking — is warping perspectives. The truism that ignorance leads to hatred is no less vivid for being a cliche. The echoes of the grand error known as Brexit, when ignorance was given equal billing with expertise, are not lost on this Briton and Englishman and European.
The modern movement for Catalan independence — up to now unfailingly peaceful, rather bourgeois, across the left-right spectrum, and not particularly xenophobic — this week seems suddenly ready for civil disobedience. And if it isn’t ready, it better get ready. Thousands, if not millions, of Catalans actively disobeyed Spanish law on October 1, and some of them took a physical beating.
The Catalans do not have an army, or a history of terrorism, but they do have money, clever tactics, and a smart PR operation. I doubt they will attract many governmental friends abroad, and the EU is giving them short shrift, but images of peaceful people being clubbed bloody by military cops outside schools tend to elicit popular sympathy, at least among democrats.
As inhabitants of a wealthy region, Catalans have the ability, if not necessarily the stomach, to cause mass disruption to the Spanish state and the European Union.
There has already been one general strike, which included widespread roadblocks. What else might we see here?
Today there are reports of large businesses, including banks, fleeing Catalunya as a result of the unrest. I heard a radio presenter on Catalan radio this morning ask a professor if bank deposits were safe (he said they were). The fact she was asking the question is significant. I know people who are boycotting Spanish organisations, including the national lottery. If people reject violence, they could seek other such peaceful means of protest. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a slowing to a crawl of normal public administration, or even an endless, soul-sapping, if largely non-violent, battle of attrition.
Everything this febrile October points to escalation rather than resolution. One side sees the referendum as a horrifying coup d’etat while the other sees it as a flare of democracy extinguished by brutal authoritarians.
There isn’t much common ground between those views.
The dominant feelings I detect among Catalans this week are: disbelief about the police violence; fury about the unwillingness of Spain to allow a referendum; embarrassment (this farce makes us look ridiculous); frustration (why can the politicians not reach a compromise?); and sadness. Attitudes seem to be hardening. Spaniards were seen disgracefully urging the Guardia Civil to “go and get” the Catalans before the referendum and some Catalans continue to disgracefully claim, all over social media and in private conversations, that Spain is a fascist state which can never be reformed.
Such ridiculous bellicosity and stereotyping tramples on the memory of every person on this peninsula who has suffered in the names of democracy and progress. It also makes a hostage of every future citizen of this territory, whichever flag is flying highest. Every act or statement typified by its stupidity or falsity —and often its obvious falsity — is more fuel on the blaze.
At a time for cool heads and intellectual grit, we see a lot of hot heads, shouting empty slogans on TV or shouting empty slogans on the street, and an unwillingness to engage in a conciliatory and mature political debate. In the land of the devastating civil war of the 1930s, and the fascist dictatorship of General Franco, this is a minor tragedy.
The distance between a functioning democracy and mayhem is smaller than we like to admit. The gap between rational political views and atavistic name-calling too. As a foreigner here, the level of mistrust I see between some Catalans and some Spaniards is different to anything I saw among English people and Welsh people or Scots. The insults are extreme and they are flying. This revolution is being felt on a profound emotional level, like a bitter family feud.
So, after these historic days for Catalunya and Spain, and for all the wrong reasons, not least the farcical elements, the puzzle of Catalan independence — if it’s a good idea or not, if it has the popular support of a sufficient majority or not, the details of how that might work in practice — remains entirely unresolved.
If the Spanish government wants to avoid a modern type of civil war at worst, or a festering internal chaos at best, it must accept that constitutions are human inventions which can change, and indeed must change, when the time is right. The cases must be made for both sides — in or out — in a free and fair referendum with all the legal safeguards found in a healthy democracy. The alternative is more dishonesty, more conflict.
To prevent such a waste of time and energy and resources, both sides — each with a valid point of view — need to tone down the rhetoric and the grandiose allegations and claims. A neutral organisation dedicated to analysing the truth of rival claims would help. And some form of compromise, which must include a proper and timely referendum, and in which neither side completely “wins”, is really the only cause for hope.