Raphael Minder, The Struggle for Catalonia:
Rebel Politics in Spain (Hurst, £15.99 ppb)
Two years ago, in the last quarter of 2017, Spain faced its most severe constitutional crisis since its transformation into a modern democracy began in 1975 in the aftermath of the death of long-term military dictator Francisco Franco. On October 1, 2017, the regional (and semi-autonomous) province of Catalonia, the northeast corner of Spain that incudes Barcelona, held a non-binding referendum on the question whether the region should declare its independence and secede from Spain. The central government in Madrid vigorously opposed the referendum and took measures to impede it.
90% of Catalans who voted approved the referendum. But several major Catalan parties boycotted the referendum, and only 43% of eligible voters actually voted. Later that month, on October 27, the Catalan regional parliament adopted a resolution unilaterally declaring the province an independent republic. The central government responded by invoking the 1978 Spanish constitution to remove regional authorities and enforce direct rule from Madrid over the region. Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan regional president, fled to Belgium with key members of his cabinet, with Spain’s Attorney General pressing for their return to Spain to face charges of sedition and misuse of public funds.
At this writing, the 2017 Spanish secession crisis continues to simmer, with no clear winner. Catalonia remains a part of the Spanish republic – indeed one of its most prosperous parts, with an economy larger than that of Portugal, accounting for almost twenty percent of Spain’s GDP. Puigdemont and his cabinet colleagues remain outside Spain, still sought by Spanish justice. The country has held two national elections since the October 2017 crisis, prompting some newspapers to label Spain the “new Italy.” The secessionist movement seems somewhat less potent than it did two years ago, but has in no sense disappeared.
Raphael Minder’s The Struggle for Catalonia: Rebel Politics in Spain first appeared in the spring of 2017, and thus does not address that year’s momentous last quarter events. But it almost appears to anticipate them. Minder, a Swiss-born, Oxford-educated journalist who is now the Madrid-based correspondent for the New York Times, ranges widely in describing Catalan life and culture, including language, religion, sports, tourism and cuisine. He seeks to explain the factors that have produced the mindset of contemporary Catalans – of those who believe, often fervently, that their region’s future lies outside the Spanish republic and those who, with equal fervor, maintain that Catalonia is and should remain part of Spain. Throughout, he relies heavily on the views of academics, Catalan especially but not exclusively, for their takes on his broad range of subjects. He also includes the fruits of his discussions and interviews with a diverse range of Catalans and those interested in the future of the region, including journalists and business people.
Minder engages the arguments for and against secession mostly indirectly and obliquely, scrupulously avoiding the appearance of taking sides in the polemical debates on the subject. Catalonia’s complicated contemporary politics, with multiple parties representing all points on the spectrum on the secession question, are thus part of Minder’s story but far from the major part. He treats Catalonia’s history, but not systematically, preferring to weave pivotal historical background into his consideration of contemporary Catalonia and its culture.
The historical background includes the 2008 global financial crisis, in Minder’s view the most immediate catalyst for the current Catalan separatist challenge. During the recession that followed, several Catalan parties and much of the public became “increasingly convinced that Catalonia had more to gain than to lose by breaking away from a crisis-hit Spain. As the recession deepened, secessionism shifted from fringe to mainstream thinking in Catalonia” (p.204). Minder also returns repeatedly to other pivotal historical events and periods which have abetted the secessionist urge, especially Barcelona’s fall in 1714 to Phillip V, ending the War of Spanish Succession; and Spain’s Franco period, including both the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39, and the long Franco dictatorship, 1939-1975.
The 1714 conquest by Phillip V, the grandson of Louis XIV who was born at Versailles and became the first Bourbon king of Spain, constitutes the “historical wrong that needs to be challenged for Catalonia to assert its nationhood” (p.21), Minder writes. For many Catalans, Bourbon rule entailed a “model of governance that sought to crush diversity in Spain. The Bourbons imported and imposed French centralism, which left no room for the recognition of the singularity of Catalonia” (p.193). Phillip’s troops completed their conquest on September 11, 1714, Catalonia’s 9/11. Long before hijacked airliners destroyed the Twin Towers in Manhattan, Catalans observed September 11 as a day of commemoration and remembrance.
Two centuries after Phillip’s conquest, Barcelona and Catalonia constituted the center of resistance to General Franco’s 1936 anti-republican coup and the ensuing conflict, the fiercest in Europe since World War I (assiduous readers of this blog will recall my 2017 review of Adam Hochschild’s book on the Spanish Civil War). Minder suggests that Catalonia may have been less anti-Franco during the Franco regime itself than popular mythology holds, with many businesses and Catalonian elites supporting the regime. Nevertheless, Franco distrusted Catalonia more than any other region during his long rule.
Minder further addresses secessionist movements elsewhere, particularly in Scotland and Spain’s Basque country, concluding that they have little relevance to the Catalan separatist cause. The current wave of Catalan secessionism coincides with the rise of xenophobic nationalism in Europe, the United States, and other parts of the world. Catalan secessionism might seem at first glance to be a cousin to the xenophobic nationalism of, for example, Hungary. Both embody a form of tribalism, based on a powerful sense of identity and the prioritizing of a particular set of historical traditions over all others, and both thus constitute a challenge to modern liberal democracy. Yet Catalonia has traditionally been one of the most progressive pockets of Spain, a sort of melting pot for migrants from other parts of the country and elsewhere; it was notably welcoming to Middle Eastern immigrants during the refugee crisis of this decade. The main link between today’s Catalonia and Hungary with its xenophobic nationalism may be that the European Union takes an equally dim view of both.
* * *
The Catalan language constitutes a natural starting point in seeking to grasp the diverse components of Catalan culture. It is the glue that not only holds the components together but also links the region to other parts of the world where the language is spoken, including the area in and around Perpignan in Southern France and, most unlikely, in pockets of Sardinia. About 11 million people understand Catalan while 9.1 million people speak the language, according to a recent government study. After Barcelona’s fall to Phillip V in 1714, Spain’s Bourbon monarchy banned the official use of Catalan. In the late 19th century, a movement of Catalan poets and authors took on the task of reviving the language, “which was by then widely considered to be ‘doomed’ and irrelevant” (p.29). In the early post-Franco years, Catalan became the obligatory first language in Catalan schools.
Although Catalans appreciate having their own language, a minority of Catalan speakers, fairly described as linguistic extremists, have pushed to make Catalan the only official language of Catalonia. “Certain separatists have shown a complete disregard for the benefits of a multilingual upbringing and society” (p.34), Minder writes. The irony is that part of the wealth of Catalonia’s linguistic and literary tradition “lies in its ability both to attract and interact with other cultures” (p.35). If its language sets Catalonia off from the rest of Spain, so too does its relationship with the most traditional of Spanish institutions, the monarchy and the Catholic Church.
Minder considers the Spanish monarchy to be the most discredited national institution in Catalonia. “It is common to find Catalans displaying an indifference towards the monarchy that sometimes borders on ignorance” (p.193), he writes. One Catalan told Minder that most of his fellow Catalans “feel no more for Spain’s King than they would for the Queen of England” (p.191). The relevance of Catholicism, moreover, has “declined faster in Catalonia than in other parts of Spain” (p.188). A Catalan theologian and lawyer explained to Minder that Catalonia had:
modernized early because of the industrial revolution, and then it embraced anarchism and other anti-religious ideas more enthusiastically than other parts of Spain. . . After the civil war, Franco promoted his National Catholicism from Madrid. This too convinced many Catalans to break free of the church because it was an institution associated with a dictatorship. The fact that the Catalan church withdrew its support from the regime during Franco’s final years did little to reverse the decline (p.187-88).
Football might be considered Catalonia’s secular religion today, with enthusiasm for its flagship team, FC Barcelona (or “Borça”), a shared passion across the region. But, Minder notes, football and politics have become increasingly intertwined in Catalonia. Some FC Barcelona fans shout for independence during matches and wave the independence flag, Estelada. Fans also sometimes boo when the Spanish national anthem is played. Bullfighting, once the rival to football as Spain’s national sport, is by contrast on the decline in Catalonia. In 2010, shortly after a controversial decision of the constitutional court struck down a portion of Catalan’s statute of autonomy, the Catalan parliament banned bullfighting as unjustified animal cruelty. Animal rights activists applauded the ban while bullfighting proponents countered that it was politically motivated. Some Catalan politicians acknowledged that the ban “helped present Catalonia as more modern than the rest of Spain” (p.177).
Sports enthusiasm in Catalonia took on a new cast in 1992, when Barcelona hosted the Olympic Games, the “real moment of transformation” for the city and the region, Minder writes, “brought about by sports rather than culture” (p.157). The 1992 games allowed Barcelona to show itself off as a center for innovation. The games also provided a giant shot in the arm for the region’s tourism industry, with the number of visitors roughly eight times greater now than in the years prior to 1992. Today, Barcelona faces the dilemma of too much tourism – the city has more visitors than it can comfortably accommodate.
Minder includes Catalonia’s distinct cuisine as another component of its culture. Catalonia has been a leader in European gastronomy since at least the 14th century, he indicates. Catalonia today has more Michelin- starred restaurants than any other region in Spain, roughly one third of all such restaurants in the country. Minder quotes an American food writer who describes Catalan cooking as looking outward, “toward Europe and the Mediterranean, rather than back into the Iberian interior . . . It is a real cuisine, distinct and elaborate in a way that the cooking of, say, Castile, Andalusia and Extremadura . . . [is] not” (p.282).
* * *
Minder dates the start of the modern secessionist movement to 2006, when Catalonia adopted a new statute of autonomy. Parts of that statute, as noted above, were struck down by Spain’s constitutional court in 2010. The court’s decision “changed the mindset of many Catalans” (p.249-50), he writes, generating more enthusiasm for secession in Catalonia than had the adoption of the original statute. In the interim, of course, the 2008 financial crisis intervened. The bursting of Spain’s property bubble in 2008 led to a huge number of people unable to pay their mortgages, in Catalonia and throughout Spain. Although nobody knows exactly how many Catalans converted to secession after the 2008 financial crisis, politicians and sociologists generally agree that about half of those who voted for separatist parties in a Catalan regional election in 2015 had not supported secessionism a decade earlier. In the 2015 election , 48 percent of Catalans cast their ballots in favor of separatist parties, “enough for separatists to gain a parliamentary majority” (p.11).
So is secession a good idea for Catalonia? Is it likely to succeed? Minder might provide different answers to these related but distinct questions today, in light of the events of the last quarter of 2017 and Spain’s current situation. But in the early part of 2017, he answered both with a definite maybe. The creation of a new Catalan state “does not look like a pipedream,” he writes. But “neither, of course, does it seem inevitable” (p.300). Although Minder notices a secessionist mindset taking hold among younger Catalonians, he finds secession unlikely to succeed as long as the region’s main separatist parties “find more reasons for disagreement than consensus. Separatist politicians have sought to brush their differences under the carpet until their statehood project matures, but the voters have the right to receive a clearer roadmap before deciding in which direction Catalonia should go” (p.7). Catalan politicians “need to consider the divisions that they have helped widen within a society that has always had its split personality, torn between what Catalans call their ‘seny i rauxa,’ or sanity and rage” (p.300).
Catalan secessionism differs from secessionism in Scotland in that there are many parties with independence tendencies in Catalonia, often with conflicting agendas, whereas a single party has represented the cause of Scottish independence. Scotland’s nationalist politicians, moreover, “have not seen any benefit in banding together with an independence movement that faces greater obstacles in Catalonia” (p.148). Nor does secessionism in Spain’s Basque region resemble that of Catalonia. The Basque and Catalan regions have markedly different economic clout, and there are only about 2 million people in the Basque region, compared to more than 7 million in Catalonia. Moreover, the Basque history of anti-state violence and terrorism has no analogue in Catalonia. For these and other reasons, Basque and Catalan elites “have not come together to coordinate their response to separatism” (p.238). But if neither Scotland nor the Basque region offers Catalonia either a viable model to follow or a potential partnership, I couldn’t help thinking as I worked my way through Minder’s comprehensive survey that the best lesson for Catalonia may lie in the Brexit ordeal currently convulsing Britain, namely that breaking away can be far more complicated than it initially appears.
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
September 13, 2019