In light of recent developments in Catalonia that have grabbed international attentions, this lecture was convened by Cardiff University’s Catalan specialist, Dr Andrew Dowling, in order to enlighten us on the subject.
It was recognized that the audience was comprised of people with a mixture of knowledge on Catalonia and its crisis. The lecture was aimed to appeal to the different strands therein, with enough basic knowledge on the background of the situation to allow for understanding of the deeper layers of the composition of this global political event.
Andrew started off by revealing that the turning point and key date in the development of this crisis is the Global Economic crisis of 2008. This had a profound impact on European societies. It affected the internal dynamics of Spain and its semi-federal system. As the independence movement grew, class conflicts declined. The Catalan secession became a major crisis to the Spanish government. Catalonia was the epicenter.
There is a profound psychological need to protect one’s own. Identity and the National identity comes to the forefront of people’s thinking.
What was the Spanish state and the situation in Catalonia like before 2008?
Catalonia in essence was the role model for a successful devolution. It had spent 120 years of consolidating its autonomy. In Spain, in other regions where nationalist separatist thinking had been prevalent, there was calm The Basque country was in a post-violent scenario.
However, in the approach to 2008, Catalan society became less content. Challenger political parties began to emerge.
In the late 1990s salaries for the middle classes started to stagnate. Throughout Spain there was a new generation of voters and the principal political parties – both Nationalist and Social Democrats, struggled to get the backing of new voters.
The Partido Popular (PP), the Spanish Conservatives, reigned in Spain between 1996-2004 and had a policy of increased centralization, thus reducing the power of the regions’ autonomy.
The periphery was controlled by the centre and this led to a Catalan existential crisis.
There has been political Catalanism since the 1880s. Within the Catalan political class there was a renewal of Catalan politics.
Between 2003 and 2006 there was a reform of the Regional government system. There was two sides of the divide: asymmetrical regionalism against increased centralisation. The PP and its allies mobilised against any moves from the regions that might lead to the breakup of Spain. It was part of a Statute that regions could never break away and an integral part of the Spanish constitution that its national integrity and internal borders could never be challenged from within by any ascent Nationalist breakaway movement.
Increasingly there developed a clash between a more assertive, growing Catalan Nationalism against the centralising government in Madrid.
By the summer of 2010, 1million Catalans were mobilising on the street. It was a political expression of popular sentiment. The autonomous semi-federal post-Franco model had collapsed and Spain’s territorial crisis began with Catalonia in its center. In Catalonia, parties and movements for independence had moved from the margins to the political mainstream.
Catalonia had the largest expression of mass political demonstrations in the modern world. Independence became impossible to ignore. The anger had been engineered by the economic crisis.
Both Catalan and Basque solidarity movements had begun as resistance to Government centralisation. Nationalist feelings had been severely damaged by Francoism.
By the mid 1990s we saw a new generation who reinvigorated new feelings of Spanish Nationalism. The scene had been set for an impending clash with those who favoured the regions.
With the absence of an external enemy, Spanish nationalism mobilised against internal enemies on the periphery. The PP was seen as an anti-Catalan party. When in November 2011, the PP was voted in with a majority government. This led to a clash of political values and in Catalonia there was greater estrangement.
Within Catalonia there was a profound loyalty to Catalonian institutions.
Why did the secession movement appear in Catalonia and not elsewhere, in other regions of Spain?
Neither the Galicians, nor the Valencians nor the Canary Islanders rose up. Not even the Basques created the territorial crisis.
Catalonia came up against the Spanish State because of the economic crisis. This was inevitable. But the crisis was also a political crisis, it was social, cultural and also an identity crisis.
The external shock of the poor economics led to blame being invoked. Increasing political tensions led to increased political demands.
The Spanish state had an increasing reliance on credit. There had been a booming economy but when this started failing it led to discontent in the Middle classes. The 2008 economic crisis led to a dramatic loss of confidence in the Catalan middle classes. Their situation seemingly mirrored that of Argentina in the early 2000s.
Notions of Protectionism and National Sovereignty were the most prominent expressions of the economic crisis.
There were triumphs over class-based politics.
In Catalonia there was a defensive mobilisation to ‘protect our own’.
Catalan industry provided societal stability.. Politics in Catalonia, unable to help economically mobilised elsewhere, in other areas… There was never a movement neither against European integration nor against globalisation in general. Madrid had become a hostile administration, responsible for all political ills.
Catalonia is a rich region and due to the centralisation of Madrid, had no say in the redistribution of wealth. In other European regional areas such as Flanders or Northern Italy, there was a degree of autonomous control over wealth redistribution.
The Catalan economic crisis meant a trebling or quadrupling of unemployment figures. There was 24% unemployment in 2011 and 1 in 5 jobs had been lost. This economic crisis was a crisis of democratic capitalism.
There had been a delayed crisis of the middle class that was induced by the 2008 situation. These middle classes relied on security, the right to employment, and the ability to transfer the benefits onto the next generation.
The development of new political parties in Spain were overwhelmingly motivated by capturing the middle class vote.
The economic crisis didn’t necessarily affect greatly the working classes. They were used to economic instability and it had been a normal feature of existence for them since the 1970s.
The crisis saw an erosion of inter and intra nation solidarity. Germans could blame the Greeks for the problem and, similarly, the Catalans pointed the finger of blame at Madrid.
In Catalonia there was an absence of critique of the EU and the Union’s management of austerity.
Political sentiment became expressed powerfully in feelings of National identity.
Advocates of Catalan Independence claim that the disparity in GDP that Catalonia gives to Madrid and doesn’t get back reaches figures of 8-9%. Critics place this figure at 4-5%.
The societal recognition of regional government has increased. There is a desire to end the relationship with Spain and to build a ‘new Catalonia’. Another Catalonia is possible.
Successful political narratives work when they can harness simplicity.
The Nationalist movement is about a faith in political change. It is about the preservation of dignity. The Catalonian identity is to be restored. There is a feeling of affronted dignity. The voters seek recognition, self-esteem. They want identity and hold cultural values highly.
The rallies and demos in Catalonia have generated powerful emotions. There has been an intense satisfaction derived from participation. Collective pride has turned negative grievance into positive affirmation. The movements have channeled faith into the capacity to affect political change.
Nationalism has a key role in the articulation of collective grievance. In a period of turbulence Nationalism offers stability.
In Catalonia the PP became an alien political force, mustering up only 10% of votes. A similar situation could be seen, for example in Scotland when, for a long period, there ere no Conservatives holding power.
The feelings for independence within Catalonia rose to about half of the electorate that was capable of voting in the Catalan National Assembly.
There was a Catalan view of itself as an enlightened and sophisticated society.
The Catalan National Assembly became the voice of the Catalan people. It was a single entity mobilised for a single purpose. For 1000s of years of history Catalonia has been different from Spain. Its language, its values, its cultural practice.
The Madrid government became like a dictatorship. Spain was corrupt and anti-democratic. It was the judicial oppression of sovereignty.
Language and identity are clear un-ambivalent markers for any independence movement and these are clear in Catalonia.
In Catalonia, it was unlike independence movements in other areas. Scotland , for example, in the buildup to its independence referendum, relied heavily on the support of working class Glaswegians. In Catalonia, the reverse seemed to occur.
The pro-independence movement had little support among manual workers. As we rise up the income ladder of Catalans, we see increased support for independence. Catalan independence was convincing to the middle classes. Also, a disparity was that it was most supported in the rural hinterlands, more so than in the capital city of the region, Barcelona.
The post-industrial working class were nonchalant as independence will most probably not affect them. There was also a fracture in the business market. Most small and medium size businesses were supportive of independence yet the largest businesses based in Catalonia were against secession.
In conclusion of the lecture, Andrew states:
There is a Catalan epicentre of Spain’s territorial crisis. Such national identity markers as the Spanish national flag, the monarchy and the army have always been held in low esteem in Catalonia.
The resolution of the Catalan question will only occur when Spain accepts the diverse nature of Catalonian independence needs.
There is a political old guard, those who remember Francoism. An older generation with a hardline approach.
For those under the age of 45, there is a more openness to the situation. There is a tolerance for a multi-plural, multi-linguist Spain.
The future emergence of an independent state of Catalonia is not necessarily the most likely outcome.
The Spanish state is not likely to want to relinquish 20% of its own economy.
In addition, Catalonia lacks the political strength necessary in order to achieve independence.
The lecture was followed by a series of audience questions. It was an enlightening talk and one on an issue that is very much on the international news agenda at the moment. I feel, that, as a result of the lecture, I am more knowledgeable of the actual situation in Catalonia.
Here is an interview with Dr Andrew Dowling, on ABC News, Australia, where he discusses the current situation in Catalonia.