Catalonia: What’s going on?

On a recent visit to Catalonia, Women for Independence activist Carolyn Leckie addressed a number of public meetings, gave media interviews and met leading figures in the struggle for Catalan self-determination. This included four political parties, several trade union leaders and the President of the Catalan National Assembly. Here she speaks to Restless Land about her impressions of the growing conflict between Madrid and Barcelona.

RL We’ve been getting some confusing reports in the Scottish and UK media about Catalonia. So what exactly is going on over there?

CL I thought I knew a bit about Catalonia, but the first thing I learned as soon I arrived was that most people in Scotland don’t really know what’s going on. When I left, people asked me: ‘Why are you still going? Catalonia has cancelled its referendum.”

The real position, I soon discovered, is more complicated. Polls show that there is now a clear majority for an independent republic. But the Madrid government has always been terrified of losing Catalonia, and the Spanish constitution prohibits the break-up of the state.

So when Artur Mas, the president of the Catalan devolved government, declared a referendum for 9 November, it was pretty much inevitable that the Spanish judges would declare it illegal. So Mas, under pressure from two sides – the mass movement for a Catalan republic on the one side, and the Madrid government and judicial system on the other – decided to go ahead with a consultative referendum.

The people and parties I met all supported this move, because although it would have no legal force, it could show the world the scale of support for independence, and thus escalate pressure on the Spanish state. Over 30,000 volunteers were signed up to organise the plebiscite, and all the signs were pointing to massive turnout.

But even this compromise seems too much for the Spanish state to stomach. In the past few days, even that public consultation has also been declared illegal. Things are highly volatile and the situation is changing by the day. But at this stage, it appears that the Catalan parties are determined to go ahead with this consultative vote.

So why is Spain so determined to resist a democratic vote of the people – especially after the precedent of the Scottish referendum?

When I was in Catalonia, people had the impression that David Cameron was some kind of enlightened democrat because he had allowed a legally binding referendum.

I had to explain that for 300 years, no British Government had ever allowed the Scotland the right to decide whether or not it wanted to remain in the union, and that all three big Westminster parties had tried to block the referendum. But the scale of the SNP’s 2011 election victory, combined with a belief that there was no realistic prospect of a Yes vote, persuaded the UK parties that it would be best to let Scotland have its say. No unionist politician had even remotely contemplated the possibility that the result might go right to the wire.

But the differences between Britain and Spain do run a bit deeper. Everyone in Catalonia and Spain over 50 can remember life under General Franco – and many politicians, top army officers, judges, and senior civil servants began their careers under fascism. Many people in Catalonia certainly, and I believe also in the Basque Country and Galicia, are convinced that to this day Spain still contains at least strong elements of that fascist outlook that reigned supreme unto the mid-1970s.

And while the British establishment is clearly desperate to hang on to Scotland, the impact of the loss of Catalonia would be even more traumatic for the Spanish ruling elite. Although Catalonia is quite a small country – well under half the size of Scotland – and has no oil or nuclear weapons, it has a rapidly growing population of seven and half million and is the major economic and industrial powerhouse of the Mediterranean.

And there is no question that a Catalan Republic would soon be followed by a Basque republic and a movement for national autonomy in Galicia. And maybe even Andalusia in the south. The Spanish monarchy would be left teetering on the brink of collapse. So the stakes are even higher than was the case in Scotland.

So if the Spanish state won’t budge, what are the possible routes towards Catalan independence?

Well the first step would have to involve a change of government in Barcelona. One reason the Spanish Government appears so strong is that the Catalan Government is weak.

It consists of a right-of-centre coalition, which is supportive of Catalan culture and identity, but has always shied away from national independence. Artur Mas has been like a surfer, trying to ride the waves of a mass movement in order to stay upright.

At the same time, more robustly pro-independence, pro-republican parties are now on the ascendancy – especially Eskerra Republicana (Republican Left), which is now the most popular party in the country and stands for an independent republic with a left social-democratic programme.

The independence movement – which recently mobilised 1.6 million people on the streets of Barcelona – is supporting Mas against the Madrid Government, while at the same demands a Catalan general election within three months. If that movement succeeds in forcing an election, it is likely that a new government would emerge, led by Eskerra Republicana, with a more left wing social and economic programme, and strongly in favour of a republic.

Even then, I detect there would be some fear about, for example, proclaiming a unilateral declaration of independence. People there are genuinely concerned that faced with break-up, the Spanish state would be capable of using military force to abolish the Catalan Parliament, arrest dissidents and create a regime of fear.

I believe its vital that democratic and progressive forces across Europe and further afield should be bringing pressure to bear on the Spanish Government by demanding that it respects the right of nations to self-determination. It is in the interest of democratic movements everywhere to support the Catalonians.

So what did you do there and who did you meet?

The first event I attended was a moving ceremony in the grounds of the SEAT car factory commemorating a worker who was shot dead during a 1971 factory occupation by Franco’s Civil Guard.

I then went on to address an evening meeting in the centre of Barcelona with an all-woman platform and an overwhelmingly female audience, where the discussion was centred around women and the struggle for self-determination and independence. It was a strong feminist audience that was very excited about the experience in Scotland of Women for Independence. The relationship between women’s self-determination and national self-determination was a big theme.

I spoke at a couple of the other public meetings, one in an industrial town outside Barcelona and another in the small village where I was staying at the home of a left wing pro-independence activist, a retired railway worker. I also gave two major interviews to two prominent Catalan-language newspapers, one print and the other online.

I had a number of face-to-face meetings with various people, including the General Secretary and the Women’s President of the Catalan Workers Commissions – the equivalent of our STUC. And I was surprised to get an invite to meet Carme Forcadell, the President of the Catalan National Assembly, the movement which represents 3,000 civic organisations. Carme is a very impressive and formidable woman. She was the main speaker at the 1.8 million strong rally in Barcelona in September.

On my last day there, I had a meeting in the Catalan parliament with four of the five ‘Catalanist’ parties. I met women from Convergencia, the main governing party; Eskerra Republicana, which is now well ahead in the polls and expected to lead the next government; and Iniciativa per Catalunya Verds (Catalan Green Initiative), which is strongly in favour of self-determination but not yet convinced of independence.

These parties have major differences over economic and social policy, and although they all support self-determination, they don’t all support independence. But after hearing about the experience of Women for Independence, they all agreed that they wanted to establish an autonomous, cross-party movement around the principle of women for the right to decide.

I also met, seperately, a deputy of Izquierda Unidad, which although part of the Spanish United Left is strongly pro-independence.

And what was the reaction in Catalonia to the Scottish referendum?

Among those who support Catalan independence, there was obviously disappointment that the Yes campaign didn’t manage to win a majority. But I think they were encouraged by my account of the situation. I stressed that the Yes movemnent had started off with support around 25-30 per cent, and to come from so far behind to take 45 per cent of the vote was no mean achievement.

Although I returned home before the crisis of Scottish Labour erupted, and the latest polls showing majority support for a referendum and for independence, I was able to report the sensational growth of pro-independence parties after the referendum, and presented an upbeat picture of the prospects for radical change in Scotland, which I think was warmly welcomed by pretty much everyone I spoke to.



Download ‘The people of Catalonia have the right to vote to decide their future’ (PDF)


Key dates

1931 – A Catalan Republic is proclaimed more than 200 years after the King of Spain had invaded Barcelona to suppress the independence of Catalonia destroy the country and impose an absolutist monarchy. Negotiations with the Spanish Republic lead to extensive autonomy under the leadership of Eskerra Republicana – the Republican Left.

1936 – General Franco launches a fascist insurrection, igniting the Spanish Civil war. At the heart of his programme is the abolition of Catalan and Basque autonomous governments.

1939 – Franco’s forces finally capture Barcelona, paving the way for the collapse of Republican resistance across Spain. During the 36-year reign of fascism, Catalan autonomy is smashed and the language driven underground.

1975 – Death of Franco leads to the start of the restoration of democratic rights.

1977 – A new Spanish constitution is drawn up which recognises the existence of ‘regional communities’ but proclaims the Spanish as state as “indivisible”.

1979 – A Catalan Statute of Autonomy is agreed, which allows for a devolved parliament while prohibiting any move towards independence.

1980 – Moderate centre-right nationalist party, Convergence (Convergencia) becomes the ruling party in the new Catalan government.

2003 – Convergence  ousted after 23 years in power, to be replaced by a coalition of the Socialists, the Republican Left and the Greens.

2005 – Catalan Parliament approves, with the support of 120 MPs out of 135, a proposal to reform the 1979 Statute of Autonomy that for the first time recognises Catalonia as a nation.

2006 – The new Statute of Autonomy is agreed by both chambers of the Spanish Parliament and endorsed by a referendum of the Catalan people. The right wing Peoples Party – now the governing party in Madrid – launches a legal action against the decision

2009 – The town of Arenys de Munt holds a consultative referendum, which resoundingly supports the right of Catalonia to self-determination. Over the next year, 54 other towns follow suit,

2010 – After four years of deliberation, the Spanish Constitutional Court rules in favour of the Peoples Party. It rewrites and reinterprets 41 articles of the 2006 Statute of Autonomy, seriously curbing the powers of the Catalan Government and refusing to recognise Catalonia as a nation.

2012 – Following two years of escalating support for Catalan independence, the moderate Convergencia – now back in Government comer out in favour of a referendum and form a coalition with the Republican Left party, which emerges hugely strengthened in the November general election. Both parties are committed to a referendum.

2013 – The Catalan Parliament adopts the Sovereignty Declaration, which asserts that Catalonia is a sovereign nation with the right to decide its own future.

2014 – The Spanish Constitutional Court rules that the independence referendum supported by the Catalan Parliament is illegal. The decision is backed by the governing Peoples Party and the opposition Socialist Party in Madrid.

A mass demonstration of 1.8 million people marches through Barcelona on Catalan’s National Day, September 11. Five days later, the Catalan Parliament votes, by a majority of four to one to go ahead with a non-binding referendum on November 9.

This too has been declared illegal by the Spanish Constitutional Court.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s