I hope Catalonia stays with Spain, but I support its right to leave | Owen Jones

Though the Catalans cannot say they are a colonised people, at stake is the basic democratic principle of national self-determination

It is difficult to dissent from the summary delivered by Barcelona’s deputy mayor, Gerardo Pisarello, of Catalonia’s political plight: “There are those who walk with a lighter in the middle of a petrol station full of fuel.” At stake is a basic democratic principle: the right to national self-determination – “the right to decide”, as the Catalan slogan has it. You do not have to support Catalan independence to support this principle – just as accepting the right to divorce does not mean endorsing a couple’s separation. Imagine one partner in a marriage expressing doubts about whether the relationship is working, and the other vetoing not only a divorce, but any discussion of such an outcome. It would not only be an affront: it would simply fuel the desire for a separation on the part of the spouse. This has been the net consequence of the Spanish government’s pigheadedness, its ruinous economic policies, its refusal to negotiate – and its brutal clampdown on civil liberties in Catalonia.

The Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, has shown commendable restraint after a referendum in which Spanish police dragged elderly women by their hair and injured hundreds of citizens exercising the most basic democratic right of all: the right to vote. More radical elements are agitating for a unilateral declaration of independence; Puigdemont has postponed such a move to allow for negotiations.

But when the likes of Rafael Hernando – spokesman for Spain’s ruling People’s party – describes a pro-democracy Catalan general strike as a “political Nazi-style strike”, there is clearly precious little goodwill for discussions in Madrid. The danger now is if Spain’s rightwing government activates article 155 of the country’s constitution, suppressing Catalan autonomy. Senior officials in Barcelona’s administration fear this would provoke riots on Catalonia’s streets and a renewed Spanish police crackdown – with frighteningly unpredictable consequences.

Catalonia cannot be understood in isolation. Here is another manifestation of the crisis enveloping the western world: another morbid symptom of a decaying system. “2017 may be the year when politics finally caught up with the crash of 2008,” is how Jeremy Corbyn hailed Labour’s recent surge, but the economic crisis spawned a vast array of political responses. It fuelled a new left that ranged from Greece’s Syriza, Britain’s Corbynism and Bernie Sanders in the US. It helped propel rightwing xenophobic populism, from Donald Trump to Farageism, France’s Front National and the Austrian far-right. It certainly played a critical role in the Brexit result. But the crash also undoubtedly acted as a midwife for a surge in civic nationalism in Scotland and Catalonia.

In the wake of the crash, Spain’s economic turmoil ranked among the worst in Europe. Half its youngsters were out of work; hundreds of thousands of families were evicted as a decade-long property bubble imploded. And six years ago protesters – the indignados – occupied squares across Spain, including in Barcelona: it was the beginning of the end for a two-party establishment that had ruled the country since the end of Franco. But the political disillusionment that has become one of the defining characteristics of our age found a home in Catalonia. In 2012 up to 2 million Catalans marched in the so-called Diada – the National Day of Catalonia: many of them were fed up with stagnating living standards, unemployment and slashed public services.

The El Born district of Barcelona.
The El Born district of Barcelona. Photograph: Juan Medina/Reuters

The governing centre-right nationalist forces capitalised on this mood, demanding that either the Rajoy government devolved more financial sovereignty, or Catalonia would be off. As the independence forces called for Catalans to escape the Spanish system, Podemos – Spain’s new left party – and its allies called for the system to be overturned.

The offer of independence, as Raphael Minder says in his invaluable new work, The Struggle for Catalonia, “promised change and prosperity in a new Catalan state, instead of stagnation in a rotten Spain”.

Nearly half of Catalans voted for pro-independence parties in 2015: the evidence suggests that support for secession doubled in a decade. It wasn’t just the economic crisis which fuelled this pro-independence discontent, but the authoritarian and contemptuous behaviour of the People’s party. A statute of autonomy – approved by referendum – defined Catalonia as a nation and gave special status to Catalan language. But the People’s party successfully campaigned to have these clauses stripped away. Ever since, growing calls for an independence referendum have been aggressively resisted. Even worse, the People’s party has relished inflaming the Catalan crisis for partisan reasons.

Railing against Catalan “separatist” forces, as Rajoy’s administration calls them, stirs up Spanish nationalism and jingoism. Even more conveniently, diverting Spanish attention to the Catalan authorities helps distract the electorate from corruption scandals that have enveloped the ruling party for years. Some Catalan leftists – who support a referendum but oppose independence – fear that the Spanish government has already calculated that Catalonia is lost, and is simply stirring up resentment and grievance in the rest of Spain to gain political advantage.

So what next? The EU has failed to explicitly condemn Rajoy’s behaviour. It must now exert pressure on Spain’s government to negotiate with Puigdemont and other politicians. The Canadian and British governments allowed independence referendums in Quebec and Scotland. Surely the Catalan people too should be allowed a free and fair vote without being brutalised by riot police. While the leftist Podemos party has sided with this democratic argument, the opposition Socialists – under pressure from more conservative elements – have so far failed to support what is surely the only possible resolution to this crisis.

I have little truck with pro-independence movements unless a nation is oppressed, like those subjugated by Europe’s former great powers – and Catalonia is not. Supporting Catalonia’s right to divorce does not mean endorsing it. But when democracy comes under attack anywhere, it is our collective responsibility to show solidarity.

There are those who point to the experience of Scotland and to Brexit, and say that all referendums do is bitterly divide nations. But the denial of a referendum in Catalonia has already done just that. If the Spanish government had actively wanted to drive Catalonia away, it is difficult to know what it would have done differently. It bears the greatest responsibility for this crisis.

Ultimately, only a new Spanish government that addresses the endemic social and economic grievances afflicting Catalonia can guarantee that Spain does not fall apart. But this Spanish government has built a pressure cooker that is ready to blow.

• Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist


Owen Jones

The GuardianTramp

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