BARCELONA in April is full of tourists enjoying the spring weather. But the clear blue skies and balmy temperatures belie an underlying political tension. Most visitors miss the angry headlines in the Catalan press. For Catalonia is edging towards a major confrontation between the minority, right-wing People’s Party administration in Madrid and the governing Catalan coalition in Barcelona.
The Catalans are bent on holding an independence referendum come September despite fervent opposition from Madrid. It is a classic case of an irresistible political force hitting an immovable political object. Where matters will end in a scant six months no-one cares to venture. The rest of Europe is fixated on Brexit, but the real political fault-line in the continent now runs down La Rambla, Barcelona’s famous (and crowded) thoroughfare. It’s a fault-line with a history.
No-one ever mentions the violent maelstrom that engulfed Spain, Catalonia and Barcelona in particular, during the Civil War years (1936-1939) and the decades of Francoist oppression that followed. People do allude to the banning of the public use of the Catalan language until the 1970s but most folk in political life adhere to an unwritten self-censorship regarding the hundreds of thousands of Catalans murdered or exiled under the old Franco regime.
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Yet the memories of the Civil War and the crushing of autonomous Catalonia pervade Barcelona to this day, chilling the current political climate. For instance, when Barça fans drive home after a victorious football match they pump “pi-pipi-pipi” on their car horns, they are actually (and for older fans knowingly) beeping the signal of the CNT, the Civil War anarchists. And they are remembering Josep Sunyol, the club’s president and financial benefactor, kidnapped and murdered by the Francoists in 1936. His body was never found.
It’s not that anyone today expects a violent repetition of the Civil War. But Madrid is not trusted by the Catalans to deal with political dissent in any normal democratic fashion. For the simple reason that post-Franco Spain has never come to terms with the Civil War and its bloody aftermath. There has been no process of truth and reconciliation, as in South Africa. There has been no historic re-evaluation and condemnation of the military coup of July 1936 that overthrew the elected Republican government of Spain. All that happened on Franco’s death in 1975 was a tacit agreement by the murderous fascist regime to depart the scene if unmolested, its loot intact.
The murderers were neither named nor shamed while the tens of thousands of their victims were left in unmarked graves.
The subsequent “democratic” constitution enshrined the Franco’s concept of an indivisible Spain. Today, under that same constitution, over 400 elected Catalan MPs, ministers, local councillors and town mayors are under indictment for “facilitating” a public debate about Catalan independence, for holding a non-binding consultative referendum on independence in 2014, or just running up a Catalan flag at the wrong time and place.
Under indictment is Carme Forcadell, Speaker of the Catalan Parliament. On a private visit, I met Speaker Forcadell in her office in the historic Catalan Parliament in Ciutadella Park. The parliament building exudes Catalan history. Here presided the autonomous Catalan Government during the Civil War, led by labour lawyer Lluis Companys. Before resigning to become Speaker, Forcadell was a leading member of the Left Republican Party, founded by Companys himself. The exiled Companys was arrested by the Gestapo when the Germans invaded France in 1940 and returned to Spain, where he was promptly tortured and shot for “rebellion” – though it was the Spanish generals who did the rebelling.
TRIUMPHANT Franco had the chamber of the Catalan Parliament boarded up. Thankfully it was discovered still intact after the return of democracy. But in 2017 Speaker Carme Forcadell – petite and serious, she reminds everyone of Nicola Sturgeon – is facing disbarment merely for sanctioning a debate in that chamber on Catalan self-determination. Face-to-face with her, I detected a hint of nervousness about the state of play.
Not that today’s Catalans have any intention of backing down before Madrid — that political die is well and truly cast. But you can feel electricity in the air in Barcelona, and it’s not the weather. What has caused this change of mood?
In 2005, the then Labour Government in Madrid agreed with the Catalans to reform the post-Franco Spanish constitution — a legal document designed to reassure the outgoing Fascist regime, complete with a heavily politicised Constitutional Court as guarantor. As part of the reform, Labour Prime Minister José Zapatero agreed to grant Catalonia home rule within Spain. This deal was approved in a referendum in Catalonia in 2006. It was a reasonable compromise, recognising Catalonia’s historic nationhood and autonomy but keeping links with the rest of the Iberian Peninsula. Unfortunately, the ghosts of Spain’s past could not accept this compromise.
The Statute of Catalonia was immediately opposed by the right-wing People’s Party – founded by Franco’s former Minister of the Interior, Manuel Fraga Iribarne. After four years’ deliberation, the unreconstructed Spanish Constitutional Court struck down or neutered much of the Statute. From 2010, the idea of Home Rule was dead in the water.
Till then, Catalan politics had been dominated by moderate devolutionists led by Jordi Pujol.
The carnage of the Civil War had convinced Pujol that the remaining old Francoists would never accept Catalonian independence. As a leader of the democratic underground during the post-war years, Pujol knew what he was taking about – and here’s why. This visit, I enjoyed a concert at the famous Palace of Music, an architectural confection and spiritual home of Catalan culture.
Few in the audience would have known that back in 1960, Franco attended a similar concert at the Palace of Music, on one of his rare visits to Barcelona. That night, a youthful Jordi Pujol organised the audience to sing the Catalan national anthem as a protest. For his pains, Pujol was tortured and sentenced to seven years in prison.
A hero, Pujol was Catalan President for 23 years after the fall of fascism. Throughout, he stuck to his political mantra that devolution was the best Catalonia could hope for. I remember discussing this with him in Edinburgh in the 1980s – he came frequently for the rugby. Alas, too long a time in office blunted Pujol’s judgement and he became mired in corruption scandals.
By then, the new political generation in Catalonia had decided enough was enough.
If Madrid could not recognise Catalan nationality within a home rule framework, there was nothing for it but independence.
In 2015, the Catalans elected their first parliament with a pro-independence majority – a coalition including Left Republicans, Greens and Convergence, a part of Pujol’s old devolutionist grouping that has swung over to independence.
Meanwhile, the once powerful Spanish Labour Party has imploded, partly because it reneged on support for a Catalan referendum. (Any thoughts, Jeremy?) What happens next? Like the Scottish Government, the Catalans are engaged on an international diplomatic offensive to win legitimacy for their referendum. Spain is exerting a similar effort to isolate them. The Catalan ministers I talked to have a steely glint in their eyes.
There is no turning back. Catalonia has some unfinished business with history.