Back­grounder: Cat­alo­nia

As the dust set­tles on Cat­alo­nia’s con­tested in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum, Dr An­gel Smith offfff­fers a his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive on the re­gion’s re­la­tion­ship with Madrid. Then Pro­fes­sor Martin Con­way con­sid­ers why Spain is far from the only Euro­pean coun­try to be

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - In­ter­views by Chris Bowlby, a BBC jour­nal­ist spe­cial­is­ing in his­tory

Ten­sions­be­tween a Cata­lan sense of sep­a­rate iden­tity and cen­tral Span­ish author­ity go back cen­turies. By the time of the His­panic Hab­s­burg em­pire, Cat­alo­nia had its own par­lia­ment in which the distinc­tive Cata­lan lan­guage was spo­ken. This changed in 1714 when, after be­sieg­ing Barcelona, the new Bour­bon monarch, Philip V, swept away the Cata­lan in­sti­tu­tions and im­posed an ab­so­lutist state on the French model.

Many Cata­lans were bit­ter at the loss of their ‘ lib­er­ties’ and at the mil­i­tary con­trol to which they were sub­ject. How­ever, from the sec­ond half of the 18th cen­tury they be­came largely rec­on­ciled to the new or­der – in­flu­enced by Cat­alo­nia’s rapid eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment and the fact that Cata­lan man­u­fac­tur­ers were able to pen­e­trate Spain’s do­mes­tic and colo­nial mar­kets. Nev­er­the­less, from the 1840s, there was grow­ing fric­tion be­tween Cata­lan elites and the Span­ish state. This fo­cused on Cata­lan com­plaints that they were be­ing marginalised from po­lit­i­cal power, on dis­putes over eco­nomic pol­icy and on the pos­si­ble abo­li­tion of Cata­lan civil law (be­lieved to be at the root of Cata­lan pros­per­ity).

A sense of eco­nomic su­pe­ri­or­ity was vis­i­ble as Cat­alo­nia in­dus­tri­alised while the rest of Spain re­mained largely agrar­ian. Key to Cata­lans’ iden­tity was the idea that they were thrifty and hard­work­ing. How­ever this sen­ti­ment did not pro­duce a pow­er­ful sep­a­ratist move­ment. When a Cata­lan re­gion­al­ist-cum-na­tion­al­ist move­ment emerged in the late 19th cen­tury, most de­manded home rule within Spain.

Cata­lans achieved just that in the 1930s un­der the Sec­ond Re­pub­lic. This was swept away by the fiercely Span­ish-na­tion­al­ist Fran­coist dic­ta­tor­ship. Even then, a ma­jor sep­a­ratist move­ment failed to emerge. Rather, Cata­lan na­tion­al­ists worked with other sec­tions of the op­po­si­tion to push for a re­turn to democ­racy. In Cat­alo­nia the de­mand for trade union rights, home rule, and for the Cata­lan lan­guage to be made co-of­fi­cial went hand in hand.

Fol­low­ing the fall of Fran­co­ism, the whole of Spain was de­cen­tralised with the for­ma­tion of ‘au­ton­o­mous com­mu­ni­ties’, each with their own par­lia­ment. Cata­lan na­tion­al­ists now at­tempted to max­imise the re­gion’s au­ton­omy within the pa­ram­e­ters of th­ese new state struc­tures.

But, in the 2000s, there was a change of mood. Na­tion­al­ists in­creas­ingly com­plained about the amount of money be­ing trans­ferred from Cat­alo­nia to the rest of Spain. They also ar­gued that, when in­vest­ing in in­fra­struc­ture projects such as high-speed rail, the na­tional gov­ern­ment showed Madrid un­due favouritism. Ten­sions were ratch­eted up fur­ther still in 2010 when Spain’s Con­sti­tu­tional Court de­clared parts of a Cata­lan au­ton­omy statute to be un­con­sti­tu­tional.

In re­sponse a new gen­er­a­tion of more as­sertive Cata­lan na­tion­al­ist lead­ers be­gan to de­mand a ref­er­en­dum on in­de­pen­dence. In this re­spect, they have been in­flu­enced by the strat­egy pur­sued by the Scot­tish Na­tional Party (SNP). The big po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ence is that the SNP was able to reach an agree­ment with the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment to hold a ref­er­en­dum on Scot­tish in­de­pen­dence. In con­trast, Spain’s gov­ern­ing Par­tido Pop­u­lar (Peo­ple’s Party), which is deeply hos­tile to Cata­lan na­tion­al­ism, has to­tally re­fused to con­tem­plate any such ref­er­en­dum. This is at the root of the present day cri­sis.

Cata­lans ar­gued that, when in­vest­ing in projects like high-speed rail, the Span­ish gov­ern­ment showed Madrid un­due favouritism AN­GEL SMITH

All­states ap­pear strong, un­til they fail. At least, that’s what the Euro­pean 20th cen­tury seems to teach us. The years since 1914 were si­mul­ta­ne­ously char­ac­terised by the as­cen­dancy of im­pos­ing state struc­tures, ca­pa­ble of wag­ing to­tal war and build­ing ex­tra-Euro­pean em­pires, and by the equally re­mark­able col­lapse of states – the Hab­s­burg em­pire, the Third Re­ich and the USSR, to name but a few – which have van­ished from the map. The ex­pla­na­tion is that states are both re­mark­ably adapt­able en­ti­ties and al­ways vul­ner­a­ble to dis­si­dence and ob­so­les­cence.

There have of course been pe­ri­ods of sta­bil­ity, of which the most dra­matic was the long peace that fol­lowed the Sec­ond World War – what we now tend to re­fer to as the Cold War. The po­lar­i­sa­tion be­tween east and west that fol­lowed 1945, and more es­pe­cially the en­trench­ment of the quasi­im­pe­rial power of the USA and the USSR, froze Euro­pean bor­ders and state struc­tures as part of a larger armed truce. And the re­moval of those con­straints after 1989 led rapidly to the es­tab­lish­ment of new state struc­tures – and many new bor­ders – in for­merly com­mu­nist eastern Europe. On oc­ca­sions, that change was peace­ful and con­sti­tu­tional – as in Cze­choslo­vakia – but also of­ten vi­o­lent and pro­longed, as in the break-up of Yu­goslavia.

Such in­sta­bil­ity was not lim­ited to the east. The de­mo­bil­i­sa­tion that fol­lowed the end of the Cold War also un­der­mined state struc­tures in west­ern Europe. Italy, Bel­gium, now Spain and, it could be said, the UK are all ex­am­ples of states that have strug­gled to re­strain their fis­si­parous ten­den­cies. Some of the rea­sons for this are his­tor­i­cal. All the ma­jor states of Europe have con­tested her­itages, which can be chal­lenged in the name of self-de­ter­mi­na­tion.

But even a his­to­rian is obliged to ac­cept that long-term ex­pla­na­tions have lim­i­ta­tions. The 19th-cen­tury French philoso­pher Ernest Re­nan fa­mously de­clared that a na­tion was a daily ref­er­en­dum, but so too, in the 20th cen­tury, has been the le­git­i­macy of state struc­tures. States have of­ten held many of the strong­est weapons, but few have re­tained the abil­ity durably to re­press in­creas­ingly self-con­scious, ed­u­cated and as­sertive pop­u­la­tions. In the 21st cen­tury, that truth seems more ev­i­dent than ever. The con­straints of le­gal­ity and of tra­di­tion count for lit­tle when pop­u­la­tions de­cide that their states are not serv­ing their pur­poses.

One con­se­quence has been the re­cent rise of pop­ulist protest move­ments in France, Ger­many and the Nether­lands. But an­other, as events in Cat­alo­nia demon­strate, has been the emer­gence of sep­a­ratist move­ments who claim that a par­tic­u­lar sec­tion of the pop­u­la­tion would be bet­ter off alone.

None of this means that all Euro­pean states are doomed to fail. But as we ar­rive at the cen­te­nary of the col­lapse of the Ro­manov, Hab­s­burg and Ot­toman em­pires, we shall have plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties to ap­pre­ci­ate the his­tor­i­cal and con­tem­po­rary truth that states have no pre-or­dained right to con­tinue to ex­ist.

Few states have re­tained the abil­ity durably to re­press in­creas­ingly self-con­scious, ed­u­cated and as­sertive pop­u­la­tions MARTIN CON­WAY

Pro­tes­tors on the streets of Barcelona, with a huge Cata­lan flag, on 3 Oc­to­ber 2017. Cata­lans have ag­i­tated for greater au­ton­omy for cen­turies

Dr An­gel Smith is reader in mod­ern Span­ish his­tory at the Univer­sity of Leeds

Peo­ple in Prague cel­e­brate the foun­da­tion of the Czech Re­pub­lic on 1 Jan­uary 1993, fol­low­ing the dis­so­lu­tion of Cze­choslo­vakia

Philip V’s troops storm Barcelona be­fore im­pos­ing ab­so­lutist rule, in a 1722 de­pic­tion

Martin Con­way is pro­fes­sor of con­tem­po­rary Euro­pean his­tory at Bal­liol Col­lege, the Univer­sity of Ox­ford

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