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
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