Catalans don’t really want independence

No further from our offices at The Times than the northern reaches of our own country, a crisis is unfolding that’s bigger than Brexit. It could even bring violent civil conflict to one of our more important European allies, and threaten the very existence of the kingdom of Spain.

Relations between Catalonia and the rest of Spain are at breaking point.

Democratic politics in the Iberian peninsula has seized up due to a catastrophic failure of the leaderships of both the Spanish and Catalan governments. Political midgets and tinpot nationalists on both sides have puffed themselves into an entirely avoidable High Noon and nobody has the statesmanship or courage to block their ears to the cheers of the mob and lead their deluded followers back to safety. Of such are the stupid accidents of history composed.

How different from our own dear country.

This weekend, Catalonia faces an imminent threat by the Spanish government to suspend the partial self-rule that this country-within-a-country enjoys, and forcibly return Catalonia to direct rule from Madrid. The Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, threatens this unless the Catalan government in Barcelona backs away from a proclamation of independence it made after the referendum held in defiance of Madrid at the start of October.

I have seen this coming. It was so foreseeable that many of us half-persuaded ourselves that sense must surely prevail. Three times in the last seven years I’ve described the danger in The Times, trying to persuade readers of the importance of the story. Most of my family live in rural Catalonia near the Pyrenees and have done so since General Franco’s time. My mother co-founded and ran a school of English in her nearby town for a quarter of a century; both my sisters and a brother are married locally; and I’d say all of them and all their children and grandchildren are for independence — in most cases fiercely so. Many have been off on demonstrations, some helping with the recent referendum which with brutal hamfistedness Madrid tried to stop. They’ve been bombarding me with petitions, links to sympathetic journalism and photographs of bloodied would-be voters on referendum day.

My family will not like what I am going to write.

I don’t believe that in their heart-of-hearts the Catalan people really want independence. Millions of them say and think they do, but what they deeply want is something different. They want respect; they want a recognised identity as a nation; they love the Catalan language which almost every Catalan speaks, often as a first language, and its poetry, literature and folklore; they know their long and sometimes separate history; they’re proud of Catalonia’s contribution to European culture; they bristle (as the Scots and Welsh do) at the sneers of the boss-nation, and the deprecation of their nationhood as mere parochialism, and of their language as a peasant dialect.

They hate being spoken of as unsophisticated, crude, money-making drudges: bumpkins and businessmen, dowdy beside the silken manners and stiff-necked pride that is Castile.

And, yes, as one of the richest regions in Spain, they may wish to keep a bit more of their own money: there does exist a strand of economic self-interest in Catalan separatism but it does not predominate, and Catalonia’s sense of social obligation to all parts of the peninsula with which its own economy is inextricably entwined, is strong and humanitarian.

All this surely adds up to independence, you may say. Well, that’s certainly what the leaders of the various separatist parties that now form the Catalan regional government tell their supporters; and it was enough to get a box-tick from most of the 40-odd per cent on the electoral roll who actually voted in this month’s “illegal” referendum. But quiz Catalan separatists on the practical components of sovereign statehood and a curious (and, I believe, telltale) ambivalence surfaces. Army? Navy? Air force? Worldwide network of fully-fledged embassies? Heaps of treaties to be separately negotiated? Border posts with the rest of Spain? At this point in the conversation Catalan separatists tend to become studiedly vague. Details, details . . . oh and anyway we’ll be in the European Union and Brussels can take care of all that . . .

But there has never been any reason to suppose the EU will somehow step in and help prise Catalonia from Madrid’s grip, and every reason to know the EU won’t. Yet “Europe”, like the Promised Land, floats in the Catalan imagination as a deus ex machina ready to swoop in and guarantee life after Madrid.

Try to get down to the brass tacks of this rescue by Brussels, however, and your Catalan interlocutor goes all vague again. They’d rather not think about it. Because it’s not the mechanics of sovereign statehood that really floats their boat: it’s the two-fingered salute to Spain.

Don’t you see, can Madrid not see, can the ill-advised Spanish royal family not see, can the Spanish voters to whom right and left in Madrid are foolishly pandering not see, that we have here nearly all the components of a way through? I come back to those words “respect” and “identity”. Instead of treating Catalan dreams of sovereignty as a matter for rage, contempt or irritation, Madrid could address Catalonia’s underlying hunger for recognition. It was a historic error in the early days of post-Franco democracy to give to the bomb-happy Basque country powers of home rule and fiscal autonomy, then later change the constitution to stop peaceable Catalonia from getting parity.

So change the constitution again! Why not? Well, I said we had the components of a workable compromise; but one is missing: a willingness by Madrid to climb down a couple of rungs. I believe that Catalans, who are secretly horrified by where things are going but too proud and angry to say so, would climb down a couple of rungs too. This is so do-able.

But I doubt it will happen. There are some seriously second-rate people at the top in both Madrid and Barcelona, and rabble-rousers at work too. Madrid’s default-setting is the fist. Force will probably work, after a fashion. On balance I expect the Catalans to retreat soon, in confusion and badly bruised. This is a nation that specialises in victimhood, and at some deep level something about this episode and its images of blood and broken bones will not be altogether displeasing to them.

And so the wounds will fester, Spain’s economic recovery will take a knock, and we all shall be back here again in a few years’ time. Who will step forward to stop this? Cometh the hour in Spain (and Britain) and cometh . . . no one.

Matthew Parris joined The Times in 1988

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