During my twenties, I spent a substantial amount of time living in Barcelona. Freedom of movement and my EU passport were my ticket to live in one of Europe’s most multicultural and enchanting cities. I taught English, wrote, and refined my Spanish skills.
Inevitably, during that time of living El Born and Gracia, within one of the wealthiest municipalities in Spain, I learned a great deal about the idea of Catalan independence. I made Catalan friends and colleagues, who sit on all sides of this national crisis, and good friends who live in Catalunya from other regions of Spain and indeed other countries entirely. I listened to many a debate about the secessionist cause, sitting on the cold floor of Plaza Del Sol, drinking beers into the night. And as an English teacher to hundreds of Catalan teenagers, it was something we talked about a lot when it came to free conversation practice in the classroom.
My overriding impression, which I must stress is anecdotal, was that Catalan independence is an imperialist movement, packaged in the romantic language of a socialist struggle. I say this, as the necessity for independence was most passionately and commonly communicated to me purely on economic terms: the central tenant of the widespread dislike of Madrid was the redistribution of the region’s wealth around Spain, to communities and regions who were fundamentally poorer.
During these conversations, the sense of intellectual and cultural superiority to other Spanish regions was tangible: myths were extrapolated, and bordered on bigoted with the hardest of independence advocates. I bit my tongue whilst listening to sweeping statements about Andalucia, and how all people did was ‘sleep all day’ and spend Catalunya’s money. It felt ill informed: bitter and quite right wing. Yet these ideas were coming from people who thought of themselves as very left wing, wearing ‘Che’ badges and anarchist t-shirts.
It wasn’t hard to spot the oxymorons.
But perhaps all separatism is formed of a desire to be seen as different and have your unique identity recognised. However, that doesn’t mean one can’t view and talk about other people from other places with respect and compassion, as humans. And how socialist is it, really, to want to keep all your money and not share with others who are in need? To me, I feel humanity works well when we don’t dwell so much on our differences, as a basis for sharing our wealth, but that which is fundamentally similar.
This came out in my classrooms, with so many young Catalan people expressing confusion (and occasionally upset) about ideas of Catalan superiority, when they themselves had one parent or grandparents who came from another region of Spain. It’s clear that the Catalan identity is by no means clear-cut, which is the worrying question at the heart of this movement. Who exactly will have a claim to Catalunya in its independent sovereign form? And on what basis will this be decided?
I am really saddened to hear from friends in the region, who have mixed heritage, being branded ‘fascists’ for rejecting independence, and being afraid to speak their mind for fear of reprisals in their families, friendships and working relationships. It looks and feels like extreme nationalism, acting with an equal amount of repression, albeit in a different way. And, through hearing their accounts, I am struggling on what true left-wing principle this independence revolution truly hinges.
Other than democracy: I think this is the key concept now. If the most Catalans want to create a sovereign republic then it should be allowed, of course, however questionable the grounds. And rather than imposing direct rule, Spain should green-light a legal referendum, allowing the whole region to have a voice. Which to date, they have not. But a Franco style shut-down is not of the modern world, and isn’t helping those with a critical voice against independence in Catalunya. Rajoy really needs to sit back and allow this movement to fall on its own sword, legally.
There’s nothing like backing the underdog, and I see a lot of people of the left, who I respect and admire, showing solidarity with the Catalan independence movement. Perhaps a result of the retrogressive violence and repression from the Spanish government. And rightly so — those actions were deplorable and sadly force us all to remember Franco’s ills. Which is why Rajoy needs to resign for the poor, poor handling of this crisis. He has made it much easier to see Catalan Independence as a sympathetic cause.
But, this is not a revolution like Castro’s in Cuba, where the poor took back their claim to the land, from rich imperialists. It is perhaps the inverse, where the Catalan region, one of the richest and most powerful in Spain, would like to pay less, and keep more of their wealth. And, for a certain number of secessionists, there is a wish to distance themselves from supporting people who they feel culturally ‘superior’ to.
I think the claim to the romantic struggle dies there for me.
When the idea of London becoming its own nation state emerged post-Brexit, and #Londependence took off, the left wholeheartedly rebuked it, calling it selfish and uncompassionate in many an editorial. Surely, the same principles should apply to the idea of Catalunya as a sovereign republic now?
Anyway, just my #hottake