Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy
In a campaign overshadowed by separatist riots in Barcelona, Spaniards are getting ready to vote in their second election of 2019, after April’s yielded no governing majority and no coalition agreement could be concluded.
Spain’s two big parties, the centre left PSOE (Socialist Workers’ Party of Spain) and the centre right PP (People’s Party) struggle to win majorities. Each has challengers to their extreme. Podemos (‘We can’) and the new Más País (‘More country’, yes this really is their name) on the far left. Vox, a sort of extra sexist UKIP, on the far right. Another centrist party, Ciudadanos (citizens) has thrown its lot in with the right wing bloc.
After the last election, in April, neither bloc could form a coalition. The PSOE was clearly ahead, and its leader Pedro Sanchez insisted on driving a hard bargain, betting that if there were new elections leftist voters would return to their traditional home.
Polls suggest this will turn out to have been a mistake. Sanchez counted without Catalan separatism, which has dominated the news since the Supreme Court convicted separatist leaders of sedition and misuse of funds for staging an illegal referendum and unilaterally declaring independence in 2017. They were acquitted of the more serious charge of rebellion, however, because they hadn’t used violence.
Radical separatists responded to the verdict with riots, blockades of airports and train stations. Barricades were erected, and in some cases even buildings were set on fire. In response Vox, which argues for tough repression of separatist activities, and has called in the past for pro-independence parties to be banned, has surged to third place.
Catalonia’s separatists get a particularly good press in the UK, which goes well beyond their natural allies in the SNP. For the British Left, the narrative comes is Orwell’s chronicle of the doomed socialist, anarchist and communist struggle against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. To win over the Right, they turn to Schiller, whose image of an obscurantist, counter-reformation, absolute monarchy fits the Catalan nationalist view of direct rule from Madrid, established following the Bourbon victory in the War of Spanish Succession. It plays into what Spaniards complain is the “black legend” of a backward, ultra-religious Spain, crawling with Jesuits obsessed with doctrinal Catholicism and hostile to freedom everywhere, not least England, threatened as it was by the Armada in 1588.
Neither story is entirely accurate, historically. We can expect Corbynites, at least, to gloss over Stalin’s involvement in crushing the liberals and democrats who fought to defend the Spanish republic. And it might also be time to revisit the Jesuits’ contributions to British society.
Far more important, the modern separatist case is thin indeed. Spain is a modern secular democracy, its once- powerful church the object of historical study. Rather than being repressed, Catalonia is in fact one of the richest regions in Spain, a net contributor to the national budget: a principal source of separatist grievance is revealed by their slogan Espanya els roba, ‘Spain is robbing us’.
Instruction in state schools takes place in Catalan, not Spanish, which children are taught as they might be taught a foreign language. Nor do Catalans overall want independence. The region’s population is split roughly in half (with, if anything, a slight majority for the unionists). But after a series of corruption scandals, the moderate Catalan nationalists of the Convergencia i Unió party were eclipsed by radicals determined to impose independence on a population who didn’t want it.
The radicals, who thanks to an electoral system that favours rural areas won a pro-independence majority in the regional parliament on a minority of the votes, stoked tensions with glee. Some radical nationalists, for example, made a big show of spraying disinfectant on a square where Ines Arrimadas, the regional leader of Ciudadanos, had spoken during April’s election campaign. Their new leader, Quim Torra (acting in place of Puigdemont, on the run in Belgium) has written that “the Spanish know only how to lay waste” and “we have been occupied by the Spanish since 1714.” He even complains about children speaking Spanish — in what is, after all, Spanish territory.
Lacking popular support or a legal mechanism for independence, which is prohibited by Spain’s 1978 constitution, Catalan separatists have through their extremism failed to take advantage of Spain’s repeated hung parliaments to organise the constitutional reform that would allow them to hold a legal independence vote. Their leaders’ imprisonment serves as a rallying cry; while the shortness of their sentences (they’ll be out in a year or two, once time served on remand has been taken into account) animates supporters of Vox.
Their violent supporters and intemperate language (Torra has also called the Spanish “beasts”) have ruled them out as coalition partners for either of the two main parties. Thus in their extremism they contribute to the political gridlock in Madrid and the rise of the far-right Vox. That, we can only suppose, is exactly what they want to happen.