Letter from Barcelona: Labour’s Spanish lessons

by Rob Marchant

In between the petty spats of the Tory conference this week or the surreal cult of Labour’s gathering last week, there was a potentially seismic political event for Europe (and Britain) a thousand miles away: Sunday’s referendum for Catalan independence. It is big news: while a major general election campaign was happening in the EU’s most populous country, this little region’s impending vote was stealing the headlines for much of it.

It seems suddenly shocking but, for those of us familiar with Spanish and Catalan politics, it is essentially an event that has been at least a decade in the making, but which has approached Spain’s now largely stable democracy like a relentless iceberg, and which the national government’s general cack-handedness has made it seemingly powerless to stop.

This time, around 90% of the votes have been cast for “Sí”, although the vote is technically illegal and many anti-independence voters have naturally boycotted it. Reasons are many: there is first raw, emotional nationalism; then more rational, economic unfairness (Catalonia is a net contributor to taxes and “subsidises” poorer regions; some may even have voted yes in the (mistaken) belief that Spain’s foreign policy had somehow helped precipitate recent ISIS attacks in Barcelona and an independent Catalonia would instead be safe.

So the result, illegal or otherwise, is hugely important for Catalonia, Spain and Europe. But how did they get here?

For about a quarter-century following the “Transición” (the transition to democracy after Franco’s death), the Catalans had a nationalist party running their regional government, the CiU (Convergéncia i Unión).

But the funny thing about this nationalist party was, it didn’t really want independence.

In fact, it went out of its way to demand concessions from the Spanish government for years, without ever once making independence part of its platform (compare and contrast to UK nationalist parties). Jordi Pujol, father of modern Catalonia, managed this position as leader of the regional government with extraordinary success until 2003.

However later, following its loss of regional power for the first time ever since the restoration of democracy, the CiU ultimately decided to change its strategy and go for broke on independence. They were lucky in two ways: (i) for much of the time, they had a notably intransigent conservative (PP) national government led by Mariano Rajoy, who leaden-footedly decided that sticking fast to the Spanish constitution to prevent a vote, was the best way to go; and (ii) they managed to ride a worldwide wave of populist nationalism, which now encompasses Brexit, Trump, Scottish nationalism, Russian adventurism and a number of other local movements in many countries.

Tell someone they can’t do something, as any politician will tell you, and they want to do it all the more. Especially if their marginal cost of cocking a snook at you is, essentially, zero. And so the CiU changed from being an non-independence, nationalist party to a pro-independence, nationalist party (also losing part of its original alliance, UDC or “Unión”, in the process, who were not secessionist).

Feeding off the intransigence of Madrid, there was only one way in the end that this approach would take them: confrontation. It now has, in a very literal sense. The strategy may yet win them independence, but it’s really too early to tell.

And so last weekend, the Spanish government stood on the constitution and sent in police from other parts of Spain; while the mostly-peaceful indepdentist Catalans tried to have a ballot unrecognised by its government and a few agitators wound up the police, with predictably violent results.

All of this could really have been foreseen years ago: two sides unwilling to negotiate, playing brinkmanship. The violence, of course, might prove enough to tip undecided Catalans over the edge. But it’s not over yet.

And the lessons for Labour? The following.

One: that, for all Cameron’s hubris and overreaching afterwards with the Brexit vote, his management of Indyref in Scotland was shrewd and effective. He didn’t say no: he said, “of course you can. But…are you sure?” The resultant nervousness among Scots won him the day.

Rajoy, on the other hand, did the opposite. He said “no” to a referendum from the outset, which naturally just made people want to vote all the more. One suspects they will ultimately have to concede a legal, recognised vote, not least because the UN Charter enshrines a geography’s right to self-determination. Whether or not a constitution allows it formally seems dwarfed by that fundamental and inherently reasonable right.

Two: it is obvious that an event like this, particularly if it is ultimately successful, will have huge shockwaves across Europe, one of which will be in Scotland. As the flames of nationalism have been gradually waning there, this is likely to fan them once again. Not to mention in places such as Greece, Italy and the Balkans, where various regions have been itching to secede for years. The EU has been dreading such an outcome for years and more so now, after Brexit: its leaders have made it clear their support for Spain, despite their squeamishness about the violence. It is a political situation that they will all no doubt carefully watch.

Three: in light of these first two points, Labour itself now must think really, really carefully about how it chooses to position itself in Scotland. The Corbynites’ instincts are predictable: seeing this as a romantic “liberation” movement, they want to the support the Catalans (and any other similar groups across Europe).

But Labour also need to wins back support in Scotland, which has shown itself on balance to be nationalist-minded but not independence-minded, at least, not now. The Tories are already sweeping up the votes of those who are neither one nor the other, and Labour must win back some of those, too. The incoming Scottish leader must therefore strike a delicate balance between pro- and anti-independence and avoid getting squeezed between the two camps. Or, alternatively, jump wholeheartedly into one or the other and hope to dislodge either the SNP or the Tories.

Corbynite absolutism is unlikely to work here. It will more likely require a “Goldilocks” formula: not too much nationalism, nor too little. Labour could do worse than look at the old-style Catalan CiU: nationalist, but not independentist. Worked well for a generation. Why not?

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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10 Responses to “Letter from Barcelona: Labour’s Spanish lessons”

  1. swat says:

    It makes me uneasy when I hear arguments like ‘ want to secede because they pay more in taxes than they receive than poorer regions…’ Have these people not heard the principle of redistribution of wealth?
    And there are often reasons physical geographical and historical why some regions are poorer than others.
    A better reason might be that the Catalans have a distinctive culture language and history, rather like the Scots and Irish peoples.
    But it would be a great pity if Spain were to be balkanised.
    History teaches us that nations that secede often bring calamities on themselves and diminish in power. And, Spain still hasn’t yet fully recovered from the trauma of its Civil War.

  2. Anne says:

    Some good points from Swat.
    I was surprised and disappointed when Kezia Dugdale gave up the leadership of Scottish Labour – I thought she was doing a good job. There now seems a bit of a battle going on for this post. Divided parties do not win elections.
    Scotland is one of the few areas in the U.K. where the Tories are gaining ground and I believe this is because of Ruth Davidson – one of the few sensible Tories.
    I thought that the desire for independence was waning in Scotland but the Catalonia struggle and the growth in nationism may influence that position – although I would think the outcome of the Brexit negotiations would be a stronger factor – a bad deal which would be disastrous for the economy.

  3. John p Reid says:

    Although the vote is technically illegal, ? Either it is or it isn’t,

  4. When you look at some of the ‘hot spots’ in Africa, Asia and Europe you have to wonder if Balkanization isn’t the answer.

  5. uglyfatbloke says:

    It’s not clear that nationalism in Scotland (or rather the SNP) is on the wane. The nats have certainly had a major fright, but the polling evidence of the last few weeks seems to indicate that they’ve got past that and are firmly in the lead. Whether that’s a lead over labour or the tories is not quite so clear, but it seems to me the Scottish tories are steadily receding in significance – perhaps as Ruth Davidson becomes more exposed as the vacuous bully she really is. Question is, where’s the future for Labour? An out-and-out devolution approach may well swing people from the nats, but a minimalist approach to further devolution will not swing people from the tories.

  6. Tafia says:

    There are several lessons to be learnt from the Catalunya Crisis.

    The EU has now shown it’s true colours. It is publicly saying the vote is illegal, supporting Spain’s attempts to crush it – but above all is deeply worried. Catalunya intends to declare UDI on Monday even though the EU has told it several times in the last few days that it doiesn’t recognise the vote and more importantly that any region that breaks away from a member state – with or without the agreement of the member state, is automatically not a member fo the EU and has too go through the joining process from scratch (lessons there for the SNP & Plaid).

    But there’s a bifgger problem on the horizon. A further Spanish region is now considering an independence vote – along with several regions of Italy, including Lombardy, Bavaria in Germany and a couple of regins in the east of the EU.

    Meanwhile, today the Spanish government has suspended the Catalunya regional parliament, instituted direct rule from Madrid and has startyed readying the Spanish Army to move in. And the EU has no option now other than to fully support the Spanish government in what is probably going to end up in bloodshed – because if it doesn’t the EU will disintegrate region by region.

    But what’s best of all (or worst of all if you are Brussels), is that every country that has secessionist regions now threatening to leave is a euro state – which means you could quickly see a major banking crisis sweep the EU.

    And ticking away quietly is BREXIT. We aren’t going to delay it and the EU has to stick to the timetable no matter how distracted it gets with fire-fighting the restless natives

    And where do our Rremainer politicians sit in all of this? Because sooner or later they are going to have to stop prattling meaningless nonsense about hoping for dialogue etc and actually either support Catalunya unequivocably (and thus condemn the EU) or condemn it and support the EU. I know as a member of Plaid my party is turning itself inside out over this because it always (rather stupidly and naively) bleieved that regions could break-away from their parent nations and remain members of the EU and it’s now learning that not only is that not true, but that the EU will support the parent country in crushing you.

  7. steve says:

    Corbybn has said “I think that independence would be catastrophic for many people in Scotland.” Where is the evidence in support of Corbyn’s enthusiasm for an independent Catalonia?

    Of course, I wholly accept that nearly all the world’s problems are caused by either Sanders or Corbyn. But when it comes to Spain’s constitutional crisis, just this once, Corbyn’s hands may well be clean.

  8. Dave Roberts says:

    I can’t see any connection between what is happening in Catalunya and Corbyn. I agree with Steve in the post above that this article was written for the sake of it.

  9. Tafia says:

    Steve and Dave, The only relevance really is whatever the Labour position over Catalunya (or any of the other parties – and even the EU) is or develops too, automatically affects their position regarding similar events elsewhere.

    For example, if you recognise the vote in Catalunya, that automatically means you would have to reccognise Scotland’s right to a second IndyRef without referring to Westminster – or your position would be inconsistent. And likewise the SNP would have to accept that voting for independence means you are not in the EU.

    Likewise the unauthorised referenda in Donbass and the Crimea – which effectively box the EU in to a corner because the EU still refuses to recognise those which means it can’t recognise the Catalunya one or it will be seen to lack a consistent position.

    And consider recent history. When Yugoslavia started to splinter, it has long been recognised that the event that sent the whole thing out of control was Germany granting diplomatic recognition to Croatia when it ‘illegally’ broke away. That is seen as the pivotal moment that led to the total break -up and all the fighting right across the Balkan region. So, come Monday if Catalunya declares UDI (although Spain has closed their Parliament, ultimately Parliament is a meeting of the elected individuals not the actual building itself), what happens if say one or more EU countries grant it diplomatic recognition but the EU doesn’t? Or Russia. Or the USA. Or China. What will Spain do then? What will the rest of the EU do? Because at that point, neither Spain nor Brussels can be seen to accept the situation or more break-ups will happen very quickly.

  10. Tafia says:

    And I see the Chief of the Catalunyan Regional Police is in Court in Madrid charged with aiding Sedition because he failed to stop the referendum, along with some of the leaders of the pro-independence campaign groups and the entire senior management level of the regional police has been suspended. But the regional government intends to press on with it’s UDI announcement on Monday afternoon despite Madrid threatening to stp them ‘by all means’ if they attempt to.

    Wonder how far they are prepared to go ‘by all means’ and how far the EU will support them?

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