Catalonia’s left-wing parties should unite to fight for a new federal Spanish constitution guaranteeing regional tax-raising powers, writes JOHN PAYNE
THE loss of Catalan rights in 1714 came at the end of a war in which the Catalans had managed, as usual, to back the wrong horse. Deserted by their English allies (“perfidious Albion” is still heard in Barcelona), they lost their political institutions to a Spanish state governed centrally from Madrid.
Three hundred years later, it seems time for another new start and not necessarily the one proposed by the supporters of the independence referendum called for October 1.
In the 19th century, Catalonia saw a massive growth of industry — railways, textiles, engineering gave it a different economy and class structure from that of traditionalist, rural Spain.
During the period of the republic in the 1930s, communists, anarchists and Catalan nationalists made common cause within a newly autonomous land.
All that came to an end in 1939 with the victory of General Francisco Franco’s rebel forces at the end of the civil war.
Almost anyone who had not actively supported Franco was liable to summary trial, prison or execution. In areas that had remained under government control 200,000 died in reprisal killings between 1939 and 1943.
In Catalonia, 110,000 were tried by summary military tribunals in the years following the civil war. In 1964 Spain was asked to celebrate 25 years of peace — for those on the left, for Basques and Catalans they had been 25 years of defeat and humiliation.
Franco died in 1976 — the only fascist dictator from the 1930s to die in his bed — kept alive only by a life-support machine while his supporters squabbled over the legacy.
Then came the grace of democracy, membership of the European Union and the statutes of autonomy for Basques, Catalans and the various Spanish regions.
But the traditionalist right was regrouping, eventually emerging as the highly organised, highly corrupt People’s Party which has ruled Spain off and on for most of this new century. It has survived repeated fi nancial scandals. It has used in the most blatant way the constitutional court in Madrid to block increased powers for the Catalan government. It has ignored the misery caused to so many Spaniards by the aftermath of the 2008 fi nancial crash — homelessness, unemployment, austerity.
It has generated opposition, but not necessarily from the usual direction of the old Spanish social democrats of PSOE.
Podemos (Yes We Can) is a new type of political force that has inspired many young people. Barcelona has a new Mayor Ada Colau, the first woman elected to the role, who came to prominence campaigning for people made homeless because they couldn’t pay their mortgages.
Her major policy plank is to control the out-of-control tourist industry in Barcelona and in particular the inflated rents caused by the unregulated tourist apartment boom.
The Catalan regional government, run by a strange alliance of centre-right nationalists and the anti-capitalist campaigners of Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), has called the mentioned referendum on independence for October 1, which the Spanish state has already declared illegal.
CUP members refused to march with other government representatives on August 26 in Barcelona — the rally was called after the terrorist atrocities committed in Las Ramblas on August 17. They were protesting against the presence of the King, who, they claim, has business interests in Arab states that help to finance terrorism.
It is a difficult moment for Catalonia and Spain and one that seems unlikely to yield immediate benefits to anyone.
And yet, precisely because of the depth of the crisis, it may just be the moment to think about the emergence of new political forces in Spain to face the corruption, antagonism between the country’s constituent parts and the many day-to-day unresolved problems of the working-class.
The most basic demand must be for a new constitution.
The price of keeping the army out of politics after 1976 were the clauses stating that Spain was a unified — not pluralist or federal — state and that autonomous governments could only work with the central government not with one another.
A new federal constitution for Spain would allow Catalonia the tax-raising powers it has long wanted and, as I argued in my recent book Catalans and Others, allow the Catalans to develop strong social, economic and cultural links with the other Catalan-speaking regions — Valencia and the Balearic Islands — both of which have rejected the Popular Party at the ballot box in recent times.
But for this to happen, the old left (PSOE) will have to drop its hostility to Catalan rights, while CUP and Podemos will have to demonstrate their ability to participate in the grown-up politics of coalition and compromise.
The present Spanish government will attempt to block the October 1 referendum in Catalonia by whatever means it can. But this could create a space into which a new political block of old and new left could launch a unified political trajectory for Spain.
John Payne is the author of Catalans and Others: history, culture and politics in Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands (Five Leaves)