Andrew Dowling

Amongst the many changes experienced in contemporary British academia, one is the top down pressure to publish. And to publish. The act of writing and creation often becomes a burden, as something we have to do because we are told this is what we must. It has been a personal liberation to spend nearly two weeks at the Faber Residency and rediscover the pleasure in thinking, reading and writing. A highly stimulating space has reconnected me with some of the original reasons I went into academia in the first place. Furthermore, being based in Olot, Girona has been a great stimulus for somebody from abroad who is completing a book on Catalan independence.  Independence sentiment is deeply rooted in this part of Catalonia and provides a useful counterpoint to mostly visiting Barcelona where political loyalties are more complex.  Below you can find some of my observations written at the Faber Residency, which will form the introductory section of my book on Catalan independence.

Since European and other societies experienced the economic crisis that began in 2008, we have witnessed a range of political responses. This have ranged from the convulsions of Greece to Britain’s referendum to leave the European Union. Spain has been in one sense a place that has experienced a scale of responses given its own internal dynamics and political system. The economic crisis in Spain has greatly challenged the relatively stable political order that emerged in the mid-1970s from the transition from the Franco dictatorship. While  traditional class and religious cultures have declined and fragmented in contemporary Spain, conflicts over national identity remain unresolved, with the current Spanish state order subject to profound challenge by Catalan secessionists. The economic crisis has given impetus to forms of nationalist mobilisation with Scotland, Catalonia and Flanders experiencing secessionist pressures. Catalonia has been the epicentre of Spain’s crisis. Catalonia, a historically rich region with a profound sense of national and cultural identity has embraced secession as the potential solution to an accumulation of grievances.

There has been nothing inevitable about the turn to secession in Catalonia. The situation that has brought close to half of the Catalan population to express support for independence has varied causes. As recently as the mid-2000s, Catalonia was described as and analysed by scholars as a non-secessionist nationalism. Catalonia was seen within Europe and beyond as a role model for successful devolution which had much to teach other parts of the world. Catalan nationalism then, whilst seeking to deepen and extend the regional powers obtained in the late 1970s, was non-secessionist and the unwillingness to seek secession was deeply rooted in the territory and overwhelmingly shared across the political spectrum. Until the early 1990s, no member of the Catalan regional parliament was openly in favour of secession and even in 1999, a party in favour of Catalan independence did not obtain even 10% of the vote in the Catalan elections. By 2000, Catalan society was little prone to political conflict and tension in Spain on the national question remained focussed on the Basque Country, which was gradually approaching a post-violent scenario. In these years, there was no reason to believe that in a few years Catalonia would embark on a political project that would break a 120 year old culture of building and consolidating autonomy.

However, by the 1990s, there was the first indications that, contrary to appearances, Catalan society was less than content. The first indication of change was the fact that by 1999, the two principal political forces in the Catalan firmament, the nationalists of CiU and the socialists in the PSC, were approaching peak influence. The party system was increasingly in flux, mirroring developments in other European societies where challenger parties of varying hues began to emerge. The credit and property boom that began in the mid-1990s delayed recognition that salaries, particularly for the middle classes, were stagnating. Whilst industrial and other workers had experienced instability since the late 1970s, this did not begin to occur amongst middle class sectors until the mid-1990s. However easy credit and a consumption boom from 1997 to 2007 delayed wider recognition of this increasing trend. New generations reaching adulthood no longer had the automatic political loyalty of the previous generation, and the two main parties in Catalonia, nationalists and social democrats, increasingly struggled to obtain new voters. Intra-generational mobility was halting and a generational breach was increasingly emerging between those over 40 with comparative employment stability and the young, increasingly struggling to obtain access to the property market or employment stability. These trends would find political expression in the economic crisis that convulsed Spain after 2008.

Whilst Catalan demographic growth stagnated for much of the 1980s, vast extra-European immigration began to arrive in Catalan society from the mid-1990s. Minor incidents aside, immigrants tended towards sectors such as the domestic and agricultural sectors which were very poorly paid and posed little or no challenge to Catalan workers. Whist xenophobia did not become a political concern or indeed part of the mainstream, something that both Spanish and Catalan societies can feel some pride in, the vast numbers arriving, totalling one and a half million to a country of six million in the Catalan case, placed strains on housing, and ever greater demands on education and health systems. In the same period, Spanish society was completing its own transformation, which occurred rapidly since entry into the European Union in 1986. By the late 1990s, Spain had become a stable and modern west European democracy, a fact confirmed by the reaction to the Madrid bombings in 2004, which demonstrated that democratic culture was deeply rooted in the populace. Spain’s narrowing of its economic differences with its European counterparts, produced an ever greater self-confidence around Spanish national identity, which was capitalised on and increasingly mobilised by the rebranded conservatism of the Partido Popular.

As self-confidence in Spain rose, Catalan society became increasingly aware that the vast differences that had marked Catalan society from ‘agricultural Spain’ was over.  In fact, by the mid-1990s Madrid had increasingly become the undisputed capital of Spain and Barcelona was no longer able to rival it. Further developments fed into this process that would reach full expression post-2008. The Partido Popular governments of 1996 to 2004 increasingly sought to halt the process of further devolution that had been made possible by the ambiguities of the constitutional and territorial settlement of the late 1970s. Thus we can begin to trace the emergence of a Catalan existential crisis as its comparative importance in the Spanish political firmament began to decline. Simply put, Catalonia had lost its leading role in the political and economic development of Spain, which had been a central element to the narrative of political Catalanism since its emergence in the 1880s. Thus one key pillar of Catalanism had collapsed through the economic, political and cultural development of the wider Spanish polity. Through the combination of these trends, the Catalan political class became increasingly conscious of the need for renewal of the political project for Catalonia and the solution proposed became a profound revision to the Catalan Statute of Autonomy of 1979. This was broadly seen as an opportunity to update autonomy and to bring it into line with the social and economic changes that had occurred since the late 1970s. This period, which began in earnest in 2003 and last until 2006 was simply a reformist project.

The Estatut of Autonomy, which occupied Catalonia’s political class between 2003 and 2006 came to have great symbolic import in time. An ever more confident Spanish nationalism, mostly mobilised around conservative sectors and the Partido Popular saw the Estatut as a political opportunity to halt any further devolution of powers to Catalonia and undermine the social democratic government of the accidental Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. Thus the PP and media allies sought to mobilise against a largely technocratic piece of legislation. Petitions were organised throughout Spain against an Estatut that was portrayed as a neo-secessionist measure. As the Catalan project followed shortly after the Basque project of confederal association with Spain, the Ibarretxe plan, popular concern was mobilised and four million signatures were collected throughout Spain.  With the call for the Spanish Supreme Court to adjudicate on contentious components of the Esatutu and a Court that was paralysed by internal dissension, four years passed between 2006 and 2010 before judgement was given.

These four years and the changes that took place between them are pivotal for understanding the embrace of independence by close to a majority of Catalan society. In 2006 easy credit mostly masked the growing employment instability of middle class sectors. The Spanish economy in general terms was portrayed as a poster child for economic success and prosperity by the financial press and analysts. Yet growing discontent was increasingly apparent as professionals of all types no longer had the employment stability of previous generations. In one sense one of the most educated generations since 1900 had ever reduced horizons. Data on departure from the family unit in Spain and Catalonia increasingly indicated delayed abandonment until the early 30s as property prices spiralled. Barcelona in particular experienced an unprecedented boom with prices rising 188% between 1996 and 2007. Thus the generation that struggled to buy were badly hit by the downturn with subsequent collapse of around 40% between 2007 and 2015.  A growing perception of the comparative decline in importance of both Barcelona and Catalonia fed into this discontent as Madrid greatly expanded its political, economic and cultural role from the mid 1980s.

In the meantime, with the petition against the Estatut, an increasing clash was evident between a more assertive Spanish nationalism and a Catalanism that seemed increasingly defensive and in search of new rhetorical tools.  In June 2010, after an impasse of four years, the Spanish Supreme Court issued its judgement on the revised Estatut providing its definition of the constitutional limits of regional governance. Midway through this process, the economic crisis arrived producing reverberations that are still continuing. In October 2016, in the investiture debate that returned him as Spanish Prime Minister after almost a year of political deadlock, Mariano Rajoy referred to the Catalan independence question as the single most serious issue confronting Spain.