Spain needs to start talking about its national identity—and, yes, allowing more citizens to have their say in a referendumby Liam Aldous / October 9, 2017 / Leave a comment
Spain is being recklessly marched into another crisis, yet the forthcoming calamity is no arbitrary episode of history. The world is witnessing a sad truth that most Spaniards have known for some time: their leaders aren’t up to the job. Surpassing even their own conventional standards of incompetence, two agitating agendas—orchestrated in Barcelona and Madrid—seem intent on barking their self-serving rhetoric into the wind. Those stuck in the middle are being forced to contemplate two supposedly imminent realities—one promises to usher in a new Mediterranean Arcadia called the Catalan Republic, the other presumes state intervention will magically diffuse the tension on the street. Neither is probable, both seem impossible.
On 1st October, as the world glimpsed a long-festering dispute cross a violent rubicon, Catalonia’s quest for independence from Spain suddenly seemed coloured with persuasive clarity. Heavy-handed police clashed with peaceful voters at polling stations, impassioned pleas for freedom were scrawled across placards, and regional premier Carles Puigdemont decried an authoritarian state attempting to silence democracy. Yet this was not, in truth, a struggle to let people vote. It was a battle to legitimise a flailing rebellion.
The latest referendum is the third time in four years this question has been put to a vote. Each time, once non-voters are included, the proportion of all Catalans backing independence has remained the same—less than half. First came the consulta; an informal—and similarly illegal—independence referendum in 2014. Snap regional elections were then called in 2015; framed as a quasi-referendum on whether to secede from Spain, voters were promised an 18-month roadmap to statehood. This was followed by the new referendum, which took place just one month after the legislation paving the way for it was rushed through the regional parliament. Incompatible with Spain’s constitution, it was ruled illegal by the country’s highest court, panned by the national government and dismantled by thousands of police that were shipped in on a specially consigned cruise-liner.
But the blame must be shared with Madrid. For years, the characteristic reticence of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has opened a political vacuum in which the secessionists have thrived. While in opposition, Rajoy led a spirited campaign to sabotage Catalonia’s regional constitution. It was a tawdry attempt to grab votes, but his past success could ultimately lead to his undoing. Most commentators (and Catalans) cite his personal campaign to rally the electorate against Catalonia’s recognition as a nation as the impetus for the modern independence movement. Across Catalonia, as hotheadedness creates a continuous feedback loop of hubris, the descent into “us vs them” identity politics is radicalising the youth, dividing families, and fracturing the social peace. Amid all the noise, no one seems to be discussing—at least with any sensible detail—what a Catalonian republic would actually look like.
So what about the future? As two imagined realities galvanise the national debate, moderate voices are scarce. A recent television appearance by Madrid mayor Manuela Carmena and Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau, saw both female leaders appeal for dialogue, underlining the need for new language, and a change in interlocutors. Yet, as their testosterone-charged peers continue to stare each other down, such measured words have already faded into distant memory.
As both leaders justify their entrenched positions as mandates from the street, Spaniards—including Catalans—should demand three things. Both Rajoy and Puigdemont should fall on their own blunted swords. New leaders should call for calm, agree to talks, and establish common ground. And Spain needs to have an overdue conversation about constitutional reform and its own shared identity. Embracing its own plurinationality as a strength, not shying away from the word nation, and yes, allowing more citizens to have their say in a referendum, would be a good start.