The referendum conundrum

A few months ago, the Assemblea held a vote for its members to decide whether or not to press the pro-independence parties to support a binding referendum on Catalan independence. The idea seems to have come from the CUP and is now embraced by all three pro-independence parties, as well as the Assemblea and other grassroots groups.

[This is an interesting move in my dance with the ANC because 18 months ago or so, I had an argument with ANC people in the street in Cerdanyola who at the time were calling for a unilateral declaration of independence, which I insisted would never be recognized internationally – I said that we needed a binding referendum; now, I'm a member of the ANC and opposed to the referendum. One of us is out of step, almost certainly me].

Catalan government spokesperson Neus Munté today outlined the importance of a referendum being "binding and meeting international standards" in order for it to be recognized in other countries. She also said that people on both sides of the debate must turn out and vote [i.e., 'remain' supporters can't be seen to stay at home like they did on #9N], and that in order to achieve this, the referendum must have concrete "legal and political consequences".

In case you hadn't noticed, these are exactly the arguments used by those of us unsure about the workability of the new plan. It's obvious that a binding referendum with a high turnout would be the best and most democratic way to deliver independence, were that the result. But simply saying that a referendum needs to be binding, and have a large turnout, and have legal and political consequences, is almost totally useless. We need to know how they're going to make this happen.

In Spain's current political climate, the chances of the next government (my money is on a minority PP government) agreeing to a binding referendum are minimal. So all the PSC, Cs and PP need to do to make this proposed referendum another #9N is convince their supporters not to bother voting. Apart from the problem with drawing up an electoral register, there is the issue of ensuring legal consequences from a referendum the Spanish government will certainly declare to be illegal.

It might be that I'm not seeing the plan. It might be that Munté et al have a plan and they're just preparing the ground. Maybe they're hoping for a repeat of #27S, when they called the elections a plebiscite and the PP eventually agreed. But for the moment, this binding referendum is a conundrum: no one opposed will vote unless the referendum is taken seriously, and the referendum won't be taken seriously unless the opposition votes.

Spain's anti-terrorist parties law used against Catalan Democrats

Spain's law of political parties, enacted in 2002 to prevent Basque parties linked to terrorism, has been used for the first time to prevent the registration of a political party with an explicitly pro-Catalan independence manifesto. The party formerly known as Convergència was attempting to register its new name – Democratic Party of Catalonia – with the Spanish registrar of political parties. The name itself was also rejected for bearing too close a similarity to the Catalan Democrats party formed out of the ashes of Unió, but this was expected. What wasn't expected was a political reason for refusing to register the party.

The law, voted in with the support of CiU, allowed the courts to ban Batasuna and a range of other attempted Basque left-independence parties on the basis of alleged links with terrorism. In fact, at the time the law was introduced, many felt that it had been created solely for the ETA/Batasuna case and that there was no way that Spain would abuse the legal system to ban legitimate parties (i.e. parties with no links to armed groups).

It states that a party can be made illegal when it threatens democratic principles, particularly by threatening to reduce or destroy the 'state of freedoms' or to make democracy impossible. Specific grounds it cites include (excuse the rough translation):

  • Threatening freedoms and fundamental rights; promoting, justifying or otherwise supporting attacks that threaten death or injury; or excluding or persecuting people on the basis of their ideology, religion or beliefs, nationality, race, sex or sexual orientation.
  • Fomenting, enabling or legitimizing violence as a means of achieving political objectives or to endanger the conditions present for the peaceful exercise of democracy, pluralism and political freedoms.
  • Form part of and provide political support to terrorist organizations with the intention of aiding them to subvert constitutional order or seriously threaten the peace; intending to subject public authorities, specific individuals or parts of society, or society as a whole to a climate of terror; or contributing to the amplification of the effects of acts of terror the fear and intimidation they cause.

However, article 6 of the law states that parties "will align their organization, operation and activity with democratic principles and with the content of the Constitution and the law". And it's this flimsy sentence which the Interior ministry is using to effectively ban the PDC.

It's very clear indeed that the law is aimed at banning political parties which threaten, carry out or justify – by their own acts or via proxies – violence or terrorism. Altering the purpose of this law so that it now covers any party which campaigns for radical change, however peacefully, is confirmation of the PP's disturbingly authoritarian attitude to constitutional democracy.

Voting Remain to build a better European Union

The EU is a beast that's difficult to love at the best of times. And these certainly are not its best times. The weakness of its institutions over the last decade has meant that it has found it difficult to deal with a series of crises. But it has not been the abject failure that some would have you think. While I disagree with much of the fiscal policy pushed by the Troika, it must be remembered that the EU managed to prevent a Euro collapse that really was on the cards for a year or two. It's easy to forget now that when the EU faces a serious challenge, it has the pragmatism and determination needed to find a solution. This spirit is what has saved the EU in the past and will help it move forward from its current stasis.

For months, I've been discussing disconnection, alone and with friends. I've been in Catalonia for fourteen years now, and my infrequent trips to England have left me worried about what's happening there. Increasingly, I've felt disconnected from England. I don't understand why there are Union Jacks everywhere, or why cool people I get along with suddenly shriek at me about the country being "full". I don't understand how people close to me can describe the EU as "horrible", while they simultaneously contemplate handing power to people like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove or Nigel Farage. Victory for Brexit will be a victory for nasty right-wing populism – the repetition of old lies and the fabrication of new ones. Look how UKIP supporters pushed an ever louder, ever nastier anti-migrant message and then went into overdrive trying to claim that Jo Cox's assassination wasn't political. That party thrives on people's fears, and has managed to poison debate in England in a way I never thought possible. And Brexit will hand Farage a huge amount of political capital.

Not wanting to empower Britain's populist right wing isn't enough of an argument for the EU, though. The other half of this narrative must be logic and fact – the LSE's Nicholas Barr is as good a source as any for a sensible, evidence-based approach to remaining in the EU. How telling it is that some Brexiters are even calling on their countrymen to 'Ignore the numbers!', as though that were somehow a noble way to approach this debate. It isn't: it's the very definition of small-minded ignorance, a quality which exemplifies the Brexit campaign. The numbers are, of course, vitally important. Which is no doubt why we're encouraged to ignore them. "You can prove anything with facts!", as Stewart Lee reminds us. Whether it's trade, security, democracy or the economy, all the evidence and research points to remaining in the EU as the sensible choice.

If Brexit ends up winning on Thursday, the sky will not fall. But things will change. Britain's democracy will have been dealt a major blow by arguably the most dishonest and hate-filled political campaign in our history – certainly since the Blackshirts. Voters will have sided with ignorance and demagoguery. Britain will, for perhaps the first time in its history, take a step backwards and explicitly reject progress and modernity.

This referendum will likely be my last chance to vote in the UK. It's also by far the most important vote I've ever cast. If you have a vote, please use it to vote to keep Britain in the European Union and reject UKIP's vile, populist propaganda. Vote for the hope that Europe represents for so many millions of people, and for the aim that together we can build a better Europe and a better Union. Vote Remain.

Ciudadanos-Cs, the vanguard of cuñadismo

I've struggled in the past to properly describe Ciudadanos' political philosophy. The refer to themselves as 'liberals' (which means something different in just about every country where it's used). It's true that they lack far-right policies but their spokesmen have expressed some pretty reactionary attitudes at times. And while it would be unquestionably wrong to call them fascists, they're certainly good at signalling their values to people who don't think Franco was that bad (something they learned from the PP).

But their latest spot, for next month's elections, has thrown everything into focus. Cs represents, and speaks to, that most Spanish of political philosophies: el cuñadismo.

Because it's Spain's cuñados' votes that the PP and Cs are really fighting for. The guys who come out with lines like "Por qué te quejas? Tú al menos tienes trabajo" or "Mucho protestar y luego bien que tienen iPhones" or "Bueno, esa es tu opinión". Cuñadismo has finally been captured in a video clip so perfect, it almost hurts to watch.

And I'm not the only one who thinks so.

The decline and fall of the PSC

From a high in 1999, where it won 38% of the vote in Catalan parliamentary elections, the PSC is now at an all time low. While it's easy to blame this problem on meddling from Madrid, the decline of the PSC is intrinsically linked to its abandonment of basic principles which it defended at the height of its success – most importantly the right of Catalans to decide their future democratically.

Under Carme Chacón's stewardship (from what I understand she remains the most powerful figure in the PSC), numerous mistakes have been made:

  • Chacón has used the PSC as a tool to try to obtain personal power at state level. This is evidenced by her adoption of a patently dishonest discourse regarding the question of Catalan separatism, aimed not at securing the PSC's position but at boosting Chacón's own chances of leading a PSOE still dominated by anti-separatist sentiment (see José Bono, Susana Díaz).
  • Chacón's leadership has also boosted the right wing of the party, and left it without a true social-democratic focus (in line with the PSOE as a whole).
  • Her powerful position in the PSC has helped to ensure the appointment of a series of weak and ineffectual leaders in Barcelona, particularly Pere Navarro and Miquel Iceta, who have been totally unable to run the PSC on their own terms. This has further weakened the party when faced by more dynamic party leaders like Mas, Junqueras, Rivera and more recently, Colau.
  • The PSC's adoption of an anti-Catalanist position is at odds with its line under Maragall, who defended not only the independence of the party within the Socialist federation, but also the Catalans' right to decide. This decision was at least in part conditioned by the rise of Cs. Cs is a pseudo-centrist party which has learned one of the best tricks of the PP – know how to speak to the far right, and how to adopt its positions on questions of nationality, language policy, the right to decide, etc – without actually espousing right-wing policies (well, not very often anyway: the mask slips sometimes, like when its leaders say that gay marriage is "problematic" or that male violence against women "doesn't exist"). The PSC's shift in position culminated in its purging the party of anyone with pro-independence views, further boosting ERC and the newer Podem-EnComú.
  • I have a feeling that the PSC's analysis of the rise of Cs is flawed. The PSC seems to think that it can win votes by seeming to be nearly as unionist as Cs. But at the same time, it hasn't been willing to drop its commitment to policies like 'linguistic immersion' (education in Catalan for all), which Cs opposes. This has led to a disjointed position which Cs has found it easy to exploit. It has also led many former PSC voters – a large number of whom supported the new Estatut and, at least nominally, the right to decide, to look elsewhere – ERC, and the CUP have benefited. Every time the PSC takes a step towards Cs in terms of policy, it loses votes. This is an example of a very common mistake in politics: when a political movement seems to be gathering momentum, you can either co-opt it and try to lead it (see: CDC and the separatist movement) or you can oppose it. What you can never do is follow the upstarts (in this case, Cs) and hope to gather a few votes by clinging to their coat tails. It never works.
  • But it has worked for Cs and for their friends in Societat Civil Catalana. Probably the clearest symbol of the PSC's decline is its involvement in SCC, a unionist organization founded by and operated in the tradition of, the unionist far-right. This takes the PSC beyond an accusation of Pasokification. The PSC now regularly shares a platform with SCC – and each time it does, it provides a new coat of democratic makeup to a group founded by the likes of Josep Ramon Bosch and Javier Barraycoa. That SCC is Somatemps 2.0 is well established. For the PSC to share a platform with a group like this shows just how far the PSC has fallen. We end up with situations like the youth PSC of Cerdanyola attacking the CUP over apparently invented accusations of violence on the UAB campus, while defending SCC and their neo-Nazi boot boys.

Now, you wonder how much longer Chacón can continue, given that she has managed to lead the PSC to its worst ever results in both Catalan and Spanish parliamentary elections. When, as predicted, we end up with fresh elections this summer, I'd expect them to be her last chance. The alternative is annihilation.

UPDATE: ah well, there you go. It turns out that the last elections were her last chance. Chacón is out. Maybe she read this. We'll never know.

Those Brexit arguments in full

  1. Get rid of foreigners. Or maybe they'll be allowed to stay. Or some of them. Come back to me on this one.
  2. All new trade deals to replace current trade deals. (TBC).
  3. Nothing will change but everything will be different.
  4. Get rid of pseudo-democratic, opaque government. (Not Westminster, obv).
  5. When Britain leaves the EU, it will be able to impose steel tariffs. We will then find someone to export our steel to.
  6. All else is scaremongering.
  7. Er…

Revisionist history: Catalan under the dictatorship

"I never physically beat anybody and you can see film footage showing me not beating anybody!"
Peter Cook, Why Bother? "Prisoner of War"

Proving a negative can be rather tricky. As we all know, an absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence and so as epistemology shows us, anyone who states that x categorically does (or did) not exist holds the burden of proof.

The legend of how the Catalan language was treated during Franco's dictatorship comes in two forms. The first and more widely subscribed to says that Catalan was effectively outlawed from public life, that people speaking Catalan in reception rooms and shops were often told that they should "Háblame en cristiano!", and that it was only with the death of Franco and restoration of democracy that Catalan could be heard once again in the streets of Catalan towns and villages. The second, more recent version – we may call it a revisionist version because it is most certainly at odds with the first, received version – says that Catalan wasn't repressed during the dictatorship at all. That books were published in Catalan, kids could speak Catalan in the school playground, official business was conducted in Catalan, that the Catalan language was valued and that the received wisdom of the first version was imposed after the restoration of democracy as part of Pujol's infernal nation-building operation.

Proponents of both versions of this history bear the burden of proof, and both versions have some tricky questions that they need to answer. The question for me, as an outsider, is which version has the most convincing evidence.

It is clearly not enough to say simply that Catalan was outlawed during Franco's dictatorship. This must be proven with facts. And there are facts that lend support to that claim. Throughout the dictatorship, but particularly in the early years, laws and regulations were established to reduce the presence of Catalan in public life almost to zero. It was no longer taught in schools. Civil servants were prevented from speaking Catalan at any time (whether in public buildings or not), under pain of instant dismissal. The Civil Governor of Barcelona asked the publishers of a Catalan language magazine "Do you really think we fought the war so that Catalan could return to public use?". Telegrams couldn't be sent in Catalan. A friend of mine was slapped in the face any time he and his friends spoke in Catalan in their Barcelona schoolyard. Kids had to be given Spanish language names (probably the source of the 'Arturo Mas' legend). People were fined for speaking Catalan on the telephone. Streets and squares were renamed in Spanish in every Catalan city, town and village.

But at the same time, other things happened. In the 1960s especially, Catalan culture started to grow in official acceptance. Children's magazines were published in Catalan from 1961. They were even legal from 1968 onwards. Prizes were given for Catalan language books. Radio stations started to broadcast cultural or folkloric programmes in Catalan. Some schools (mainly either for the Catalan alta burgesia, or in distant villages) started to teach some Catalan language classes.

When you look at the evidence, it seems fair to say that in the early years of the dictatorship, there was widespread official repression of practically all use of the Catalan language in public life but that after a couple of decades in power, the regime rowed back somewhat from its initial position. Expression in Catalan never seems to have been wholly free under the dictatorship – but then it wasn't really free in Spanish either. At the same time, there seems to have been a tacit message in the regime's softening position on the language: that you may speak this language by the grace of our goodwill, and only for the purposes of cultural and folkloric expressions.

Of course, Catalan's use never completely died out in the home which is why you'll find plenty of people in their 50s and 60s here who can speak Catalan perfectly but are unable to write in anything but Castilian Spanish. But its absence from schools, particularly in the industrialized areas of Catalonia which welcomed hundreds of thousands of workers from other parts of Spain in the 50s, 60s and 70s, helped to guarantee that Catalan became a minority language and certainly one in decline. Excluding the regional language from the education system and pretty much all mass media left Catalan as a language of shepherds, fishermen, villagers, poets and die-hard patriots. But ideally not factory workers, bank managers or government officials. I can't prove it but I get the feeling that the intention was not to waste any more time repressing Catalan but instead to leave it as a culturally interesting but politically non-threatening rump of a language. Not erased from history but on its way to being left there.

To me, claims that the Catalan language was completely outlawed during the dictatorship are problematic most of all because by failing to recognise that some Catalan was permitted, some of the time, and in limited contexts, they are easily challenged with a handful of books, poetry prizes and posters for the Orfeó Català. Exaggerating the crimes of the dictatorship is wrong, albeit understandable. The revisionist claim, on the other hand, strikes me as more pernicious because it seeks to deny that the language was repressed – an entirely insupportable claim. The facts that the revisionists cling to are facts. But they always remind me of that wonderful Peter Cook line at the top of this post, which was his character's response to being accused of violence against the men under his command. Yes, there is evidence that Catalan wasn't always repressed. That doesn't mean that in general, and certainly in most professional, educational, civil and legal contexts, Catalan wasn't effectively banned through much of the Franco dictatorship.

The revisionists have a place in this story, most of all to remind us that history can never really be black and white and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. But their narrative is wrong because at heart it seeks to diminish the harm done by the dictatorship to the people of Catalonia and the rest of Spain. I don't doubt that now these revisionist myths are established, they will grow and mutate into fascinating new forms. How long before we hear that actually, if it wasn't for Franco, Catalan would have died out? I expect my mysterious friends at Dolça Catalunya are already drafting that one.

And what about Catalan under the 2nd Republic? Now that's another story….

Catalonia and Godwin's law – how Nazi am I?!

Q: Can anyone who has visited the Topography of Terror museum in Berlin seriously compare Catalan civic nationalism with the atrocities of the German NSDAP?

A: Yes I can and you are a Nazi

I admit that this conversation is slightly paraphrased – I can't be bothered to sift through all of Twitter to find the actual tweets, but that's more or less how it went. I think I had a go at someone on Twitter for their constant use of a hashtag like #CatalanesNAZIonalistas or something. To be fair to him, he gave as good as he got and insisted that like me, he had visited the Topography of Terror museum [which, were it about almost any other topic, I'd call 'excellent' but that seems in rather poor taste], in fact he'd been there twice [beating me, you see] and yes, it was definitely a fair comparison. Well, you can't argue with that, can you?

Another conversation I had went something like:

Man: Oh living in Catalonia now is like being at the Nuremberg rallies

Me: But it's obviously not. You can't really mean that.

Man: Yes I do they are the same [I suspect he really did punctuate properly but it this is the way I remember idiots writing]

And maybe they are. For all I know, they are the same. I mean, I wasn't around then. All I have to go on is archival evidence, witness accounts, half a century of scholarship on the subject, hundreds of documentaries and books, and extensive museums like Berlin's Topographie des Terrors. And that's probably not enough. There are only two logical conclusions I can draw from this: either the initial statements are wrong and Catalonia isn't "the same as Nuremberg" or Germany as the Nazis rose to power was a very pleasant place to live – a place in which I'd have thrived. I almost feel cheated.

For my learned friends who have shown me the truth, I only have a few questions before I settle down to life in my new fatherland. When will they burn the parliament down? Are people wearing Barça shirts the equivalent of the Print My Logo UK SA? Why don't they beat more people up? In fact, where are all the beatings?! I was promised beatings! When will the Generalitat burn/quietly sell off all the degenerate art it owns? Why did Mas step down if he's to lead us to the new dawn? Who's the Catalan Julius Streicher? What the hell are they doing allowing people like the CUP to run around, causing mischief? Why can't they get the real Nazis on board? That, for me, is a big one. They should have a quiet meeting with the real Nazis and say "Look guys it's OK, you can stop calling us "Nazis" now: we're real Nazis like you" and then we'd all be on the same team. Also why do they keep inviting the opposition on TV and radio. All the time. I like my totalitarians to be a little more total, dig?

Farewell, Juan Arza. May we never meet again.

It is with great sadness that we announce that Juan Arza, former correspondent on these humble pages, has stepped down as a member of Societat Civil Catalana. Not because he was caught lying. Or because he couldn't argue his way out of a bag. No, it's because as an activist for the PP, the poor chap couldn't stomach SCC's endorsement of a PSOE-Ciutadans coalition in Madrid.

When you think about it, about the only thing sadder and lonelier than being a member of SCC is being a member of the PPC. Bon vent, Juan, i barca nova. Oh and watch out for those seagulls. They can be vicious brutes.

The difference between Spain and Catalonia: a project

It seems to me that the great hope of the Spanish center is now the mutually assured destruction pact that a PP-PSOE coalition would represent. Actually, this is almost certainly the great hope of the PP which wouldn't stand to lose quite as much as the PSOE (whose slogan in the last election was "Let's kick out Rajoy!"). But therein lies a clue to the potential pact: like the CUP in September's Catalan elections, the PSOE hasn't said no to any PP candidate for president. It has said no to Rajoy, which implicitly leaves the door open for an alternative candidate. Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría would appear to be the obvious choice.

So that's one option. The other is a center-left alliance of PSOE and Podemos, which would also need the support of some regional parties to rule. Which would mean the PSOE offering a Catalan referendum, which Sánchez probably couldn't offer even if he wanted to.

I suppose the difference between the Spain and Catalonia situations, vis-à-vis the question of negotiations to form a government, is that the Catalans have the advantage of a seriously big question, a national project, which dominates and blurs party politics. This is, at least in part, intentional. But it's also helpful because in the end, there are enough people who actually believe in that project that it can be used to forge tough political agreements, like the CUP forcing Mas to step aside and then backing one of his proteges for president. Spain has nothing remotely similar on the table. You hear terms like 'constitutional reform' and 'new transition' bandied about but unlike Catalonia, where 48% of voters voted for unambiguously pro-independence parties, the 4 main parties at Spain level don't have a coherent vision of the nation to offer voters. Even the upstarts – Podemos and Cs – have been unable to explain to voters what Spain looks like in their vision of the future. This is either because they don't really know or don't really care… I suspect it's a mixture of the two, personally.

In the end, say what you will about the independence process and its putative ephemerality, at least it's a project. Spain has yet to come up with something similar and the best options for change – Podemos and Cs – don't have the support. So it's Soraya for president and continuity, or new elections with nothing any clearer.