Monthly Archives: May 2006

Nationalism and Catalonia (Part I)

Nationalism plays a major part in Spanish politics. In the press, both here and abroad, nationalism in Spain nearly always refers to Basque or Catalan separatist movements. Doubtless this focus is due partly to the violent campaign waged by armed Basque group ETA; and partly because perceived nationalism amongst minorities makes a shriller sound than the deep underlying drone of majority nationalism.

This majority nationalism – Spanish nationalism – is probably the single strongest political force in Spain today. Nearly half of all voters here can be accurately described as at least sympathetic to the Spanish nationalist agenda – that is: cetralised power in Madrid, no further autonomy for the regions, Spain is one nation: indivisible.

Opposition leader, Mariano Rajoy recently travelled around Spain collecting signatures of people who wanted a Spain-wide referendum on whether Catalonia should be allowed to claim more rights of self-governance. He managed to collect 4.5 million names. Putting aside for the moment more general criticisms of Rajoy’s politics, this is clearly a large number of people. Considering that there must have been many who would have signed had they had the opportunity to, or if they’d been pressed to, we can see that Rajoy’s petition – while not ‘the single largest political movement in democratic Spain’ as some right-wingers claimed – had the support of wide swathes of the Spanish population.

While the focus here in Catalonia is always on the two major Catalanista parties (ERC and CiU) and one increasingly Catalanista bloc (PSC), little time seems to be spent considering the reasons behind the growth of the separatist movement. As Giles Tremlett ably points out in Ghosts of Spain, almost anyone you ask about the issue has trenchant views on the debate. Whether in favour of independence, against independence, or sick of the entire question (this counts for a lot of people), Catalonia and Catalan independentism are seriously hot potatoes.

I reckon that the key arguments behind Catalan independentism are actually not nationalist, per se. Of course, political parties who are ostensibly in favour of greater autonomy often use nationalist rhetoric to win votes. To a greater degree though, the ‘nationalist’ tag is usually applied by opponents of the movement, often by the same people who can be accurately described as Spanish nationalists. The main arguments I hear over and over again are historical (some Catalans still feel that their land is occupied by the Spanish), left-wing (Catalonia has developed a rare breed of business-savvy socialism which doesn’t marry at all well with the aims of certain Spanish political parties), and a sense of difference, so difficult to describe that I’m going to have to come back to it at a later date.

All nationalism is stupid, more or less.
More next week…


On a related note, just a couple of thoughts about politicians. Of course they’re all there to gain power for themselves, to some degree. But this doesn’t mean that none of them  have any values. It seems that if we dismiss all politicans as liars, all parties as morally bankrupt and all political philosophy as bunkum then not only do we damn the population as stupid (which I find an abhorrent attitude), but also we end up with politicians and parties who fulfill our worst expectations.

Those horrid Catalans

Whenever the topic of Catalan devolution is argued about, at least one person will draw attention to the ‘fact’ that Catalans are rude and horrible people. The argument, though it has absolutely no bearing on the topic of devolution, is fallacious, and is employed as a tactic to make the debate about the conduct of Catalans rather than the fact of their desire for further devolution from Spain.

The classic form of this argument is: “Why should I have to speak in Catalan when I know they speak Spanish?“. This is generally asked by foreign visitors to Barcelona who have allegedly undergone awful treatment at the hands of vicious Catalan waiters, shop-keepers and officials all intent on making their lives a misery.

My first response to the question is that it’s just good manners to make an effort to connect with people when you come to their country. If I have dinner at a house where they say grace before eating, I don’t just sit on the sofa with the TV on waiting for them to finish. I’ll go along with it, bow my head and say Amen with the rest of them. Similarly, in Catalonia, I’ll make an effort to say just a few words in Catalan: of course people here speak Spanish, but a lot of them speak English too and would we really expect them to deal with us only in the language most convenient to ourselves? This smacks of a huge double-standard. Is it really the Catalans who are obstructing communication? Or is it the people who refuse to make any effort whatsoever to use the local language?

My second argument is much simpler: this never happens anyway. Catalans do not refuse to speak in Spanish to people. This is a lie which is bandied about by people who’ve had some sort of bad experience here. How can I make this claim, I hear you ask? Simple: I’ve lived here for four years. In this time, I’ve visited numerous (hundreds) of bars, restaurants, night clubs, shops, bakeries, offices of the state and businesses. From Cadaques to the Ebre, from Vic and Lleida to Sort and Tarragona, I’ve travelled all around this country and not once have I experienced this alleged rudeness. I’ve probably had contact with thousands of Catalans and not a single one has ever treated me in this way.

Indeed, my experiences suggest that the true situation is the opposite of what the original question suggests: I have found that if I’m talking with a Catalan and trying to get by in Catalan, they will invariably switch to Spanish or English to make things easier for me. This can be very frustrating when you’re trying to learn Catalan, but it’s done out of courtesy and kindness rather than any malicious intent.

Why is it then that my experiences with Catalans and language seem so totally contradictory to those of the complainers? I can only assume that the extent of this rudeness and bad behaviour is grossly exagerrated by people who have a fixed anti-Catalan agenda.