In the UK, it’s been hard to escape the feeling that our current political stalemate is totally unique to us. Yes, we might not be immune to President Trump’s Twitter sideshow or the horrors of Syrian civil war, but we’re somehow different. A mature Western democracy with superpower status a mere century ago is tearing itself apart.
Since it happens to be ours, we might allow ourselves to be self-indulgent and think that this experience is ours and ours alone. Weary British eyes looking for schadenfreude needn’t look further than across the Bay of Biscay.
A battle for Spain, brewing over decades, has arrived. Its relatively young democracy had been remarkably stable since its establishment in 1978. It had survived a coup in 1981, ETA’s violent attacks over much of Spain’s democratic history, and had largely kept a lid on the forces of unrest that had caused so much strife during the twentieth century.
In the last decade, however, Pandora’s Box has well and truly been opened: Catalan separatists and the far-right Francoist sympathisers have taken Spanish society to the point of indefinite identity crisis.
Indeed, the far-right and the Catalan separatists exist currently in a sort of symbiotic relationship whose behaviour seems governed by those of the other. In the wake of the Catalan independent-supporting government’s running of the illegal referendum in October 2017, the far-right finally unveiled itself in the guise of the Vox party to defend the Francoist ideals of the uncompromising Spanish unitary state.
Similarly, as far-right (supported by centre-right) forces are on the march to demand an uncompromising government position in Madrid, Catalan separatists remain resolutely in favour of fulfilling the referendum result, regardless of its validity.
This can be seen in the words of Catalan president Quim Torra calling for Catalans to “take to the streets and squares”. “If we’re not yet free”, he said, “it’s because we haven’t yet reached the end of the path”. Catalonia’s experience of brutal repression under Franco also brings them into direct conflict with Vox.
These fights over constitutional sovereignty take place in a void of reconciliation that has been left by the “Pact of Forgetting”. This agreement by the Spanish establishment was made to avoid directly tackling thorny issues related to General Franco’s legacy.
At the time, this was in place of a full ‘amnesty’ that would have forced reconciliation between repressers and repressed. This compromise allowed politicians to get on with redemocratisation.
This created a society rife with contradiction and vagueness. In Valencia, the former capital of the fleeing Republican government during the Civil War, there are neighbouring streets that honour both republican and nationalist heroes.
Even in spite of a 2007 law that removed the glorification of Francoist symbols and awarded compensation to political victims of the dictatorship, the pact still has sway over current Spanish society. This ranges from the everyday, as in the translation and production of classic literature, to the political monster of the continuing drama over the exhumation of Franco’s remains.
Currently, they lie in a mausoleum built by republican prisoners of war under an enormous cross that symbolises one of the largest mass war graves in Europe. The Socialists see this as glorification of Franco’s regime. Vox, for its part, wants to repeal that law for its ‘distorting’ of history. It also rejects Franco’s exhumation, worrying that these same forces drove spiralling extremism in the 1930s.
It is inside this void in which the constitutional make-up of Spain is also up for debate. Can a country offer an adequate amount of representation when it purports to be both one nation and a nation of potentially many nations?
Where this remains unanswered, Catalan separatists and Vox supporters alike are able to provide their own answers to that problem that finds credence amongst core supporters. The establishment isn’t without its own answer, of course.
Catalonia, according to the official government line, is ‘indissolubly’ linked to Spain according to the 1978 constitution. There is, therefore, no legal basis for Catalonia to seek independence without constitutional amendments.
But just because constitutionally Catalonia is strictly a ‘nation’ inside Spain, that does not mean that others realities and ideologies reflect this. Nor does it mean that it is simply a Catalan issue, as Vox’s Francoist unitary state makes abundantly clear.
Instead, this is a matter of nailing down the fundamental tenets of Spain as a project of nationhood. The difficulty is that, like in the UK, legal realities struggle to square with feelings and culture.
What’s more, many Spaniards see neither the Catalan government nor the central government as completely in the right. Amongst these competing perspectives, the lack of acceptance over what constitutes fair representation in modern post-Franco Spain allows a diverse range of answers.
This is a question of nationhood and citizenship: what exactly each citizen, each town, and each region should be able to get out of the project, and what exactly they should have to invest in return. It is finding common values and shared experiences. A streamlined, Castilian Spain is out of the question; so too, unless the rest of Spain consents, is a legal way to statehood for Catalonia.
Compromise must, therefore, be considered the highest virtue in gaining closure on the Catalan Question, at least temporarily. How can Catalonia feel less taken for granted for its comparative economic power? How can Madrid, and, by the same token, Spanish unionists, feel more secure in the unity of Spain in spite of the diversity of conceptions of nationhood? How can either of these square with Franco’s legacy of regional repression, and can this be dealt with publicly and inclusively?
They could decide to ignore these questions and end up like the UK: a once outwardly strong, pragmatic nation in the grip of a full-blown public identity crisis of its own making. The project of the UK is salvageable, if politicians and voters of all stripes made that a priority.
However, politicking, ignorance, and anger colour the perspectives of representatives and voters alike, and make the chance of national reconciliation remote. The view from across the Bay of Biscay should be sympathetic, but determined to avoid a similar fate.
Author: Lewis Boulton
Lewis is a Masters student reading International Relations and the University of Bath. He specialises in commentary on British and foreign affairs.