We live in baffling, distressing and very frightening times.
The real and present dangers we face – chronic and deepening inequality, climate and biodiversity crises, intercontinental mass migration, the future of work – are unprecedented. They demand all our focus, intelligence and imagination.
Instead, for much of the world in the last decade, it seems as though a demented Marie Antoinette had declared, to elites and masses alike: "Let them eat flags!"
The resurgence of exclusive and polarising nationalisms has paralysed urgent political debates in many countries. Rival Catalan and Spanish nationalisms are now dominating the upcoming Spanish elections.
Tensions have been exacerbated by the exceptionally severe sentences imposed last Monday on Catalan independence movement leaders by the Madrid supreme court, and the inevitably angry street mobilisations that have followed across Catalonia.
The Spanish case is, at first sight, particularly puzzling. The official narrative of modern, democratic Spain tells us that the ancient, complex conflicts between its diverse peoples have been resolved. Strong regional autonomies are indeed central to the 1978 democratic constitution, negotiated after Gen Franco's 40-year right-wing dictatorship.
It is notable that, unlike the Basques, the Catalans warmly endorsed this constitution, giving it a 95 per cent majority on a high turnout. The Catalans quickly settled into a dynamic and generally positive relationship with Madrid, while enjoying extensive home rule powers under their statute of autonomy. In the Basque Country, however, ETA persisted in a terrorist campaign for independence for several decades.
Meanwhile, militant Spanish nationalism, which had inspired Franco's 'national Catholic' fascist ideology, seemed to have evaporated. The extreme right vanished from Spain's parliamentary spectrum, though it remained quietly influential within the conservative Partido Popular (PP).
One might have imagined that, with the end of ETA in 2011, the Spanish model of a unitary nation state with self-governing regions would come into its own. But that was just when that model began to break down.
Catalan nationalists had always aspired to greater fiscal powers. They also wanted recognition as a ‘nation’, and regarded the term used in the constitution, ‘nationality’, as an insulting fudge.
So they proposed a revised statute of autonomy including these elements, but keeping Catalonia firmly inside Spain. They did this perfectly legally, and with the support of the Spanish Socialist Party. The statute was approved by both the Catalan and Madrid parliaments in 2006.
However, this development inflamed Spanish nationalism within the PP. The conservatives insisted there could be only one nation in the state. They took their case to the constitutional court, which duly castrated the statute in 2010, confirming a troubling tendency towards the judicialisation of politics in Spain. The long Catalan winter of discontent began, with massive demonstrations in favour of total independence.
The whole campaign was an exercise in political theatre, albeit a highly irresponsible one
There had always been a radical pro-independence wing within Catalan nationalism. But the mainstream nationalists had generally been quite content with autonomy. Now the mainstream became more radical than the radicals.
There is a complicating factor here, that Catalan nationalists often fail to mention. The governing Catalan party was at this moment tainted by corruption. Simultaneously it was imposing deeply unpopular austerity measures after the property bubble it had puffed up collapsed. Wrapping itself in the Catalan flag was a useful, if risky, survival mechanism.
The Spanish government, then in the hands of the PP, ignored the dangers of allowing Catalan anger to fester. Talking tough to Catalan nationalism was very popular with its Spanish nationalist voters. Madrid consistently refused to engage in meaningful dialogue with Barcelona.
So the Catalan nationalists broke their own parliamentary rules, and held an independence referendum, declared illegal by Spanish courts, in October 2017. They then made a symbolic, and rather farcical, ‘declaration of independence’.
Madrid responded to this provocative stimulus like one of Pavlov’s dogs, sending in riot police to beat voters out of polling stations. A similar over-reaction, also grist to the mill of the most radical Catalans, is evident in the aggressive prosecution of senior Catalan politicians, and last Monday’s draconian prison sentences for their ‘sedition’.
It is particularly curious that this verdict acknowledges that these politicians never had any real plan to set up an independent republic. The whole campaign was an exercise in political theatre, albeit a highly irresponsible one. The Catalan nationalists were kicking over the table because Madrid was not listening.
Spanish nationalists need to recognise the great damage done by blocking Catalan aspirations when they were expressed impeccably within the law
Why then were such prison sentences necessary? What good will they do, apart from calming, to some extent, the anger of Spanish nationalists, and stanching the flow of votes to resurgent Spanish ultra-nationalist parties in November’s elections? That’s a high price for firing up passions in Catalonia.
This week, the Catalan minister for foreign action, Alfred Bosch, called on these pages for 'dialogue'. So did the Spanish ambassador. But dialogue requires real empathy with the opposing position, and an acknowledgement of one's own failings.
The Catalan nationalists need to recognise the folly of leading their supporters to the gates of independence as a rhetorical gesture, and rein in the tiny but very violent minority that seems intent on burning Barcelona. They also need to seek amends for demonising those fellow Catalans – currently and consistently a majority – who do not dream of independence at all, and for fracturing a once harmonious community.
Spanish nationalists need to recognise the great damage done by blocking Catalan aspirations when they were expressed impeccably within the law, and by then resorting exclusively to the police and the courts when Catalan anger at such obstruction boiled over.
This is asking a lot of both factions. But the alternative is more futile noise and conflict, while the real dangers facing Spain, Catalonia and the rest of the world go unchallenged.
Paddy Woodworth is the author of Dirty War, Clean Hands: ETA, the GAL and Spanish Democracy