Paddy Woodworth: Rajoy has played into the hands of Catalan nationalism

Perception of authoritarian government denying gallant small nation right to express itself is widespread

Whatever happens next in Catalonia, the Catalan nationalists' independence referendum campaign had already proved a significant success, from their own point of view, by Sunday afternoon, regardless of the outcome.

This campaign, and especially Spain’s potentially disastrous response to it, has created a widespread perception that neatly reflects the Catalan nationalists’ favoured narrative.

This can be seen both in much international news coverage, and in the ever more defiant mood of many Catalan citizens on the streets. It is becoming common currency worldwide that an authoritarian, even brutal, central government has denied a gallant small nation the right to express itself democratically and peacefully.

Whether this perception is really a success, or a slow-motion car crash, for Catalonia, hitherto a very prosperous and culturally vibrant autonomous region of the Spanish state, is another question entirely.


The Catalan nationalists have had one great advantage throughout their campaign: the chronic incapacity of the Spanish government, rigidly locked into its own version of dogmatic nationalism, to grasp the need for compromise and consensus on complex issues of identity.

The prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, and his deeply conservative Partido Popular (PP), have never been noted for imaginative pragmatism. And Rajoy has responded to every Catalan move towards this referendum with block-headed predictability, perfectly fitting the script set out for him by the Govern in Barcelona.

For sure, there have been multiple legal (and democratic) flaws in the Catalan nationalists’ strategy. Their fissiparous alliance barely won a majority of seats, and only a minority of votes, in the 2015 election to the Catalan parliament.

Yet they called a referendum on independence, a radical step that surely requires much wider support in any society. Next, they side-stepped or violated their own parliamentary procedures in railroading through referendum legislation. Then they defied a series of rulings from the Spanish courts against actually organising it.

All that said, polls repeatedly show that a majority of Catalans do want the right to decide their own future, though only a minority are likely to actually vote for independence. For many Catalans, the issue is simply one of courtesy and respect – if Madrid wants their allegiance, the least Madrid can do is ask for it nicely, not enforce it.

And while self-determination was excluded from Spain’s 1978 constitution, that document is hardly worth setting in stone. It was the product of negotiations between democrats and the heirs of General Francisco Franco’s 40-year dictatorship. Many of the latter morphed into the PP, and the party has never entirely shed that heritage. The constitution was undoubtedly subject to extraordinary pressures from the military and the extreme right.

So it is perfectly possible, and indeed desirable, for a pragmatic democratic government to build a fresh consensus into its state structures, through open-ended discussion on constitutional reform. That is what the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) attempted to do a decade ago, with the support of a parliamentary majority in Madrid.

However, the PP then used the courts to block these reforms, especially where they applied to Catalonia. The PP strategy then, and in government since, shifted many moderate Catalan nationalists towards the radical independence option.

Visceral hostility

The PP's visceral hostility to reforming the structure of Spain has been clearly and disturbingly portrayed by a former PP interior minister, Jaime Mayor Oreja. In an interview with Raphael Minder, New York Times Madrid correspondent, for his timely and useful book, The Struggle for Catalonia, Mayor Oreja said:

“It was easier to combat Basque nationalism when ETA was killing people than to fight groups or politicians who talk about a project of rupture . . . the usage of brutality and violence in fact gives [the authorities] political weapons for fighting back.”

The Catalan movement in its present phase has never used violence. Yet the hostility it attracts in the rest of Spain is a vote-catcher for the PP, just as ETA’s terrorism was in the past. Mayor Oreja’s analysis raises a lot of uncomfortable questions about the PP’s motives in this crisis.

It may explain why Rajoy has allowed Spain to sleep-walk to confrontation with Catalan nationalism, to the extent of arresting officials of the Catalan government and using the police to forcibly close down polling stations. These actions may look like strong government in Madrid, Castile or Galicia, but they look very like anti-democratic repression to many Catalans.

Meanwhile, the real fears and concerns of other Catalan citizens, who celebrate their Catalan identity as much as any nationalist, and often speak Catalan rather than Spanish, but want the region to remain in Spain, have failed to get a proper hearing in Catalonia, Madrid, or the world in general. There has been a harshly intolerant tone to some of the Catalan nationalist rhetoric, and one certain legacy of the campaign is a deeply divided community.

This is a sorry situation, where Black Hats and White Hats are squeezing out all the other colours of the spectrum, and forcing many people to take sides they never wanted to be on.

On Monday morning, the Catalan first minister, Carles Puigdemont, is saying that those who voted "deserve independence", and he appears determined to push a unilateral declaration of independence through the Catalan parliament.

But even the Catalan government’s own figures show that only about 38 per cent of the whole electorate voted for independence. That is hardly a democratic mandate to set up a new state.

Meanwhile, it is to be hoped that Rajoy will, for once, resist making the next predictable counter-move, and implement article 155 of the constitution, taking back to Madrid powers that were devolved to Catalonia in 1980. That would only accelerate the spiral towards lethal conflict.

Spanish nationalists, and Catalan nationalists, have very little time left to step back from the brink.

Paddy Woodworth is a journalist and commentator on Spain