Polarised dogmas hinder resolution of Catalan conflict

Spanish authoritarian legacy and political shadow over judiciary are blocks to accord

There are two particularly troubling aspects to the ongoing crisis in Spain over the status of Catalonia.

The first is the re-emergence of what the Spanish call pensamiento único, or monolithic thinking, throughout the Madrid media. You can hardly find a single voice, with the very honourable exception of Iñaki Gabilondo’s video commentaries in El Pais, that demurs from the sole acceptable political line: the only cause of the crisis is the refusal by ornery Catalans to accept the constitution and the rule of law.

A similar media orthodoxy ruled for many years regarding the Basque conflict. The circumstances today in Catalonia are, mercifully, very different.

But the effect is the same: a blocking of the kind of open discourse that might resolve the conflict. Instead, messy and plural complexities are repeatedly reduced in Madrid to a comforting binary simplicity that Orwell might have appreciated: “Constitution good, Catalan nationalism bad.”


The second disturbing feature is a similarly dogmatic narrative on the other side of the divide, manifested in wild charges about a “return to dictatorship”. These are made both by the Catalan nationalist leadership and some of the new Spanish left, grouped within Podemos. There have been claims, for example, that “Spain has become a concentration camp”, because Catalan nationalist leaders have been jailed pending the hearing of (undoubtedly contentious) charges of sedition for organising the recent independence referendum.

Francoist influence

Ironically, these ludicrous exaggerations only make it more difficult to discuss a less dramatic but nonetheless significant factor in the current crisis: the persistence of specific Francoist legacies and authoritarian thinking in Spain’s interlinked political and judicial systems.

From both sides, polarised positions reinforce each other, and exclude a whole spectrum of more nuanced analysis.

For example, El Pais, which once stood out from other Madrid papers for the diversity of opinion it carried, recently dropped its excellent columnist, John Carlin. His sin was to write, in the Sunday Times, an article that was out of tune with the chorus of Spanish nationalist views that El Pais now conducts.

Since then, El Pais has run a series of angry pieces, denouncing foreign journalists who publish critiques of Madrid’s handling of the Catalan crisis, especially if they reference the influence of the Francoist past on the present.

These counterblasts rarely engage with the points the foreign correspondents actually make. Instead, they caricature the foreign press as dominated by incurable romantics, who prefer to paint Spain as Ernest Hemingway found it during the civil war than to portray it as it is today.

In a sadly typical outburst, published in English and distributed by at least one Spanish embassy, the distinguished writer Jon Lee Anderson is accused of “deliberately lying, with no qualms he is aware that he is lying and aware of the effect his lies will have, when he writes in the New Yorker that the Civil Guard is a ‘paramilitary’ force”.

Messenger vs elephant

If the author of this attack, Antonio Muñoz Molina, had troubled to consult the Oxford English Dictionary, his outrage might have been assuaged: “paramilitary” is simply the appropriate adjective for a police force, like the Guardia Civil, organised under military discipline.

One cannot avoid the impression that all this anger against the foreign media betrays an extraordinarily over-sensitive blaming of the messenger, simply for pointing to the elephant in the room.

That elephant is the historical fact that Spain’s fascist dictatorship was not overthrown by a revolution, as was Portugal’s, or by military defeat, as were Germany’s and Italy’s. It morphed into a democracy under the tutelage of the dictator’s heirs.

These heirs set strict limits to the scope of the constitution they negotiated with the democratic opposition in 1978, especially regarding the denial of self-determination rights to the Catalans and Basques. Many leaders from the old regime then found a comfortable home in the Partido Popular, which currently governs Spain. It is a democratic party, but its ideology and behaviour is still often conditioned by its origins.

So, while Spanish democracy functions very well in many ways, there is indeed unfinished business with the legacy of the past. This has been evident not only in the PP’s unhelpfully rigid rejection of any change in Catalonia’s status over the last 10 years. It has also manifested itself over a much longer period in the exceptional influence of politics over Spanish judicial decisions.

Hallmark of democracy

The separation of political and judicial powers is a hallmark of democracy. It is probably nowhere perfectly observed, but its breaches in Spain have been flagrant and repeated.

This became particularly evident internationally in 2013 when the European Court of Human Rights ruled against a legal “doctrine” developed by the Spanish courts, which had retrospectively postponed release dates for Eta prisoners beyond their original sentences.

This doctrine violated both the European Convention on Human Rights and the Spanish constitution itself, yet it had been endorsed by Spain’s constitutional court. Coupled with extraordinary statements from government ministers calling for “judicial engineering” and for “constructing new charges” to keep such prisoners in jail after they had served their time, the independence of the Spanish judiciary had clearly been seriously compromised.

This background has a direct bearing on the Catalan crisis. So far, the Catalan nationalist leaders charged with sedition have been treated with due process, though one could argue that the charges against them, and their bail conditions, are exceptionally harsh. But they are not political prisoners, nor are they prisoners of conscience.

But they are accused of politically motivated crimes under a judicial system notorious for political interference. And if they are not treated fairly throughout their trials, their martyr status, already an incendiary element in the conflict, will only be inflamed.

That is surely cause for legitimate concern by all those, including the Spanish media, who value Spanish democracy.