‘We don’t talk about politics here,’ Silvia told me when I visited the village of Espinavessa this summer. ‘We know where everybody stands, so there’s no point.’ We were sitting in the garden of the farmhouse she rents with five friends as a weekend refuge from Barcelona. She didn’t mean the politics of left and right. Her group of weekenders – now in their fifties and sixties – were all on the left. They came of age during the days of Spain’s transition to democracy in the 1970s and 1980s, when politics was a source of constant excitement. It was the issue of independence for Catalonia that they weren’t discussing. So what did they talk about? Mostly food, Silvia said, and visits to the doctor.
The Catalan government announced in June that what it claimed was a ‘binding referendum’ on independence would take place on 1 October. The Spanish constitutional court suspended the referendum and the result of any vote will be considered illegal. Neither side is backing down. As I write, the police are raiding Catalan government offices, confiscating voting cards and arresting separatist politicians. Anyone called up to oversee voting centres will be wondering whether it is illegal to do so, or illegal not to. The majority of those who do manage to find an open, functioning polling station on 1 October will support independence. The polls give those who want to remain Spanish a lead of 8 per cent, but most of them won’t vote. In the ensuing mess, all sides will claim victory, whether political, legal or moral. There may even be an attempt at a declaration of independence, though this would be more theatrical than real. The language used to describe events – ‘traitor’, ‘conquistador’, ‘coup d’état’ – has not displayed what Catalans like to think is one of their chief characteristics: seny, or ‘level-headedness’.
Silvia took me for a walk in the woods. A pot-bellied hare stood upright and stared at us before darting away. Someone had been chopping firewood, which sat in neat piles. Huge bales of hay lined the edge of a field of rust-red soil. Catalans live in a mostly urban, post-industrial society, but their heart lies – like England’s – in the countryside. Farmers here have a hard time making money from their land, some of which lies fallow. Silvia pointed out the long, low outline of the Mare de Déu del Mont hills. ‘That is where Verdaguer wrote Canigó,’ she said.
Romantic poets and writers were cheerleaders for and creators of 19th-century nationalism, in Catalonia as elsewhere. With his epic poem Canigó (1885), which narrates the mythical origins of Catalonia in battles between Christians and Moors in the 11th century, the priest-poet Jacint Verdaguer confirmed his status as the major figure of the Renaixença – a movement that wanted to see the use of Catalan, not Castilian Spanish, in literary works. Verdaguer was fêted by Barcelona’s bourgeoisie, who contributed economic muscle to the nascent nationalist movement. He ended up living in the Palau Moja, overlooking the Ramblas, as chaplain to the marquis of Comillas. There he slipped into madness: he became obsessed with the devil’s march through the city’s working class and conducted exorcisms.
Carles Puigdemont, the regional prime minister (president in Catalan), is the 130th man to run the Generalitat, the body which from the 14th century ran Catalonia under the watchful eye of Spain’s Aragonese or Castilian monarchs. It was suppressed by the invading Bourbons in 1714 and then resurrected by the Republicans in 1932. A pattern of antagonism towards conservatives in the rest of Spain was established when in 1934 the leaders of the Generalitat rebelled against the new right-wing government in Madrid and its president, Lluís Companys, declared Catalonia an independent state within a federal Spain (which didn’t exist). A state of war was declared, troops fired on the 16th-century palace that housed the Generalitat, and three people were killed. Companys was sent to prison and the Generalitat was suspended for two years. After the left took control in Madrid in 1936 Companys was reinstated, but the Civil War broke out soon afterwards and in 1939 he fled to Paris, where he was arrested by the Gestapo and sent home to face a firing squad.
Some still blame Catalonia for provoking the coup that started the Civil War. The new, decentralised democracy that emerged after Franco’s death in 1975 revived the Generalitat and slowly devolved administrative (though not always legislative) powers. As a result, Puigdemont is responsible for health, education (schooling is now in Catalan), culture, the police, the courts and much more for 16 per cent of Spain’s population. Until recently that seemed to satisfy most Catalans, though like people in other wealthy areas many of them wanted their taxes to be spent in their home region rather than propping up poorer places like southern Andalusia. But Catalans are unhappy that Spain’s 17 semi-autonomous regions all have similar powers while the Basques (who keep their tax money) have managed to achieve special status. This concern with identity and recognition unites separatists, creating a coalition of conservatives, progressives and radical anti-capitalists with no common project beyond independence.
Blame for the recent surge in support for independence is often pinned on Spain’s prolonged economic crisis, which began with a burst housing bubble in 2008 and left a quarter of the population out of work. This certainly affected Catalans. Silvia’s career as a publisher of encyclopedias and art books came to an end. After working as a freelance saleswoman, she found an admin job in the court system. Although Catalan is her first language, her generation were taught at school in Castilian and it was only this year that she took her first exam in Catalan. The qualification gives her an advantage over other court employees, and may prove more useful than her law degree.
It wasn’t until 2010 that support for independence showed an increase, jumping to 50 per cent. At first this seemed like a blip; it had been thought that no more than a third of Catalans were in favour. In fact it was a sign of profound change, triggered by the constitutional court judgment that summer which struck out parts of the charter for regional autonomy endorsed at a proper referendum four years earlier. Turnout at that referendum had been low, but now the Catalans felt their views were being ignored. The court challenge had been lodged by the conservative People’s Party (PP), led by Mariano Rajoy. His party gains few votes in Catalonia, but wins many elsewhere by loudly opposing attempts to devolve more powers.
Rajoy is now prime minister, and widely regarded as the single biggest stirrer of separatist sentiment in Catalonia. He has failed to respond to appeals for a legal, state-approved referendum, even though more than 70 per cent of Catalans, including many ‘no’ voters, believe this is the best solution. His obstinacy contributed to the victory of the separatist bloc in the regional elections in September 2015, when it gained a slim parliamentary majority with just 48 per cent of the vote. That is a very fragile platform for radical change, but Rajoy has signally failed to take advantage of the fact that most Catalan voters don’t support independence.
The crucial question is what will happen after the referendum date. The Catalan referendum law suspended by the constitutional court states that a simple majority would be sufficient for a declaration of independence to be made within 48 hours. If that happens, it won’t be taken seriously outside Catalonia. Puigdemont and some of his government may be banned from public office and Madrid might take charge of the regional government. The inevitable outcome, then, will be a legal victory for Rajoy, while the separatists claim a moral one.
It’s hard to say what will happen after that. Support for independence could disappear, as Rajoy hopes. Separatists may embrace seny, and try to win more power gradually. But seny has a counterweight that Catalans call rauxa – an impulsive craziness. The worst scenario of all would see a generation of frustrated young separatists seeking a violent way forward.