In​ 2014 the movie Ocho apellidos vascos broke all records at the Spanish box office. Amaia, a young Basque woman, visits Seville for the first time. Rafa, a local Don Juan who has never left Andalusia, follows her back home, unaccustomed to a woman resisting his advances. A sequel, Ocho apellidos catalanes, appeared the next year, and is set in a small town outside Gerona (Amaia is now going out with a Catalan) whose inhabitants pretend Catalonia has gained independence from the Spanish state in order to please an ageing matriarch. The follow-up was less popular and not so funny, but it does show how quickly the Catalan situation has escalated: the gag in which an aghast Spaniard calls the police because he thinks the town has illegally declared independence has lost all comic appeal. On 1 October the police and civil guard followed Spanish government orders to disrupt voting in the referendum on independence that the Catalan parliament had approved but which Spain’s courts and national parliament had declared illegal.

The complex and frequently contradictory demands generated by the existence of the 17 autonomous regions that comprise the Spanish state are as contentious for locals as they are baffling for foreigners. General Franco saw his attempts to resurrect Spain’s so-called Golden Age as possible only in a unified nation in which regional differences had been reduced to folkloric curiosities. During his reign 22.5 per cent of ministers came from Madrid and only 3.36 per cent from Barcelona – more came from Ferrol, the small Galician shipbuilding town in which the caudillo was born.

In 1973, the Basque separatists ETA assassinated the Spanish prime minister, Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, the only politician who might have been able to prolong the Francoist regime post-Franco. The romanticisation of the Basque terrorist organisation among sectors of the Spanish left is partly a result of their cause, in common with that of the other so-called peripheral nationalisms, being associated with political normalisation. In the final years of the Franco regime and in the period known as the Transition after his death in 1975, nationalist demands were framed in (post-) colonial terms, with pro-independence movements in the Canary Islands even seeking allies in the Pan-African Congress. New dispensations were promised for the regions that had been granted statutes of autonomy during the Second Republic of the early 1930s: the Basque Country, Catalonia and Galicia. King Juan Carlos, Franco’s chosen successor, never tired of saying he aspired to be ‘king of all Spaniards’. On the one hand, this was an attempt to heal the wounds of the Civil War, but on the other, a reaffirmation of a national(ist) project. Autonomy would only go so far.

Spain’s first post-Franco democratic elections were held in 1977, leading to victory by the incumbent prime minister, Adolfo Suárez, who had been appointed by Juan Carlos after Franco’s death, and the Union of the Democratic Centre coalition. Suárez was a reformist who had led the transition to democracy but he was tainted by his association with the Francoist regime, and faced a mighty challenge. Violence by ETA and right-wing paramilitary groups was escalating, and Spain was badly affected by the global recession, which – combined with a tentative break with the protectionism of the Franco administration – resulted in rising unemployment with no effective welfare safety net. The Moncloa Pacts of 1977, agreed by politicians from across the political spectrum as well as trade union representatives, set out a basic economic programme. The pacts effectively acted as a draft for the new Spanish constitution, signed in 1978. This stressed the ‘indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards’ as well as guaranteeing ‘the right to self-government of the nationalities and regions of which it is composed’. This process was easier for the ‘historical nationalities’ of Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia than for the rest. Although the autonomous regions had more powers than they had had under Franco, their jurisdiction stopped far short not only of independence but of federalism, with the regional parliaments arguably having less political autonomy than either the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly.

The actions of ETA and the response of the Spanish state to the terrorist threat in the Basque Country were clearly a far larger threat to democracy than Catalan nationalism during the 1980s and 1990s. Jordi Pujol, president of the Catalan Generalitat between 1980 and 2003, privileged cultural and linguistic freedoms over territorial demands. Generous subsidies to the arts and cultural production kept Catalan artists, intellectuals and the liberal middle classes on side. People often claim that the Catalan language was banned under Franco. This isn’t strictly true. Prizes for Catalan poetry were awarded by a paternalistic state – but the covering letter had to be written in Castilian. The language and people of Catalonia were clearly repressed, but there were other forms of oppression in the Spanish state and some Catalans were complicit with the dictatorial regime. Whenever I’m in Barcelona, I lunch with my friend Rosa Navarro, a professor at the University of Barcelona, who sees things from a different angle. After asking a waiter to address me in Castilian, she told me she associates learning Catalan with a childhood memory from the 1950s: a priest in her native city of Figueres told her she could only take first communion if she learned Catalan, the language of Ramon Llull; if not, she’d have to receive communion alongside the Gypsies in the fields. Spanish-speaking rural migrants who flocked to Barcelona and Bilbao, two centres of industrial production in the 1960s, were looked down on by the indigenous population. In Catalonia, they were referred to disparagingly as xarnegos or charnegos: dogs of one kind or another. The combination of self-interest, conviviality and selective memory that characterised the Transition ensured that few complained when Juan Antonio Samaranch, a Franco supporter who became president of the International Olympic Committee, secured the 1992 games for Barcelona, his hometown.

In 1996, the Spanish right returned to power when José María Aznar and the Partido Popular ousted Felipe González of the Spanish Socialist Party, forming a minority government with the support of Pujol’s Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya. Pujol’s party took advantage of their new-found power to abolish military service in Spain, but when, in 2000, Aznar won an absolute majority he stopped worrying too much about the demands of Catalan nationalists. In 2004 the Socialists returned to power under José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who during his two terms in office was accused of ruining the country in his attempt to grapple with the legacy of dictatorship and his support of a more federalist state. But Zapatero had done little – concretely – to further federalism when he lost the 2011 election to Mariano Rajoy of the Partido Popular, who promised a hard line on separatist and economic questions.

Rajoy, who was born in Galicia, claims to defend the rights of all Spaniards, non-extremist Catalans included. But many in that category are unhappy with a constitution that, thanks to a 19th-century precedent, allows the Basque Country to collect its own taxes – it is the only region in the world from which central government does not collect any tax revenues. Fiscal independence, the relatively low importance of the construction industry to the regional economy and ETA’s announcement of a permanent ceasefire in 2011 have meant that the Basque Country has weathered the financial crisis better than almost anywhere else in Spain. The Catalan parliament, by contrast, has no autonomous tax-raising powers.

Since Pujol resigned from office in 2003 the Generalitat has been largely in the hands of factions who want increased devolution, and the current president, Carles Puigdemont, interpreted the victory of his pro-sovereignty coalition in 2015 as a mandate to hold a referendum on independence. Post-referendum, is Catalonia any more free or democratic? Puigdemont has proclaimed victory, citing a landslide in his favour, although most anti-separatists didn’t vote and the national government stopped many supporters of independence from doing so. The resilient Rajoy, unembarrassed by the violence carried out by the state, makes no attempt to ingratiate himself with voters he knows will not support him. His strategy for dealing with the separatists has been the same as the one he employed with Podemos: to dismiss them as unruly kids. With Podemos this strategy proved surprisingly successful: after inconclusive election results in 2015 and 2016, it looked as though Spaniards were going to have to go to the polls yet again. Rajoy watched from the sidelines before finally re-emerging as the deus ex machina and forming a government. Since 1 October the Partido Popular has been gauging the limits of what the Spanish voting public and the EU will tolerate in the name of stability. A party spokesman warned that Puigdemont could end up in prison like Lluís Companys, the Catalan leader who was imprisoned before the Civil War and then executed in 1940. Senior members of the pro-sovereignty coalition have been arrested for sedition. Rajoy has ignored repeated requests for talks, instead insisting that Puigdemont clarify whether he had or had not declared independence. On 19 October, the deadline set by Madrid, Puigdemont wrote to Rajoy to say that ‘if the government persists in hindering dialogue, and continues with its repression, the Catalan parliament could … proceed to vote on the formal declaration of independence.’ The government responded by stating its intention to trigger Article 155 of the constitution and suspend Catalonia’s autonomous powers.

On 3 October King Felipe VI was filmed in front of a portrait of Carlos III – frequently referred to as Madrid’s greatest mayor for having done so much for the city and who championed the use of Castilian in Barcelona – to denounce the insurrectionists, claiming they had put themselves ‘outside the law’. In Catalonia, people who are against independence – indeed people who merely question the referendum process – have found themselves accused of fascism. One of the most resilient myths of Francoism was that the Spanish predisposition to infighting and chaos required a caudillo. The success of the Transition showed that this was not the case, but a dictatorial ethos has survived in politicians’ refusal to engage with opponents as anything other than enemies to be crushed.

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