On Catalonia, the use and abuse of history

Like all texts which have to accommodate often conflicting interests, the Spanish Constitution is an imperfect text, and 'President Puigdemont clearly steps beyond the bounds of legality' says J. H Elliott

Setting aside a very brief stopover in the Canaries as a young man while emigrating to Australia after having handed over my ten pounds, I first went to Spain in the early 1970s, a few years before the death of Franco, to seek out the ghosts of anarcho-syndicalism in the city of Barcelona.

I will not tax the reader by going into the ideas behind anarcho-syndicalism or share the tortuous road that took me from a card-carrying member of the Communist Party of Australia, involved in some low level activism against the war in Vietnam, to living in a rural commune in a right-wing settlement – a contradiction in terms perhaps – adjacent to the Jordan River in the occupied West Bank. I shall simply say that it was a time of trying out new things and meeting new people. But before I wander off too far from my intended goal let us go back to Barcelona.

Encountering one of the Mediterranean’s most fascinating cities was an energising experience. Trying to stretch out what money I had while learning Spanish, I lived in a windowless room on top of a clinic for sexually-transmitted diseases in the Barrio Chino, at that time still Barcelona’s premier ‘red-light district’. One major source of adrenaline at the time was running ahead of los grises, so named after the colour of their uniforms. They were the policemen belonging to one of Franco’s assortment of police corps entrusted with maintaining ‘public order’ in the main cities as the Franco chapter in Spain’s history was coming to a end.

Despite or perhaps because change was in the air, los grises seemed to be more and more ferocious in their repression of student and worker demonstrations but it was part and parcel of the Barcelona experience to duck and dive as the serried ranks of police came charging behind water cannon. For R&R we headed up the coast to lovely villages on the Costa Brava half boarded up for the winter. It was a simple uncomplicated life where those in my circle knew very clearly who the bad guys were. I do not remember the Catalan question being a subject of debate amongst ‘progressive’ types.

I did not go back to Barcelona for any length of time until a couple of decades later when at a very ‘mature’ age, and after having lived in Britain where I went to university and had a family in that order, I was awarded a Spanish government scholarship to pursue a PhD at the University of Barcelona. In between my two extended stays, Spain had probably lived through more change in a couple of decades than the rest of Europe had experienced in a century and Franco’s dictatorship had given way to one of Europe’s most liberal and plural societies.

If the Spanish Constitution is to change it must do so following the rules that the Catalans, practically more than anyone else in Spain, signed up for

This second time around it was an even more exciting time to be living in the city because it was brimming with activity as it prepared itself to host the Olympics. However,  something else was afoot. Enabled by the very democratic processes which had led to approval of the 1978 Constitution by no less than 95.15% of Catalans, the second-highest approval rating of Spain’s 17 regions, Catalonia together with the Basque Region and Navarre proceeded to attain one of the highest levels of self-government in the world.

But for some this was not enough and the newly-acquired freedoms were increasingly being used to drive a wedge between dyed-in-the-wool ‘Catalanists’ who sought independence and ordinary Catalans.

In a 25 September 2017 letter to The Times, Sir John Elliot, Regius Professor Emeritus of Modern History at the University of Oxford and probably the foremost Hispanist in the Anglo-Saxon world, reacted to letters which had been published in previous days which had called Spain ‘repressive’, ‘intolerant’ and ‘authoritarian’, amongst many other things. He declared that:

“The supporters of independence make much of repressive measures alleged to have been taken by Madrid, but those sympathetic to the holding of a referendum may not be aware of the degree to which the Catalan government has itself for many years been attempting to impose its radical agenda on Catalan society.

“Through its control of the educational system, influence over the media, manipulation of Catalan history for its own purposes, and in some instances, intimidation, it has sought to impress on the population at large its depiction of Catalonia as the victim of malign outside forces.”

J.H. Elliot, the name that those who take an interest in history will probably know him under, knows Catalonia well. His many publications have earned him much recognition including both the Prince of Asturias Award, Spain’s foremost award for contributions to the Humanities, and Catalonia’s own Cross of Saint George, awarded for his considerable contribution to Catalan history. 

Those who support the right to self-determination or independence in the Catalan case seem to conveniently overlook that this right emerged to attend to the needs of peoples subjugated by oppressive colonial powers and has nothing to do with the case of Catalonia, a region of Spain which prospered immensely in the three decades between 1978, when Spain’s constitution was promulgated, and the crisis in 2008.

To quote from J.H. Elliott’s letter once again, “No European state concedes the right of one of its territorial components to secede without following an agreed constitutional process, and the independence project being orchestrated by President Puigdemont clearly steps beyond the bounds of legality in defying the 1978 Spanish Constitution and the Catalan Statute of Autonomy.” 

The Spanish Constitution is an imperfect text, like all texts which have to accommodate often conflicting interests. But it has served the Spanish people, including the Catalans, well. If it is to change it must do so following the rules that the Catalans, practically more than anyone else in Spain, signed up for.  


Professor Carmel Vassallo is head of the Department of Spanish & Latin American Studies at the University of Malta