Book Review – Catalonia Reborn

Chris Bambery and George Kerevan, Catalonia Reborn; How Catalonia Took on the Corrupt Spanish State and the Legacy of Franco, 2018, Luath, £12.99, 9781912147380

Reviewed by Bill Bonnar.

This recently published work is a welcome account of the current struggle for Catalan independence. Most relevant are the first chapter, Birth of a Republic, and the last four chapters which outline the current struggle. In the middle is a journey through Catalan history: interesting but not particularly relevant to the modern case for independence.

The outline of the current state of the independence movement is clear cut. The overwhelming majority, probably in excess of 95% of the native Catalan population, supports independence. This has led to the largest and most successful independence movement in modern European history. Evidence of this has been some of the colossal pro-independence demonstrations in Barcelona in recent years often involving in excess of a million people. However, native Catalans are not a majority in their own country. Spanish policy particularly in the post-war years has been to encourage Catalan emigration while actively promoting Spanish immigration to Catalonia, the aim being to create a Spanish majority in the country and finish the independence issue for good. This means that there are now almost as many Spaniards living in Catalonia as Catalans; many of whom bring a settler mentality; ‘this is our country not yours’. Therefore, for the independence movement to succeed it needs to reach beyond the Catalan population and win non- Catalans to the cause. There is some evidence of success here in recent times.

Of course, this could be a description of the situation twenty or thirty years ago, so what has changed? What additional factor has been brought into play? The book locates this definitively in the financial crash of 2008. This had a devastating effect throughout Spain with the return of mass unemployment, particularly among young people and the implementation of an austerity programme more draconian than that imposed on Britain.

For Catalonia, this impacted in two ways. The people of Catalonia felt the same levels of austerity as suffered elsewhere in Spain, with young people suffering the most. For those supporting independence, the conception arose, largely accurate, that Catalonia’s more developed economy was now subsidising the rest of Spain and its increasingly anti-Catalan government. As one Catalan commentator put it: ‘those Guardia Civil forces who are attacking us during this referendum – we are paying for them’.

The book also deals at length with the very diverse nature of the independence movement. On the one hand, there is a very definite conservative wing which draws much of its support from more rural areas and has strong links with the Catalan bourgeoisie class – independence is well supported by Catalan based small to medium-sized companies. This wing also draws heavily on Catalan cultural traditions and language. On the other hand, there has emerged a more radical wing – often urban based and drawing support from a much younger generation. This wing has been very successful in welding radical social and economic demands to the independence cause, seeing it as a means to an end rather than simply an end in itself. These two wings often differ over strategy with the former much more cautious in its approach.

One weakness of the book is that it does not sufficiently take on board the perspective of the Spanish Government and how this perspective informs its strategy. The Spanish Government’s position is shaped by three factors. First is an absolute principle. It will never willingly concede Catalan independence as its sees Catalonia as an integral part of Spain – part of a process of assimilation and conquest which has shaped modern Spain and forms part of the modern Spanish identity. Second, its tough stand on Catalonia is very popular with large sections of the Spanish population and any attempt to compromise on this issue would certainly result in a serious political backlash. Third, the government will not concede a referendum in Catalonia in the fear that this would fuel a similar demand in the Basque Country; a referendum which the Spanish Government would have no confidence in winning.

The book concludes by looking at the future. The independence movement is stronger than ever although divided over how to proceed. While the tough actions during the referendum inflamed much of that movement, it also left other sections severely shaken and highly reluctant to go down that road again. Keeping this movement united will be a challenge. And although there has been a change in government in Madrid the fundamental approach of the Spanish Government will be the same. In fact, there is evidence that this strategy is now as much about reversing the current constitutional settlement established in the immediate post-Franco years and returning to direct rule. The recent move to undermine the status of the Catalan language is an example of this. The main problem with the book – and this cannot be helped – is that it comes out in the middle of an unfolding drama. The situation in Catalonia changes from month to month. As such it is a welcome commentary on current events and should be read by everyone following this moment in history.

Bill Bonnar is a founding member of the Scottish Socialist Party and serves on the Scottish Left Review editorial committee.