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  • Published in Analysis
Flag bearer on Catalan National Day. Photo: Wikimedia

Flag bearer on Catalan National Day. Photo: Wikimedia

The response of the Spanish state to the independence referendum in Catalonia is the most recent expression of a history of brutality

What is wrong with Spain? The effective scrapping of Catalonia’s autonomous status by the Spanish state is the most serious attack on democracy in Western Europe for decades. Yet there is nothing said about this by the European Union, of which Spain is a member, or by European governments. There has also long been silence over the fact that there is a very serious democratic deficit in Spain and unless you grasp that you cannot understand why the government of Mariano Rajoy is behaving in such a heavy-handed way.

There are problems with the democracy citizens enjoy in every state, as neo-liberalism attempts to restrict whatever say we have. But there is something rather deeper than that in Spain. Take the issue of corruption. Again this is evident in every state but in Spain, it has reached new heights. The son in law of King Juan Carlos was found guilty of corruption, though the court allowed him to evade prison, and his wife was also caught up in the case, forcing Juan Carlos to abdicate. Rajoy himself recently had to give evidence in a corruption case which senior figures in the ruling Popular Party awarded construction contracts in return for underhand donations to the party.

Corruption has deep roots in the Spanish state. When the franchise was extended too much of the male population in the late 19thcentury rural grandees ensured they badgered and bribed their numerous tenants into voting for the man of their choice. Civil servants were notorious for padding out their earnings by accepting bribes. But corruption reached new peaks under the dictatorship of General Francesco Franco following his victory in the Spanish Civil War. Not only did his family become immensely reach but he used corruption as a means of control over his ministers.

That was an inheritance passed onto the new Spanish democracy which came into being after his death in 1975, because the institutions of the Francoist state, along with its practices, were allowed to remain intact.

Opposition to corruption has in recent years erupted onto the streets, feeding the rise of the radical left Podemos, and it is a factor in fuelling the drive to independence in Catalonia. Corruption is certainly not absent there but in large part, it is the contamination which has spread from Madrid.

Spain’s human rights record is also a cause of concern. Earlier this year Amnesty International reported:

The offence of “glorifying terrorism” continued to be used to prosecute people peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression. New cases of torture and other ill-treatment, excessive use of force and collective expulsions by police officials were reported… 

“Throughout the year, unwarranted restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, information and assembly were imposed, on the basis of the 2015 legislative amendments to the Law on Public Security and the Criminal Code…

That flows from the ruthless campaign by the Spanish state to suppress the Basque nationalist guerrillas of ETA. You don’t have to support, condone or justify ETA to be concerned about a state that in the 1980s used death squads to take out supposed ETA members, torture was a regular occurrence and still is, radical Basque parties were banned, despite winning seats in the Basque parliament, and journalists prosecuted.

A battery of special laws was passed which have been used against all sorts of critics of the Spanish government.

In addition now that ETA has followed the example of the IRA in declaring a permanent ceasefire and destroying its weapons under the eyes of international observers, the Rajoy government will still not release Basque political prisoners let alone enter negotiations. If Rajoy had been in charge of the Northern Ireland peace deal there would have been no Good Friday Agreement.

It is in Spain’s relations with the Basque Country and Catalonia we come to the nub of what is wrong with Spanish democracy.

The Spanish state is a Castilian state. Castile is the biggest region of Spain, centred on Madrid. The kingdom of Castile waged a long war to conquer Muslim Spain taking control of the south of the country. It was a state based on absolute royal power, permanently at war and whose ideology was that of the Catholic Church. 

The marriage of Isabella, who would become Queen of Castile, and Ferdinand, King of Aragon, which contained Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia, created one crown which ruled all of Spain but Catalonia continued to administer its own affairs.

Isabella and Ferdinand presided over the final destruction of Muslim Spain, immediately followed by a royal law saying Muslims and Jews must convert or emigrate. Those who did were under the thumb of the Spanish Inquisition and eventually, they too were expelled. This might seem a remote piece of history but it created a Castilian, Catholic state ideology which carries on down today into the Popular Party. 

The elimination of Muslim Spain was followed by the conquest of Americas, at horrendous cost to the indigenous peoples, and a flow of wealth across the Atlantic to ensure Spain was, in the 16thcentury, the most powerful state in Western Europe.

In the subsequent long, long years of Spain’s decline the importance of Spain’s Siglo de Oro, Golden Age, assumed great importance for the Spanish monarchy and state. But this was very much a Castilian ideology. Catalonia was barred from trading with the Americas until the late 18thcentury.

In 1715 Catalonia was conquered by the Spanish King Philip V who abolished its self-government and tried to crush the Catalan language. The Catalans had chosen the losing side in the War of Spanish Succession, fought between Spain and France, who favoured Philip’s accession to the Spanish throne (he was a French prince), and Britain, Holland and Austria, who preferred an Austrian heir (and feared a union between France and Spain). Britain promised support for Catalan independence if they rebelled and then having been given Gibraltar by Spain dumped the Catalans who fought on alone and went down to defeat.

Philip looked towards creating a centralised Spanish state, based on his native France, but his successors were too weak to emulate that example or to modernise Spain. Catalonia meanwhile, eventually allowed access to both the Spanish and American markets took off industrially, its cotton mills leading to it being compared to Manchester.

Throughout the 19thcentury the Catalan bourgeoisie saw its task as not leaving Spain but to lead it but found they were denied any real say in how it was run. Except for a brief Spanish Republic in the 1870s, ushered in by an army coup and ushered out again by another, there has never been a Catalan prime minister of Spain. They had to watch as the Spanish state was unable to stop its American colonies winning independence at the beginning of that century and then Cuba doing the same at the end – the latter was economically very important to the Catalan industrialists and financiers.

A Catalan cultural renaissance was followed by the Catalan bourgeoisie deciding to push for greater autonomy within Spain. But their frustration with the Spanish state was overcome by their dependence on it to periodically crush the Barcelona working class, one of the most rebellious in Europe.

In the course of the 20thcentury Spain experienced two dictatorships. One in the 1920s sought to crush Catalanism and the left but failed. That failure led to the fall in turn of the monarchy, which had championed it, the creation of a Republic and then finally a military rebellion against it following the election of a left-wing Popular Front government in 1936. It had promised autonomy to Catalonia and the Basque country which infuriated the officer corps who saw themselves as guardian of the unity of Spain.

In the Spanish Civil War, Franco fought a war not just to achieve military victory but to destroy the left, liberalism and Catalan and Basque nationalism. His victory was followed by fierce repression. In Catalonia, its autonomy was abolished and the language was banned from public use along with Catalan Christian names, books and publications.

The ideology of the state was Catholic and Castilian. Catalans were told they were “dogs” who must speak the “language of Empire.” 

As Franco neared his eventual death in 1975 the issue was how Spain would be ruled after his life support machine was eventually switched off. His cronies wanted to ensure the regime would live on and wanted to use repression against mounting opposition, they were known as The Bunker. Others wanted to modernise the state and economy.

After Franco died the dictatorship staggered on for nearly a year, but 1976 saw a growing strike wave and huge demonstrations, not least in Catalonia. Both Spanish and multinational capital wanted to halt this unrest and now wanted a quick transition to parliamentary democracy. The Spanish economy was in trouble too and a reformist Francoist, rebranded a Christian Democrat, formed a new government under King Juan Carlos, Franco’s designated heir.

Until then the main opposition forces, The Socialists and Communists, had championed a democratic rupture. Now they were offered a ruptura pactada, an agreed change. The carrot was legalisation and early elections. They jumped at it.

A law was passed forgiven all political crimes during the Franco years, an amnesty for his torturers and executioners. The main parties agreed a Pact of Forgiveness which supposedly confined the Civil War to the past. Above all there no attempt to remove Franco’s generals, judges, police chiefs and civil servants.

A series of meetings between the parties in smoke-filled rooms (they were smoke filled in the 1970s) agreed the current Spanish constitution. The Socialists and Communists had previously supported Catalan and Basque self-determination. Now the new constitution stated:

The Constitution is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, common and indivisible fatherland (patria) of all Spaniards.

It went on to say:

Castilian is the official language of the State. All Spaniards have the duty to know it and the right to use it. The other Spanish languages will also be official in their respective Autonomous Communities according to their own Statutes. The richness of the distinct linguistic modalities of Spain represents a patrimony which will be the object of special respect and protection.

The Basques and Catalans had been to the fore opposing Franco and could not be denied autonomy but it was heavily circumscribed. In the referendum on the new constitution, people were told they had to vote for it to guarantee democracy and to achieve autonomy. No one said that it was set in stone and could not be altered, as the Rajoy government does now.

An attempted military coup in 1981, largely sparked by fears the Spanish state was breaking up, seemed almost a comic affair to outside observers, but it clearly acted as a marker to the main Spanish parties, who began to reign in Catalan autonomy in particular.

One way was to grant similar autonomous status to all Spanish regions, regions that spoke Spanish and had no national aspirations. That was designed to submerge Catalan and Basque nationalism.

When the Socialist Government of Felipe Gonzalez was elected in 1982, staying in office for 14 years, its repressive record in the Basque Country was appalling as it strived to show its Spanish nationalist credentials. Eventually, the sheer scale of corruption and its Blairite love of neo-liberalism brought its defeat as its supporters could no longer vote for it.

One of Gonzalez’s achievements was to use state funds to build up the infrastructure of Madrid, a policy which has continued ever since. 

The winners of the 1996 election, the Popular Party, had been formed after Franco’s death by his former Interior Minister, Manuel Fraga. It was not Francoist but it was rooted in the Franco years. It intensified repression in the Basque Country and would preside over one of the most incredible events in any supposed democracy. 

In March 2004 as Spain approached general election 10 bombs on Madrid commuter trains killed 191 people. The PP government was quick to blame ETA and stuck to that despite mounting evidence they were planted by jihadists. Two days after the killings mass protests erupted as people demanded the truth and realised they were being lied to. The PP lost the election to the Socialists.

The return of the new Socialist government in Madrid coincided with a Socialist-led left coalition which pressed for greater autonomous powers. A new Statute of Autonomy was drawn up but was watered down by the Spanish Parliament. Eventually, the amended document was passed by a referendum in Catalonia.

Ignoring that vote the PP demanded Spain’s constitutional court. In 2010 it eventually did striking out a number of key clauses. It ruled its description of Catalonia as a nation was unacceptable and that word was removed to a preamble with no legal status. It also asserted everyone in Catalonia had to learn Spanish and its equal status with Catalan.

Since then the same court has ruled against a raft of legislation passed by the Catalan Parliament, at the instigation of the PP, including a ban on bullfighting and its decision to hold Sunday’s independence referendum.

The Rajoy’s government claims that the 1978 constitution cannot be altered and must be respected. But in 2012 the constitution was altered to allow a European Union imposed bailout following the financial crash. The terms of the constitution were ignored when Juan Carlos abdicated and when the PP government gave the Catholic Church control over religious education in schools.

And yet in defence of this constitution, the only one in the world that seemingly cannot be amended, Rajoy has sent in the paramilitary Guardia Civil to stop the Catalan independence referendum. 

The sight of Spanish security forces seizing ballot boxes and ballot papers speaks volumes for Spanish democracy and the Spanish state. It explains why many in Catalonia believe they cannot expect anything from that state and its government.

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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