Catalan independence protest in Times Square, New York City, 2013. Photo: Wikimedia/Liz Castro Catalan independence protest in Times Square, New York City, 2013. Photo: Wikimedia/Liz Castro

The aftershocks of Franco’s Spain are re-emerging and clashing with 21st-century tensions, notes Chris Bambery 

The Speaker of the UK parliament is in trouble. First, he enraged Tory MPs by ruling out any address to MPs and Peers by Donald Trump during his upcoming state visit, citing the new US President’s sexism and racism. Then he revealed to students that he had voted to remain in the European Union last June.

Tory MPs are now circulating a motion demanding his resignation because he has ceased to be impartial. On Trump they are clearly out of step with the public mood which viewed Theresa May’s rush visit to the White House and her proffering of the state visit with absolute distaste. This turned to anger when shortly after he tried to ban travellers from seven Muslim countries entering the US.

But John Bercow is not the only parliamentary speaker in hot water. The Speaker of the Catalan Parliament, Carme Forcadell, faces a prosecution in the regional Constitutional Court, brought by the right wing Spanish government. Her crime? Simply for allowing a debate on Catalan independence after being requested to do so by a majority of representatives.

On the simple level of democracy this is outrageous. Polls show 80 percent of the population of Catalonia support holding a referendum on independence from Spain.

Notwithstanding this, the Spanish state has brought some 400 cases against local councillors and mayors in Catalonia for supposedly breaching the Spanish state’s constitution. The most high profile case after Carme Forcadell’s is the trial of the former Catalan president, Artur Mas, and two of his cabinet colleagues for allowing a non-binding referendum on independence to go ahead three years ago.


Catalonia has devolved powers, like Scotland, but many resent the controls the Spanish government in Madrid still enjoys over the economy, foreign policy and much more.

The Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, leads the right wing Popular Party (PP). The main component of PP was the Popular Alliance founded in 1976 by Manuel Fraga, a year after the death of the dictator, General Franco. Francisco Franco, the butcher who had led the 1936 rebellion against a centre left government, won the subsequent civil war, unleashing terror against the left, nationalists and the working class, and ruling in a totalitarian state until his death in 1975.

Fraga had been interior minister in Franco’s government and after his death championed a protracted transition from dictatorship. Voters looked at the number of Francoists in his new party and gave it the cold shoulder. He was also out of step with the rest of the Spanish and European ruling class.

The dying days of the Franco regime had seen growing working class unrest and guerrilla war waged by Basque nationalists. The fear was that if the dictatorship was not dismantled quickly then the working class would take to the streets.  


The key to this was winning the powerful Communist Party, which had led the internal fight against the Franco regime, to seeing parliamentary democracy as the limit to what change could be achieved. That they did. A former Francoist minister was installed as prime minister heading a new Christian Democrat party and King Juan Carlos was installed as head of state. There was no question of purging Franco supporters from the military, police or judiciary.

The Christian Democrats eventually fell apart and Fraga’s Popular Alliance picked up the pieces, rebranding itself as the People’s Party. With the Socialist Party in office it benefitted from disillusion with its inability to bring change and its growing corruption, and by ousting Fraga to present a more moderate image.

But the Spanish elite faced another challenge, bequeathed from Franco. After his victory in the Civil War he had crushed the autonomy the Basque Country and Catalonia had enjoyed, going further to try and eradicate their language and culture.

Franco banned the use of Catalan names so that Castilian equivalents had to be used, religious services had to be in Castilian, and it was the only language allowed to be used in public. Schools were banned from teaching Catalan. The sardanes, a traditional Catalan dance, were also banned. Names of streets that were in Catalan were changed to a Castilian name.

One Catalan I know remembers a policeman intervening to stop the family speaking Catalan in the street.


Such hatred of Catalonia reflected the fact that Barcelona had been the centre of working class insurgency in Spain. 1917 saw a successful general strike and the anarcho-syndicalist union CNT had a mass base there. In 1936 when the military rose against the centre left government the workers took over the city and its workplaces. George Orwell famously described the city where “workers were in the saddle” in ‘Homage to Catalonia’. The Madrid government would break this movement using Communist led units, and effectively remove control also from the Catalan government. The demoralisation that ensued ensure the fall of Catalonia in 1938. Franco was quick to unleash repression.

Lleida (Lérida in Castilian) was the first Catalan city to be taken by Franco’s forces. Two days later the right wing government scrapped the Catalan statue of Autonomy. Ten days after its capture the new governor of Lleida issued a proclamation which talked of the “separatist yoke” and “the crime of separatism”, and finished up with “Long live Spanish Lérida!”, preceded by “¡Arriba España!” and followed by “¡Viva el Generalísimo Franco!”.

After Barcelona fell, over 1,600 executions took place in the open air at the Camp de la Bota in the Poble Nou district. All told between 10,000 and 11,000 people were executed in the wake of the fall of Catalonia.

When France fell in June 1940 the former president of Catalonia, Lluís Companys was arrested by the Gestapo and handed over to the regime in Spain. He was executed in Barcelona.

Some 146,000 people were hauled before military tribunals, often charged with armed rebellion, the vast majority being sent to 13 concentration camps built across Catalonia.

The centre of opposition to Franco in his final years had been in both the Basque Country and Catalonia. In the former a powerful guerrilla force emerged, ETA, who in 1973 blew Franco’s designated successor, Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, sky high. Barcelona and its industrial suburbs had been the centre of key strikes which rocked the regime in its final years.


Devolution plus scrapping restrictions on the language were the minimum demands the Catalans and Basques would accept. What the new democratic Spain came up with was by devolving limited power to all regions, putting the Basque Country and Catalonia on the same footing as Andalucía or Extremadura which suffered as did everyone under Franco, but had not suffered compound national oppression on top of that. It was an attempt to isolate the struggle in the Basque Country for independence by saying they were not satisfied with what everyone else had.

Despite all this the Spanish state has not succeeded in isolating pro-independence sentiment, particularly in Catalonia, where the recession which rocked Spain following the 2008 financial crash, and the drastic austerity measures ordered by the European Commission and European Central Bank fuelled support for a break away. Corruption in Madrid fed into that.

Catalonia is not the poorest part of Spain, indeed it is the richest. Yet given its recent treatment under Franco and the recent collapse of the Spanish economy its right to self-determination must be supported. We have no interest in maintaining the unity of the Spanish state.

Attempts to suppress the drive to independence by Madrid should also be opposed. The Rajoy government is fragile but right wing. While it would be wrong to describe it as Francoist it has opposed every attempt to come to terms with the legacy of the Civil War and the vicious repression which followed.

The current Catalan government is a coalition of the broadly centre left and centre right but it is pressing for the right to hold an independence referendum. That is backed by a broad citizen’s movement within which the radical pro-independence left plays a role.

What we are seeing in Europe is the re-emergence of old fault lines, as well as new ones. The national question is emerging to the fore in both Scotland and Catalonia. It will be interesting to see how the European Union deals with this. Rajoy made it clear during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum he’d oppose an independent Scotland being in the EU. Democracy clearly has limits for him but that is what the Catalans are asking for, democracy.

They should get it.

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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