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Catalan Referendum and Strike October 2017

Catalan Referendum march in Palafrugell Yesterday, October 3rd 2017, was a general strike in Catalonia against violence seen during the Catalan Referendum on Sunday 1st October. As part of the general strike, towns and cities throughout Catalonia came out onto the streets to demonstrate support in the evening. We went down to attend the local march in Palafrugell and to give a sense of the demonstrations and the strong desire for political change in Catalonia.

At this point I'm going to try to give a potted history and explanation of where and why Catalonia believes it should be independent and some background to what's going on. It's fair to say that for people from outside the region, it can be difficult to understand what is going on, and why there is such a depth of feeling among the Catalans. We certainly had little understanding of the situation or very much understanding of the history of Spain much beyond the discovery of America and the Spanish Armada. However, having lived here and being extremely interested in the history and geography, I've come to realise the rich and complex tapestry of Catalonia and its relationship with Spain.

Catalan Referendum Torre Jonama Palafrugell The simple history of Spain, which is most frequently presented by Spanish nationalists, sees Catalonia as a region that becomes part of Aragon before, in 1479, being unified with Castille under the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella to create the modern Spanish nation. In this view Spain is an indivisible whole and Catalonia was never a country, and so has no legitimate claim for independence. The current claims are 19th century romanticism and a desire to pay less taxes.

To get beyond this, and really into the deep emotional feeling that lies beneath the independence push needs a more nuanced view of Spanish history, one which sees Spain as part of a unified crown, but still being a set of semi-independent territories, each with their own governance, laws, taxes and duties. The Aragonese were not allowed to trade in the Castillan West Indies for instance until the mid eighteenth century.

Catalan Referendum and general strike in Palafrugell These element of self-government and self-identity of the semi-independent territories were swept away in a wave of French-style single-nation laws and centralisation (the Nueva Planta decrees) that followed the Spanish conquest of rebellious Catalonia in 1714, and that included banning the use of Catalan in primary education and official documents. Though Spain remained relatively at ease with itself until Napoleon's invasion, reactions to the events of the start of the 18th Century continued to reverberate through Spain in the 19th and 20th centuries as it struggled under revolts, civil wars (plural), loss of overseas territories and a push-me-pull-you of politics that saw regions pull against centre, and various forms of radicalised politics emerge.

Into this melee, Catalonia rediscovered itself and developed its own idea of Catalonia as a nation, distinct from Spain. It was finally allowed to use its own language in official work in 1931 (216 years later), only to have this removed by Franco in 1936. So that within living memory are groups of citizens who were not allowed to use Catalan at school, and who were ruled by proxies of the central Spanish government, rather than through their own elected officials.

As a result, there are extremely deeply felt opinions that go far back in time with family memories of Spanish crack downs on Catalan separatist views from even the 1900s. While Spanish nationalists will point to the financial crisis as a catalyst, other forces were already at play, seeking the Catalan Statute of Autonomy for instance. Regional identity versus centralism is a topic that bubbles away through Spanish history.

A historic overview

Spain in 719 had been conquered by the Moors (mainly from Morocco) who had captured the Peninsula and made their way in towards modern day France up to Poitiers/Tours in 732. Resistance to Moorish rule grew in the north first, from Asturies in 722 - the first of the Spanish kingdoms to emerge. The second northern kingdom was Navarre/Pamplona from 824. In a complex story of kingdoms and rivalries, Asturies expanded across northern Spain eventually leading to the establishment of the kingdom of Leon (910). Leon then joining with Navarre. From these northern kingdoms, the kingdom of Aragon emerged in 1035 and Castile finally became its own kingdom, from a county of Leon, in 1065 providing the foundation for Castilian Spain.

Meanwhile on the Mediterranean side, the Franks under Charles Martel ('the Hammer') pushed back the Moors, building on the victory at Tour/Poitiers 732. From 759 to 801 when Barcelona was captured, Frankish victories established the counties of the Spanish March (Marca Hispanica) in what is now Catalonia (and a bit beyond), as a buffer realm between France and the muslim Spain. Unlike the northern territories that (self-) declared themselves kingdoms, the lands of the Spanish March remained as counties (ruled by a count) with local rivalries. However, over time, the Count of Barcelona came to dominate across the counties as a whole. 'Marches' tended to be remote from the main centres of powers (in Aachen) and independent minded. So that under Wilfred the Hairy, the title of count became inherited rather than by appointment. So that eventually the counts became de facto independent. The earliest claim is in 985 when Borrell II failed to get support from the Franks and so curtailed his allegiences.

So Spain was slowly formed through these separated kingdoms in the north and more complex county system on the Mediterranean.

Over the next few hundred years, both the Kingdom of Castile in the north, and the County of Barcelona (Catalonia) grew in prestige, and through the expulsion of the muslim invaders from lands of Valencia and the Taifa of Zaragossa - the story of El Cid comes from this epoch.

Between Castile and Catalonia was the Kingdom of Aragon, which had emerged from Navarre in 1035. Through marriage, Aragon became a possession of the Counts of Barcelona in 1137 and the counts switched to take the titles of King of Aragon as their main title. However, despite being unified under the the same monarchy, Catalonia and Aragon continued to exist as separate territories each with their own system of laws and cortes including custom posts, taxes and duties. The Crown of Aragon grew to include Aragon, Catalonia, Majorca and Valencia plus territories in the Mediterranean including Sicily and Sardina and at one point to Athens.

Castile and Aragon continued to develop separately, but slowly the ruling families became intertwined by marriage until the ruling crowns of Castile and Aragon united by marriage in 1469, with Isabella becoming queen of Castile in 1474, and Ferdinand (Ferran in Catalan) becoming king of Aragon in 1479. The two parts of Castile and Aragon remained quite separate with distinct royal councils. During the reign of the Catholic Kings America was discovered, and the expulsion of the moors started. However, when the Americas were discovered these were established Castilian territories and Aragonese merchants did not have access, again because these were treated as separate kingdoms.

Before Ferdinand had got to the Spanish throne, Catalonia had already been through a civil war (1462-1472) in the Revolt of the Remences against John II with involvement of the French and loss of Roussillon (for the first time). So by the time of Ferdinand, it was already past it's high point, and with the discovery of America, and eviction of the moors followed by attacks by the Ottomans, its importance in Spanish affairs diminished.

In short order, Spain became the leading European power. Joanna, daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand married Philip the son of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, and so their son, Charles V, Spain became the original rule of the empire where the sun never sets, with great lands in the Americas, joined with the European holdings of the Holy Roman Empire (that included Netherlands, Belgium, Burgundy, Savoy, Germany and Austria). Discontent with Charles led to a series of revolts in both Castile and Valencia and Majorca of Aragon (Revolta de les Germanies), but Spain was moving towards a more centralist view.

At this time, Catalonia, and Barcelona became a gateway to the Spanish European territories, though via the sea across to Genoa (the Spanish Road) as rivalry with France prevented overland access to the Italian, German and Dutch territories.

Over the next period, the Spanish Empire came under attack with wars with the Dutch, the British (Spanish Armada) and the French. An empire of such a size was proving unsustainable and expensive. The vast gold and silver wealth from the Americas brought inflation to Spain and Spain defaulted on its debts (1557, 1560, 1569, 1575, 1595), lost the Armada to England. The cost of war and rebeliousness in the Netherlands (the 80 years war) took its toll and Spain's star started to diminish. Meanwhile wars with France over Italian territories and involvement with the French Wars of Religion, spread into plain old wars with France, starting with rivalry over Spanish territories in the North (1595-1598).

The Spanish European empire fell into a complex war with the Thirty Year's War (1618-1648) involving religion, Netherlands, Sweden and central Europe. As the conflict spilled over, Catalonia become something of a piggy-in-the-middle between Spain and France for the Spanish-French war 1635-1659 as the French attacked Spanish territories through Italy and northern and eastern France.

Spain seeking to protect the border with France, put Castilian troops into private houses in Catalonia (which included peasants providing food for the soldiers) leading to the Catalan Revolt on 1640 - also known as the Guerra dels Segadors. Els Segadors is a main anthem for the Catalan independentists (Portugal also revolted against Spain). The Catalans looked towards the recently liberated Dutch for inspiration, and during the revolt Catalonia declared itself independent, but under the protection of the French. This 'Independence' lasted until 1659 when a Spanish-French peace returned Catalonia to the Spanish King, but with the final loss of Rousillon to the French.

Tensions didn't diminish though with another revolt (Barretines) 1687-1689 which was more of a class war, again partly because of tension between Spanish soldiers and the local population, and the Nine Year's War 1688-97 again between Spain and France.

And so by the outbreak of the Spanish War of Succession, Catalonia was out of sync with the rest of Spain and took the side of Charles, the Austrian candidate for Emperor, supported by Britain, against the French Bourbon king supported by the rest of Spain. In theory Britain promised to help the Catalans and to protect the Catalan institutions under the Pact of Genoa, but because of a change of circumstances, Catalonia was abandoned to its fate as the last bastion against Bourbon king. The final act of rebellious Catalonia was the submission of Barcelona on the 11th September 1714 (a date commerated with the diada).

The Bourbon king coming from a French background sought to impose a French-style nationalism on the Spanish people. In the Nueva Planta decrees the historic institutions, governance, tax raising powers were removed and, for the Catalans, their language was no longer to be used in official documents. At the same time, the centralised monarchy installed vice-roys to take command of the provinces backed by Spanish troops effectively throwing out hundreds of years of autonomous rule and traditions.

Catalonia was not the only Spanish province that felt the rules were unfair, so that after the Napoleonic invasion had passed (when parts of Catalonia were subsumed into France as a new French department), Spain when through a series of revolts and wars - as another succession issue gave rise to Carlists and Carlism - in favour of Infante Carlos V's - Don Carlos's claim to the throne on the French derived male succession rule, over Isabella II, his niece who became queen based on the older Spanish rule that allowed female succession. The impact was a series of complex wars, republics and revolts in the 19th century from 1833 throughout Spain with the first civil war, Spanish declaration as a republic and restoration of the monarchy. At the same time, Spain was developing a complex set of new political ideas including anarchism as working classes became more powerful.

Meanwhile, industrialisation was coming to Catalonia, and it started to rediscover its language and heritage (the Renaixença or rebirth) that started to emerge after the liberation of Spain from Napoleon and grew into the 1830s to 1860s as Catalans started to review Catalan history, rekindling ideas of Catalonia and its relationship to Spain, initially as federalism, but later to calls for full independence. Separatism got swept up with the prevailing moods of anarchism and revolt so that by the late 1800s Catalonia had a firm secessionist movement that was being prohibited by the Spanish authorities with suppression including martial law in 1900, and a short lived revolt in 1909.

This sense of nation and historical identity from the 19th century is then swept into the troubles of the 20th century which led to the Spanish Second Republic of 1931, and eventually into to the Spanish Civil War (genuinely Spain vs Spain of which Catalonia was only part) and after the defeat of the Republicans, leading to Franco's suppression of Catalan right up to 1975.

From the end of the dictatorship, the Catalan civil societies have been working to reestablish Catalan institutions and language. In 2006 Catalonia agreed a new Statute of Autonomy (approved by Catalan referendum and supported by the Spanish government), however this was ruled in part to be unconstitutional in 2010 by the Spanish Constitution Court supported by PP. The rejection of the Statute of Autonomy caused many in Catalonia to demand greater autonomy and, combined with the economic crisis, led to a great renewal of independentist feeling with a major grassroots demonstration in 2012 (more than one million people out of a population of 7.5m), that effectively pushed Catalan politicians to become more focused on independence, and was then followed by huge marches and demonstrations in each of the subsequent years.

So within this is a deep sense that Catalonia should be respected for its traditions, history, language and culture which are not the same as Spain. Among Catalans there is a perception that Spain imposes itself on Catalonia - it is the relationship of a dominant father who demands respect from an errant daughter, instead of being a relationship of kinship, peers and mutuality. This local view sees the unwillingness of the central Spanish government to listen or respond to the Catalan protests, which were met with practical silence and sitting on hands, as further examples of the difficult nature of the relationship.

The intransigence and inaction of the Spanish government, combined with deep seated local feelings about Catalan identity has allowed the situation to develop so that now Catalonia believes it has a mandate for independence. How this will play out will strongly depend on how the Spanish-side react and whether it seeks to find compromise. While it's not entirely clear how strongly Catalans want to be separate, or whether they just want to have a more balanced relationship with the rest of SPain, the one thing is clear is that some political movement will be necessary. For visitors, it's also worth pointing out that from the Catalan side this has been entirely peaceful with large marches and demonstrations, but in good spirits with no tolerance of trouble.

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