Breaking up: Pro-independence activists after a symbolic vote on independence for Catalonia from Spain at a polling station in Barcelona on 9 November. Photo: Getty
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Letter from Barcelona: Inside the battle for Catalan independence

This crisis could have been avoided. In recent years, Madrid has run a masterclass in how not to handle breakaway nationalism.

Barcelona is a city draped in flags. Only a handful of windows surrounding my rented apartment in El Born – a fashionably ramshackle district close to the harbour – are flag-free. From the rest hang Esteladas, the distinctive blue-and-white-starred symbol of Catalan national sovereignty.

Catalonia has become increasingly polarised in recent years as requests for enhanced autonomy – consistently rejected by Madrid – have hardened into demands for outright independence from Spain. Polls suggest as many as 45 per cent of Catalans support secession, while 25 per cent favour federalism and a further 20 per cent support the constitutional status quo.

On 9 November, nationalists staged a non-binding referendum on independence. They won by a huge margin, with 80 per cent voting for separation and 10 per cent voting against, on a turnout of 2.3 million – roughly one-third of the electorate. The majority of pro-Spanish Catalans seem to have stayed at home.

Nonetheless, independence activists are buoyant. Having defied the central government in Madrid, which tried to block the vote, they believe their campaign is unstoppable. The most radical parties, including Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), the Catalan Republican Left, want to hold plebiscitary elections before divorcing from Spain unilaterally next year. More conservative voices, such as that of Artur Mas, Catalonia’s centre-right president, would rather resume negotiations to secure a legal path to statehood.

In contrast to Scotland, where poorer voters form the bedrock of nationalist support, the Catalan independence movement is dominated by civil society organisations and middle-class professionals. Spain’s economic crisis, coupled with the country’s loss of faith in ruling parties, has persuaded many middle-income Catalans that they would be better off managing their own affairs.

But two significant groups remain opposed to independence. The first is working-class, Spanish-speaking immigrants. “I’m not happy about the vote,” a Kashmiri waiter told me before the referendum. “Independence would be very difficult. Lots of jobs here depend on Spain.”

The second is the Catalan business elite, parts of which have already begun issuing Better Together-style warnings about the financial pitfalls of constitutional change.

Writing in the New York Times, the Madrid-based Peruvian novelist and Nobel laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, denounced Catalan nationalism as a “cynical victim posture [that] effaces the individual, fuels imaginary grievances and rejects solidarity”.

But Vargas Llosa’s depiction of Catalan separatism doesn’t fit with my recent experiences. On 7 November, I attended a nationalist rally in downtown Barcelona. The event, floodlit beneath the Olympic Stadium, could not have been more civilised. The speakers delivered politely worded speeches and were received with muted applause. The atmosphere two days later, during the referendum, was similarly benign. There were no reports of scuffles or confrontations between opposing political groups. Barcelona seemed uncharacteristically subdued.

It is unclear what happens next. The ERC is ahead in the polls. Were President Mas to call fresh regional elections, his ruling party, Convergència, which has spent the past 30 years trading on the ambiguities of home-rule politics, would almost certainly find itself relegated to a supporting role in the new Catalan parliament. With the ERC in power, Catalonia’s fraught relationship with Spain would sink even further.

This crisis could have been avoided. In recent years, Madrid has run a masterclass in how not to handle breakaway nationalism. Its belligerent refusal to explore alternative constitutional models – such as a federal settlement granting Catalonia and other wealthy regions greater room for fiscal manoeuvre – is fracturing Spanish unity, at the same time as a centrally imposed programme of austerity cuts has compounded a wider sense of regional impotence.

Yet, for the most part, the Yes voters of Catalonia seem to be motivated by a basic concern for democracy. The more entrenched Spanish resistance to Catalan autonomy becomes, the more likely it is that Catalonia will choose a final, decisive break from Spain. Many moderate Catalan nationalists who once would have settled for more devolution now believe the situation cannot be salvaged. The Spanish central government may be forced to make concessions, but I doubt that the flags in El Born will be coming down soon. 

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.