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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle