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Q&A: Shabana Mahmood MP

“There are some very well-to-do people that did some stupid stuff in my city.”

What's the mood like now in Birmingham?

People want to send a clear signal that they're proud of their home city. They want to draw a line under what happened. Obviously in the Winson Green area, where the three deaths occurred, people are still shocked -- it's going to take time for it to sink in, once the media and everybody else have gone away.

Were you worried about a violent retaliation after the deaths?

There was a very real concern. I am clear that the intervention of Tariq Jahan was instrumental in preventing any further trouble. When he said, "I lost my son. Step forward if you want to lose your sons. Otherwise, calm down and go home" -- that was really powerful, particularly because he was able to talk directly to some of the young men who were angry and distraught. Obviously they had enough respect for his message and his loss to listen and behave in a responsible way. He is an absolute hero.

Is part of that dignity something which is implicit in Islam?

He's behaved in a way that is an example not just to Muslims but to all of us. It is in keeping with the respectful, dignified spirit of Ramadan, a peaceful month for people to reflect and to foster their connection with God. I can't pay enough tribute to him.

Having grown up in Birmingham, how did you feel when the trouble broke out?

I was completely devastated. I saw, with my own eyes, kids who were 14 years old, girls as well as boys, with a bag of booty that they'd just looted from the mobile phone shops in the city centre. Some of them would have been well-behaved kids or people who had not been in trouble with the police before and now they're going to wake up to serious criminal records that will potentially affect the rest of their lives.

Many things have been blamed for the riots -- what's your view?

I don't think there's any one reason. There are some very well-to-do people that did some stupid stuff in my city. Trying to process all of that requires a lot of soul-searching. I'd be a bit worried about trying to pigeonhole it, when actually it's a combination of lots of very different factors -- poverty, education, drug and gang culture, alcohol, and all the rest.

What about Cameron's diagnosis of a "sickness" in society?

Some of the behaviour of some people was sickening -- I would describe it in that way. But we've got to be careful not to come at it from ideological perspectives. We need to be out there talking to people to try and make sense of it all.

What's your strategy now?

I'm home and I'm going to be here for the rest of the summer. In one of the meetings we had on Wednesday with local residents, lots of whom had been on Dudley Road when the murders happened, there was a lot of anger -- people raised concerns about the police presence in the area, the response time, the delay in getting an ambulance to the scene. That's a dialogue I'm going to carry on having with the local community and the police, because if there are lessons to learn, they need to be learned.

What do you think the role of the family is in all this?

Once the disorder started, one of the first things I called for was for parents to phone their kids and get them home and out of the trouble. We need to have a dialogue about parenting and family more generally, but not everybody who was involved comes from a broken home. One of the things we should keep in mind through all of this, particularly when you talk about a lot of the ethnic-minority communities in Birmingham, is the strength of the family. In the Asian community, the extended family networks are really strong.

Do you think immigrant communities have a stronger sense of solidarity than British-born communities?

I think there are cultural elements that bind together different communities. In the South Asian community, there's the religious binding, but beyond that people consider themselves almost relatives when they all hail from the same part of the same region of Pakistan or India or Kashmir. In the African-Caribbean community, churches are very strong, they're rooted in their community and they're good at getting people together.

You were one of the first Muslim women to be elected as a member of parliament. What role did your family play in that?

My family are key to everything I've ever done in my life. My parents are incredibly supportive, and have always wanted me to achieve to the best of my ability. There was no question of my brother getting more of a chance in life than me. I have a twin brother and we're both the eldest, so whenever an opportunity came along it had to be for both of us. I came to the decision that I wanted to run for election, and my family rode in behind me straight away and were out there campaigning for me.

Did you encounter opposition from your wider community to the idea of you running?

I didn't get as much flack as I thought I might. The community elders got behind me and thought it was a breath of fresh air.

Why did you want to go into politics?

I've always been a political person. I grew up in a Labour family, and both my parents are longstanding Labour Party members. My dad's a real activist and is currently chair of Birmingham Labour Party, so this is what I've grown up with.

Where did their politics come from?

My dad arrived in this country as a teenager with his family in the 1960s, and at that time Labour was the only party that made them feel they had a stake in British society. And then there was a strong belief in social justice because we found opportunities in this country that would not have been available to us in the village that we hail from in Kashmir and then Pakistan. It's that sense that everyone should have the same opportunity to make the best of themselves. That's what I've grown up with and that's what I want to see made available to everyone in my constituency.

You represent the area you grew up in. Was that important to you?

I'm a Brummie, and representing a Birmingham constituency -- having lived here my whole life, having gone to school here -- is really important to me. Serving the community that I've grown up in and that I want to see do better is my reason for being in politics.

Have you ever experienced Islamophobia?

Unsurprisingly for someone who is both Asian and Muslim, I have suffered racism and Islamophobia, name-calling and that kind of stuff. But equally, putting myself up for election, I might have expected more. Over the entire the campaign I received only one abusive email and one abusive text message. On the campaign trail, no matter who I was talking to, I was given a good reception.

For the most part, our communities in Birmingham are strong and live together peacefully, but we could focus on doing more to let our different communities get to know one other. That's how you understand that people's fundamental concerns are the same -- they want to get on in life, they want access to good education, good health. Those are the things that unite pretty much all of my constituents.

Is there anything you regret?

I try to live without regrets.

Is there a plan?

There's no big plan, but once I decide to do something I'm a real planner.

Are we all doomed?

Hell no. What would be the point, if we weren't optimistic? Every day I meet people who make me feel positive.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

ALEXEI FATEEV/ALAMY
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The Catalan cauldron

The prospect of the break-up of Spain poses yet another challenge to Europe.

As Britain prepares to mark the centenary of the bloodiest battle in the First World War, the Somme, in July, Spain is bracing itself for an even more traumatic anniversary. In July 2016 it will be 80 years since the start of a civil war that tore the country apart and continues to divide it today. In the four decades since the return of democracy in the mid-1970s, Spaniards slowly inched towards rejecting the extreme violence of the Francoist right (and elements of the opposing left) as well as acceptance of various federal arrangements to accommodate the national sentiments of the Basques and Catalans, whose aspirations Franco had so brutally suppressed. In recent years, however, this consensus has been called fundamentally into question, with severe potential consequences not only for the unity of Spain, but the cohesion of the European Union.

On 27 October 2015, after the Catalan elections, the new parliament in Barcelona passed a declaration requesting the start of a formal secession process from Spain, to be in place in 18 months. The immediate reaction of Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, was to announce that the state was entitled “to use any available judicial and political mechanism contained in the constitution and in the laws to defend the sovereignty of the Spanish people and of the general interest of Spain”. The preamble to the constitution proclaims the Spanish nation’s desire to “protect all Spaniards and the peoples of Spain in exercising their ­human rights, their cultures and traditions, languages and institutions”. Probably the most disputed articles are 2 and 8, which state, respectively, that “the constitution is based upon the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, common and indivisible patria of all Spaniards” and that “the army’s mission is to guarantee the sovereignty and independence of Spain, to defend its territorial integrity and the constitutional set-up”. Rajoy’s implication was clear: the unity of the country would be maintained, if necessary by military means.

It was Madrid, however, that broke with the federal consensus some years ago and thus boosted secessionist sentiment in Catalonia. José María Aznar’s government (1996-2004) failed to respond to demands for greater autonomy for Catalonia, at a time when secession was not even mentioned. This led to an increasing awareness among Catalans that the federal transfer system within Spain left them with an annual deficit of 8 per cent of Catalonia’s GDP because of the financial arrangements established by the Spanish state, an issue aggravated by the effect of the global financial crisis. Catalan nationalism thus became a matter of not only the heart, but also the pocket. Even more important was the Spanish legal challenge to the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia 2006 and its subsequent dilution, after it had been sanctioned by the Catalan parliament, and by both the Spanish congress of deputies and the senate, not to mention the Catalan people in a legally binding referendum.

According to the Spanish high court of justice, some of the statute’s content did not comply with the Spanish constitution. This outraged many Catalans, who could not understand how the newly approved statute – after following all the procedures and modifications requested by Spain’s political institutions and constitution – could still be challenged. Four years later, the Spanish high court finally delivered its verdict on 28 June 2010. It removed vital points from the Statute of Autonomy 2006 and declared them non-constitutional. All this led to a revival of Catalan nationalism, culminating in a symbolic, non-binding referendum in November 2014, which was boycotted by opponents and produced a majority of 80 per cent in favour of independence.

The roots of this antagonism go deep, to the civil war that broke out on 17-18 July 1936 when some sectors of the army rebelled against the legitimate government of the Second Republic. The rebels rejected democracy, the party system, separation between church and state, and the autonomy of Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia. Their primary objective was to re-establish “order” by eliminating all vestiges of communism and anarchism, then quite strong in some parts of Spain.

High on the list of General Franco’s targets was Catalan nationalism, which had been growing since the late 19th century. The industrialisation of Catalonia and the Basque Country left the most economically developed parts of the Spanish state politically subject to the less prosperous Castile. By the end of the 19th century and influenced by German Romanticism, la Renaixença – a movement for national and cultural renaissance – prompted demands for Catalan autonomy, first in the form of regionalism
and later in demands for a federal state.

Catalan nationalism did not emerge as a unified phenomenon. Diverse political ideologies and cultural influences gave rise to various types of nationalism, from the conservative nationalism of Jaime Balmes to the federalism of Francesc Pi i Margall, to the Catholic nationalism of Bishop Torres i Bages and the Catalan Marxism of Andreu Nin, among others. Catalonia enjoyed some autonomy under the administrative government of the Mancomunitat or “commonwealth” from 1913 onwards. This was halted by the 1923 coup d’état of the dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera. Autonomy was granted again during the Second Spanish Republic from 1931-39 – but abolished by Francisco Franco’s decree of 5 April 1938.

Franco’s victory led to the suppression of Catalan political institutions, the banning of the Catalan language and proscription of all the symbolic elements of Catalan identity, from the national flag (the Senyera) to the national anthem (“Els Segadors”). In February 1939, the institutions of the autonomous Generalitat went into exile in France. In 1940 the Gestapo arrested the president of the Generalitat, Lluís Companys, and handed him over to Spanish officials. He was interrogated and tortured in Madrid, then sent to Barcelona, where he was court-martialled and executed at Montjuïc Castle on 15 October 1940. The most important representatives of the democratic parties banned by the regime went into exile, or were imprisoned or executed. The authoritarian state designed by Franco crushed dissent and used brute power to suppress the historical nations included within its territory. The regime’s aim was to annihilate the Catalans and the Basques as nations.

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After almost 40 years of Franco’s dictatorship, Catalonia recovered its government, the Generalitat, in 1977 – before the drafting of the Spanish constitution in 1978 – and sanctioned a new statute of autonomy in 1979. The 2006 statute was expected, at the time, to update and expand Catalans’ aspiration for further devolution within Spain: never secession.

At present, a renewed nostalgia and enthusiasm for Francoism can be found among some sections of the Spanish right. One of the main challenges of the newly democratic government from the mid-1970s onwards was to get rid of the symbols of Francoism that had divided Spaniards between “winners” and “losers” in the civil war. It was only in 2007 that the then prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, guided the Law of Historic Memory through parliament with the aim of removing hundreds of Fascist symbols reminiscent of the Franco era from public buildings. It also sought to make reparations to victims of the civil war and the ensuing dictatorship.

There still exist hundreds of other references to the Fascist regime, however, with streets, colleges and roads named after Franco and his generals. The most controversial of these is the Valle de los Caídos (“Valley of the Fallen”), near Madrid, commissioned by Franco as his final resting place. It supposedly honours the civil war dead, but is primarily a monument to the general and his regime, housing the graves of Franco and José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the fascist Falange political party. Roughly 450,000 people visit it every year, and while most of them are foreign tourists, groups of Falangists and supporters of the old regime who come to pay tribute to the dictator have frequented it. Nostalgics for Francoism, though still a small minority within modern Spain, are becoming vociferous. They find common ground with far-right-wing conservatism, particularly in their shared aversion to federalism.

On 3 August last year Artur Mas, the then president of Catalonia, called an extraordinary parliamentary election after all attempts to negotiate and agree on a legally binding referendum with the Spanish government failed. Supporters of independence immediately announced that the forthcoming Catalan elections would be regarded as a plebiscite on independence.

On a turnout of more than three-quarters of the electorate, supporters of outright independence gained 48 per cent of the vote, while those backing a unitary state secured 39 per cent. On 9 November 2015 the Catalan parliament formally declared the start of the process leading to building an independent Catalan state in the form of a republic. It also proclaimed the beginning of a participative, open, integrating and active citizens’ constituent process to lay the foundations for a future Catalan constitution. The Catalan government vowed to move forward with its secession process. Immediately, the Spanish Constitutional Court suspended the Catalan law setting out a path to independence and warned that defiance could lead to criminal charges.

Worse still for Madrid, secessionism is gaining strength not only in Catalonia but also in the Basque Country, whose premier, Iñigo Urkullu, demands a “legal consultation” on the northern region’s future in Spain. He supports a new statute for the Basque Country and defends its status as a nation in the EU. Similarly to Catalonia, the Basque Country has a distinct language and culture, and benefits from the so-called concierto económico, an advantageous financial deal with the Spanish state.

***

The Spanish government’s refusal to engage constructively with Catalan nationalism contrasts markedly with London’s more relaxed and ultimately more successful response to Scottish nationalist aspirations. The “Edinburgh Agreement” between the British Prime Minister and the then first minister of Scotland to allow a binding referendum on Scottish independence stands in sharp contrast to the Spanish government’s outright opposition to a similar vote in Catalonia. Basques and Catalans find deaf ears regarding further devolution and binding referendums on self-determination. This highlights the distance between various conceptions of democracy that coexist inside the European Union, rooted in the diverse political cultures of nations with varying historical backgrounds.

All this matters, not only to Spain but to the EU, because it is part of a broad trend across the continent. In mainland Europe, demands for self-determination are running strong in Flanders as well as parts of Spain. In turn, tensions between Italy and Austria over control of South Tyrol (Trentino Alto Adige, to the Italians) remain high, as do demands advanced by the South Tyrol­ean secessionist movement. Bavarian regionalism is critical of the present German (and European) political order. Further to that, modern Venetian nationalism and its long-standing demands for independence have prompted a renewal of Venetian as a language taught in schools and spoken by almost four million people.

Matters are now coming to a head. Catalonia and Spain are in flux following two inconclusive elections. In January, after a prolonged stand-off, the sitting Catalan president, Artur Mas, made way for a fellow nationalist, Carles Puigdemont. He was the first to take the oath of office without making the traditional oath of loyalty to the Spanish constitution and the king. Felipe VI, in turn, did not congratulate Puigdemont.

The new president has announced that he plans to draw up a constitution, to be voted on in a referendum “to constitute the Catalan Republic” at the end of an 18-month consultation process. Puigdemont’s strategy envisages not a dramatic unilateral declaration
of independence, but a more gradual process of disconnection in constant dialogue with the Spanish government and Catalan political parties. Let no one be deceived by this “softly-softly” approach: it is designed to culminate, in a year and a half, perhaps sooner, in a vote on establishing a separate, sovereign state of Catalonia.

Meanwhile, Spanish politics are in flux. The elections to the Cortes on 20 December 2015 resulted in a victory for Conservatism, but also the most fragmented Spanish parliament ever and, as yet, no government. Almost the only thing the Spanish parties can agree on is opposition to Catalan independence, yet even here there are divisions over whether more autonomy should be granted and what response to make to unilateral moves by the Catalans.

The stakes are high for both sides. By pressing too hard, too early, Catalan nationalists may provoke Madrid. This would be a mistake. Strategy is important and recent events in Catalonia will weaken the Catalans’ democratic, peaceful and legitimate desire to hold a referendum on independence. Likewise, a heavy-handed response from Madrid will not only destroy the residual bonds between centre and periphery in Spain, but put the central government in the dock internationally. A confrontation will also cut across the only possible solution to this and all other national conflicts within the eurozone, which is full continental political union. Full union would render the separation of Catalonia from Spain as irrelevant to the functioning of the EU, and the inhabitants of both areas, as the separation of West Virginia from Virginia proper in the United States today.

In a nightmare scenario, radicalisation and unrest could emerge in Catalonia, with division between Catalans and memories of the Spanish Civil War coming to the fore. In this context, it might become very difficult to prevent violence.

This is the last thing that Brussels wants to hear as it grapples with the euro crisis, Russian territorial revisionism, Islamist terror, the migrant question and the prospect of Brexit. A meltdown in Catalonia will create dilemmas for Europe, starting from problems with Schengen, and raise questions about continued membership of the EU. It will also work against Catalans’ expectations of receiving EU support in their quest for independence, as turmoil in Europe will prompt nation states to close ranks. The EU will not be expected to intervene, because this scenario would – at least initially – be defined as an “internal affair of Spain”. Conflict between Barcelona and Madrid would shatter one of Europe’s biggest member states.

In that event, the peninsula will become the hottest point in an emerging “arc of crisis” across the southern flank of the EU, stretching from Portugal across Spain, an Italy struggling along with everything else to cope with the flow of migrants, the troubled Balkans, to Greece, which is perpetually perturbed. This highlights yet another flaw in the EU. It has no institutional framework for dealing with Catalan demands to become a nation within the Union, or those of other populations. Merely insisting on Spanish state sovereignty will not make the problem go away for Brussels, or for Europe as a whole. This is a potential matter of life and death not only for Spaniards and Catalans, but perhaps for the EU itself.

Brendan Simms is the director of the Forum on Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge and president of the Project for Democratic Union Montserrat Guibernau is a visiting scholar in the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge and a member of the Forum on Geopolitics

This article first appeared in the 21 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Shakespeare 400 years Iater