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Leader: The Spanish crisis

Any decision on Catalan independence must be made in accordance with the law.

Multinational states are fragile entities. In Europe, we have witnessed the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia as well as the peaceful break-up of Czechoslovakia. Separatist movements in Belgium, Italy and France dream of secession. Somehow the rickety old British state continues to hold together; it is probably the most successfully multinational state in modern history.

Like the United Kingdom, Spain is a kingdom with distinct peoples, languages and regional and national identities. It is also deeply divided, with no issue more contentious than the status of the autonomous region of Catalonia, home to 7.5 million of Spain’s 46 million people.

During the Spanish Civil War and under the cruel military dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, Catalans were culturally oppressed, and for some that feeling of hurt has never gone away. There is also resentment that this wealthy and industrialised region in north-eastern Spain, which contributes a fifth of the country’s €1.2trn GDP, in effect subsidises poorer regions, especially the hot south. Secession would solve these problems, Catalan nationalists insist.

We support self-determination for all national groupings but, at the same time, one has to work within the legal parameters of a nation state. The Scottish independence referendum in September 2014 was a model of its kind, negotiated and agreed by the devolved parliament in Edinburgh and the Conservative-led government in Westminster. The long campaign led to a democratic awakening in Scotland, with a record 85 per cent turnout in the final poll, and the emergence of a politically engaged and informed population. Whatever the end result, it was a triumph of legal process and democracy.

That was not the case in Spain on 1 October. The country’s constitutional court banned the referendum in September and the government in Madrid had a duty to uphold the law. But the response of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his ruling People’s Party to the Catalans’ defiance was unnecessarily severe and counterproductive, exacerbating the crisis.

Spanish police fired rubber bullets at voters and beat innocent demonstrators with batons. Catalan officials say nearly 900 people were injured as riot police tried to prevent the poll going ahead in Barcelona and other cities in the region.

The response in European capitals and from the EU has been muted. On Monday, the European Commission issued a short statement emphasising that the vote was illegal and an internal matter for Spain to deal with. The reason for that approach is clear: if Catalonia breaks away, it will embolden the Corsicans in France, the Lombards in Italy and the Flemish in Belgium.

Our view is that if there is a democratic majority for independence in Catalonia, its people should have their independence. All the same, the Catalan devolved government has to work in concert with the national government, and any decision on self-determination must be made in accordance with the law.

The provocative actions of the separatists may give the impression that the Catalans are trying to escape the tyrannical rule of the Spanish state. This is not the case in a region where, for four decades, the people have enjoyed extensive individual freedoms and self-government, enshrined in the national constitution. Under local and international law, Catalonia’s case for self-determination appears weak. 

Nor are its people united on the issue. Catalan authorities claim that nearly 90 per cent of the 2.2 million people who managed to cast their ballots on Sunday chose independence. But there are 5.3 million registered voters in the region, and many of those who stayed away did so because they viewed the poll as illegal and oppose secession.

There is still no evidence that the majority of Catalans favour independence. However, if the Spanish government continues with its heavy-handed approach instead of listening to the grievances of Catalonia, they may well do before too long. 

This article first appeared in the 05 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich got richer

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The Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”