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
Show Hide image

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Secret Civil Servant: Let’s hope cabinet followed the civil service formula on Brexit away day

 Though it’s probably best if they skipped the trust exercises.

It’s enough to make your blood run cold. 

“And before we get started, I want everyone to take a post-it note, and I want everyone to write down what they personally want to achieve from this away day. When you’ve done that, please come and stick them on this whiteboard for discussion.” 

Every Civil Service Away Day adheres to a very strict formula. And regardless of how categorically useless it was, afterwards everyone is duty bound to say what a roaring success it was and what a lovely day they’ve had, just like the couple who have narrowly missed out on the speedboat on Bullseye. 

The talk around the cabinet Brexit away day suggests they stuck to this winning format, subject to a bit of fine tuning.

To start with, there will be the obligatory ice breakers, which nobody has ever enjoyed. Considering the various tensions, it’s probably best if the cabinet skip the trust exercises or Chequers will end up looking like a dressing station at Rorke’s Drift.

It is important to remember that anybody doing anything at an away day is automatically granted the title “facilitator”, and everything they do on the day, no matter how mundane, is an act of “facilitation”. It’s not clear who was given this job for the cabinet, but I imagine it was probably Gavin Barwell. 

There will then be an introductory address by the Big Boss. This will focus on strategy, ideally containing little or no actual substance. That will pose few problems to this administration. No doubt the ambition will be somewhat greater, with whole conversations without discernible content whatsoever, just a mixture of non alphabetic sounds, semaphore and exhalation all carefully minuted by a mime artist.

A question and answer session will usually follow, when the most ambitious members of staff will try and ask the most tediously self aware question, to raise their profile. The worst are usually young career focussed men, who may even introduce themselves before embarking on their question. 

I like to call these people, “wankers”. 

This, however, can be occasionally fraught with danger: at a recent departmental away day, a system had been set up so that participants could submit questions which would appear on a screen beside the panel. What they hadn’t realised was that questions could be submitted using any name they wished. By the time Sir Anthony Hopkins asked for the fourth time which was Sir Tim Barrow’s favourite Spice Girl, the chair couldn’t bring the session to a close quick enough. 

It’s unlikely the PM will hold such a session, lest she have to tell a number of cabinet ministers to facilitate off for repeatedly asking if they can be Prime Minister.

After that, the day will be split up into breakout sessions. These will be themed and are usually split by interest such as policy vs strategy, or delivery vs implementation. Ideally these will make no sense, go on too long, and be led by a really evangelical individual who while technically speaking English, will be a real struggle unless you’re up to speed on your reputational dispositives. That should work just fine at Chequers. As with civil servants, I imagine there are a number of ways to split the cabinet's attendees. Plotters vs The Deluded could work neatly, or perhaps  Cake vs Eat it.

The cabinet's away day was rumoured to include a separate session led by various ambassadors and experts on EU member states. I’m sure we can all agree,  increased cabinet-level understanding of European perspectives will come in very, very handy once we activate Article 50.

Then it’ll all have been done for another year. Time to make a quick getaway to the pub for the obligatory post away day drink, otherwise Gavin Barwell will lose the deposit he paid on that function room at The Jolly Taxpayer. 

Let’s hope some consensus is reached. Early reports already suggest it was a roaring success. I’m not holding my breath. There were rumours that the meeting wouldn’t be allowed to conclude until key agreements had been reached, a bit like a governmental equivalent of Mad Max 3: Beyond the Thunderdome. What with David Davis’s reference earlier this week, it’s good to see that the franchise has finally become recognised as a significant political blueprint. 

Regardless of the decisions that are or aren’t reached this week at Chequers, it’s unlikely that when Jim Barnier shows us the mystery prize, it’s going to be a bespoke free trade agreement with all the trimmings. Commiserations, Prime Minister. Let’s see what you could’ve won. 

It doesn’t really matter. We’ve had a lovely day. 

The author is a civil servant in the British government, writing anonymously because Gavin Barwell probably won’t find any of this funny. While based on real events, parts of the above are embellished for comic effect.