Castilian vs Catalan nationalism – the authoritarian roots of Spanish patriotism

Spain has struggled to find a suitable replacement to General Franco's slogan “Spain, One, Great and Free”.

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“Spain, One, Great and Free” was the mantra of the Franco dictatorship. It echoed across Iberian peninsular until the general died in 1975. The phrase neatly encapusulated the monocultural, bombastic dictat of his quasi-fascist regime headquartered in Madrid.

Freedom, of course, was preserved only for those who thought like him. Traces of the slogan can occasionally be seen even today on the outside of churches and public monuments. But perhaps the most lasting effect has been on the latent memory of some on the Spanish right, who seem to struggle still with the idea of diversity and difference. Their particular idea of the kind of Castilian Spain Franco espoused makes it impossible for them to come to terms with the idea of Catalan independence aspirations.

This came to the fore on Sunday 1 October, when Spanish National Police and the Guardia Civil, a more militarised police force, dragged away Catalan voters trying to participate in an unauthorised referendum on independence. Hundreds were injured, including by police firing rubber bullets.

On Tuesday, enough Catalonians observed a general strike to shut schools and shops. Castillian and Catalan nationalisms are now clashing with what may well be catastrophic results.

The traditonalist worldview of the Spanish right has been underpinned by unitary, top-down authorities. First and foremost is the Catholic church, which continues to play a key role in Spanish society and the education system. Conflating religious doctrine with an appeal to traditional "Spanish" values, the church and the right have frequently worked hand in hand to stifle progressive change.

Socialist governments have extended reforms such as divorce, abortion, gender equality and gay rights, but only in the teeth of the most ferocious oppostion from the church, which writes off liberal values as "moral relativism". These views are ventillated by the Catholic radio station – Cadena COPE – which commands a large and loyal audience, along with much of the right-wing media.

Throughout modern Spanish history, when the right deems it necessary, appeals to conformity have been bolstered by force. Before Franco, and before the ill-fated democratic Second Spanish Republic, the country was ruled by a military dicator for much of the 1920s. This tendency appeared even after Franco died, and King Juan Carlos I helped engineer a transition to democracy.

As late as 1981, officers from the para-military Guardia Civil staged a coup and held the entire parliament hostage in an attempt to stop the fledgling democracy dead in its tracks. Over every garrison of the Guardia Civil are inscribed the words "Por la Patria" – for the country.

The corps has undergone several transformational changes of ethos in recent decades. Still, scenes like those from Catalonia at the weekend revive residual suspicions that the loyalty of some officers to an abstract ideal of country overrides their respect for the individual human rights of its citizens.

Among the most important of traditional tensions is the question of territory. The post-Franco democratic settlement divided Spain into 17 autonmous regions – but just how autonomous should they be or can they be? For the Spanish right, the answer to that question was pretty much settled by the constitution drawn up in 1978. This granted control of key services such as health and education to regional governments, but ultimately demanded fealty to the centre. Patriotism, afer all, demands a single "patria".

Yet for many Spaniards this has never really worked. Regional identity, based on history, culture and sometimes language, is as strong as national identity. In the post-Franco era, many have embraced regional identities as useful fire-breaks on any possible return to a country "one, great and free". This has in turn has been a source of profound irriation to those who want to promote Castillian patriotism, but are frustated at every turn.

It is telling, for example, that there are no words to the Spanish national anthem. This is for the simple reason that there is no common agreement about what the words should be.

What form the Spanish state, let alone the national hymn, will take in the future is anyone’s guess. The Catalan separatists want complete independence. The socialists argue for greater federalism. The Spanish right now need to conribute to the debate. More intransigence is not an option.

David Mathieson is a former special adviser to Robin Cook. He leads civil war history tours in Madrid