“You’re with us or you’re against us” – The competing narratives of the Catalan Referendum

“You’re with us or you’re against us” – The competing narratives of the Catalan Referendum
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Catalonia is hitting the headlines across the world today as its rumbling political crisis comes to a head on the day of the contentious referendum. As the polls open, a tense standoff between the Catalan government and the Central government in Madrid is descending into predictable violence. In the last couple of weeks it feels as if there has been no other topic of conversation, both online and on the street. The walls of my neighbourhood are plastered with referendum posters, Estelada flags are everywhere and the nightly cacerolada is deafening.

My daughter’s school (a designated polling station) has been occupied by a group of parents and supporters to prevent it being shut down by police. As I write, videos are starting to emerge of Spanish Policia Nacional and Guardia Civil forcibly shutting down polling stations in other schools. I can only assume ours is next. Regardless of where the blame for this mess lies, we are where we are, and the priority now must be to avoid violence. We can only hope that sanity prevails and that no-one gets seriously hurt.

As a relative outsider, I’ve been struggling to make sense of this rapidly escalating crisis. While an all-out propaganda war rages in the media and online, any rational arguments about the pros and cons of Catalonia becoming an independent republic have been drowned out as each side demonises the other. The debate has become increasingly polarised – the “you’re either with us or you’re against us” mentality predominates on both sides. Twitter is awash with vitriol and flag icons denoting allegiances. The issue has become a wedge, dividing friends, neighbours and families.

Wall mural and si posters

In our age of instant information, each side competes to frame the situation to suit its own narrative. The Catalan separatists have been handed a huge propaganda victory by the heavy-handed response of the government in Madrid. The spectacle the of peaceful citizens of a western democracy being denied their right to vote by police in riot gear has played very well for the separatist politicians and activists, whose claims of victimisation by an oppressive state seem credible to a foreign audience short on details and new to the story. The Partido Popular strategy seems to have been to play to their Spanish nationalist base, rather than to reach out to Catalans who may be dubious about the legitimacy of this referendum and its likely consequences. Judging by my conversations with locals in the last few days, this strategy has backfired – even those who were ambivalent about voting before the recent crackdown are now determined to do so.

The scale of the failure of the government in Madrid to manage this crisis should not be underestimated. Of course, like the Remain camp in the Brexit debate, they were at a disadvantage from the beginning – legal and practical details are dull and complicated compared to the heady aroma of revolution. But they did have the law on their side – all they had to do was portray the central government as the adult in the situation, offering stability and the possibility of incremental change to give Catalans an alternative to the revolutionary separatists. Instead, they dug in – sending in the Guardia Civil to raid businesses and arrest officials, shutting down websites, and insisting with table-thumping intransience that the vote would not take place. Videos circulating of crowds cheering “a por ellos!” (go get ‘em!) at Spanish police deployments setting off for Catalonia were a spectacular own goal. It is as if their strategy was devised by the Catalan separatists, so well does it play into their hands.

It would be easy, therefore, to be swept up in the momentum of the separatist narrative, but as much as I cannot help but admire the quiet determination of the parents of my daughter’s classmates, as they peacefully resist the order not to vote, the revolutionary rhetoric sticks in my throat. Myths abound – to speak to some people, you would think that Catalonia is about to be transformed into Denmark overnight. Others say, recklessly, that some short-term pain is necessary and worth it to further the cause. The fact that leaving Spain means also leaving the EU is ignored or denied and democracy is defined solely in terms of voting, with no mention of the rule of law. The idea of an independent Catalan republic as unquestionably desirable and inevitable has become mainstream, when only a few years ago it was considered an extreme view. Worst of all, to question the narrative that the Catalan separatist movement is anything other than progressive, inclusive and democratic is portrayed as nothing short of fascist.

Barcelona taxi passes democracy banner

The few moderate voices calling for a negotiated solution, like Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau, have been declared traitors by the purists. The appetite for revolution has been whet, and any attempt at cold, sober assessment of the practical and legal arguments is ignored or derided. On social media, Catalonia is portrayed as an oppressed nation suffering under a quasi-fascist dictatorship, when in fact it is not only the richest region Spain but also one of the most autonomous in Europe. A sense of perspective is sorely needed. It appalls me how easily we can be convinced to throw away what we have for a half-baked promise of a totally undeliverable utopia.

Spain and Catalonia are not alone in falling back on identity politics. Across Europe, politicians have failed to deal with the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash and the economic stagnation that followed. The resulting public disillusionment and anger has been stoked into flag-waving nationalism of the kind Europe hoped to never see again. Brexit in the UK, the recent electoral success of the far-right in Germany, and near-misses in France, Austria and the Netherlands all show which way the wind is blowing. When people feel insecure, cheated, and angry, they look for someone to blame. Self-serving politicians waste no time in creating enemies to fulfil this purpose. In the UK, it was the EU and immigrants who took the blame. In Catalonia, it has been the Spanish state.

So here we are. Today the story about Catalonia on the pages of the international press is going to be about police brutality in the face of peaceful, democratic resistance. Images of Spanish police firing rubber bullets on the streets of Barcelona are sickening – the government in Madrid have disgraced themselves and deserve the condemnation they will undoubtedly receive from home and abroad. But simplistic narratives should be resisted. Rejecting the Partido Popular’s incompetence, corruption and brutality does not necessitate swallowing the separatist narrative whole. As much as separatists want to portray Catalan nationalism as distinctly democratic and inclusive, it is in fact about defining insiders and outsiders, and emphasising divisions above shared interests. Nationalism is a dangerous beast, much easier to unleash than to rein in.

There are alternative views of the way forward for Catalonia, but the violence today will serve only to deepen divisions, making Catalans feel that there is no alternative but to back the radical separatists. But pointing out the rather dull, rational reasons why reckless nationalism is not the answer feels like shouting into the wind. The tide is flowing in the other direction, and populations across the western world are rejecting the lessons of history to leap into a new era of populist nationalism. Nothing good will come of it.

Comments (16)

  • Yes! Thank you, thank you, thank you. I am a Madrid native living in Sitges with my guiri husband and kid. I love your article so much I just HAD to let you know. It is thorough and accurate, just brilliant. Besos.

  • Just know that I’ve sent it to many of my friends abroad and they’re sharing, so, it’s becoming popular! 😀 I know, too much harm was done yesterday, I feel they were only a few hours that have caused conflict, divisidness and misunderstanding that’ll last generations!

  • Very good article, I´m sure it´s exactly how alot of us feel at the moment, some people are having a party to which we´ve not been invited. I just hope that if any kind of legitimate referendum is ever announced residents will be allowed to vote as in Scotland and Quebec although I fear that if they annouce unilateral independence it will become bloody and we will all suffer. Unbelievable to think this could have happened in such a peaceful and civilised corner of Spain, the politicians have gone mad and the people will suffer!

    • Author

      Yes, you’re right. The extremists on both sides have the momentum. We need to find a way to get to a negotiated solution, but it doesn’t seem like anyone is talking about that right now.

  • Brilliant article Annette, I totally agree with your sentiments. I have lived in Guatemala and Cuba so I am used to political upheaval, corruption and persecution based on ideology. We arrived here over 3 years ago after running from political persecution. We wanted to find a safe place to settle and integrate, we put our children into public schools, I studied at UB, the children learnt Catalan fast we are slowly catching up with them. We applied to work with Catalans and that was when things started to get tough, all doors were closed, our international skills were not welcome. We were told if they didn’t have jobs then we were the bottom of the pile. We have continued working on projects outside the country to survive and not feel as though our social status had been reduced to nothing. Diversity laws seem non existent and it seems we are destined to remain outside and largely invisible. The obstacles for foreigners to work in the social sector makes things difficult. I do not think the independence movement will improve this situation, or at least not for many years. Here I am thinking that I have come to the place of broken dreams and ‘es lo que hay’ and it is awful to think that I may have to move my family again to find somewhere we feel we can totally integrate and all feel happy. We were looking for a new home and now we are not so sure. We thought we were arriving in a progressive region, outward looking and cosmopolitan but now we re not so sure. My work in research into mental health and migration at UB has revealed some shocking figures about integration. But it is hard to integrate in a country where even their own national diversity is denied, what hope is there for the rest of us. This last week I have felt excluded and my school was taken over, the atmosphere has been tense and I do not feel my opinion is welcome and would not dare give it, but I have listened to everybody else. I too do not believe in half baked promise of a new utopia and do not want my children to be affected growing up with this. SO today I feel once again like a migrant, looking for a better home but at the same time not wanting to give up.

    • Jo. I’m not a sensationalist by any means. I’m a rationalist. I teach at 4 Catalan universities. Like you I came here ten years ago thinking it was an enlightened place. I was wrong. It’s a smug, self- superior undemocratic and now determined to be mono cultural against world trends. I do not want my children to go to school here. To grow up here. I’m looking for an out…

      • Pete and Paloma

        Thanks for your comments. Very interesting to hear that even a Madrileña has problems integrating! When I mention to Catalans that people say they are closed, the vehemently deny it.

        Just out of interest Paul where are you thinking of going? This year we will keep banging on doors here but also getting ready with a Plan B. My children are happy and integrated but their parents are mainly miserable so I have to weigh everything up. I’m off to Berlin for a conference next week, with curious eyes.

  • Jo, I hear you, if it’s any consolation (which I know it won’t), here I am in my own country, at least in theory, as I am from Madrid, I moved here (Sitges) 8 years ago too, and I am finally working, but integration is being a reeeaaally hard and slow process for me, so much so that in order to have a bit of a social life I founded a women’s international dining club last year, and now i am friends with a lot of ex-pat women that are a great support system. It is difficult to become more than an acquaintance with locals, if your spouse is not from around here either, unfortunately. Hang in there.

  • I’m sorry to say that I think that this article cherry-picks facts in order to back up a specific perspective, just as it accuses everyone else of doing. It’s a perfectly understandable and human thing to do. I’m not criticising, we all do it! My only gripe is that it seems to be trying to appear as “the reasonable voice”. Who isn’t trying to do that? Now I will selfishly try to do the same:

    As far as I can see, there are three main perspectives in this question:

    a) Spain is the problem, and they continually disrespect and abuse Catalonia
    b) Catalonia is in Spain, and this entire independence process is illegal and silly
    c) I don’t know and I don’t care and above all I just don’t want any unpleasantness or violence

    Each perspective has merit, and also an element to it that disqualifies the other two.

    In terms of policy decisions, or situation management (as opposed to individual crazy people), the violence has only come from the Spanish government. In terms of strategically playing the other side in a way that could called cynical, it’s happened mostly on the independentist side.

    The Spanish constitution is, in all practical senses, impossible to alter by a popular movement. It’s been there for nearly forty years, and as far as I know it has never been changed as a result of any popular or political movement. There have been zero referendums from such a process. Zero! And the idea of Spain as a whole voting on the future of Catalonia is not logical, because what happens if Spain votes no and Catalonia votes yes? Constitutional prisoners!

    Right now there are calls for mediation. The Spanish government will only enter into such talks if the independence process is abandoned. The Catalan government will enter talks, but want a proposal before they will consider suspending or abandoning the path they’ve taken. Train crash!

    It seems that the choice for Puigdemont is total surrender or independence. If he climbs down, Spain will still continue with trials, fines and prison sentences, and it will be without the world looking on. I don’t know that for sure, but it’s a pretty safe prediction. Whether you want to blame him for making this situation or not, his choice isn’t much of a choice – press on with the process, and try to expose Spain’s cruelty.

    I used to be a b), a long time ago, then I drifted between b) and c), but eventually I ran out of arguments, and Sunday’s beatings of unarmed, non-violent citizens just confirmed me as a). But it doesn’t matter what I think, I don’t have a vote. On one point I agree: it’s going to get worse.

    In my opinion, it all boils down to one sentence:

    The Catalan people have a right to self-determination.

    Either you agree with that or you don’t.

    • Author

      Hi Eugene,

      Don’t apologise for being critical, it’s welcome!

      You don’t really say which facts I’m cherry picking, so I can’t respond to that, and I’m not sure which “specific perspective” you think I’m trying to push – I don’t really fit into your A, B, or C. The point the article was trying to make was that while only two narratives dominate the conversation (roughly, your A and B) and compete in the international press and on social media, important details are brushed aside and many voices go unheard. Beyond the two main Spanish/Catalan nationalist camps, there are a multitude of perspectives that go well beyond your C.

      I think the constitution could change, given the right circumstances, leading to a legal referendum or perhaps a more federal-style system. Above all change must come gradually, it must be consensual and truly democratic – evolution not revolution. We shouldn’t forget that the status quo, while not perfect, isn’t too bad. We are taking a huge risk with our future. Everyone needs to put their flags down and start thinking about shared interests. But you’re right that there seems to be little prospect of any talks or compromise – it does seem we’re heading for a train crash.

      Your last point is interesting: “The Catalan people have a right to self determination.” It’s important to be specific about who counts as “the Catalan people” and who doesn’t. If we are talking about everyone with a vote (not you and me!) then the referendum on Sunday got a “yes” from under 40% of the electorate (and that’s without considering that many “yes” votes were likely “fuck-you-Spain-I’m-voting” as opposed to reflecting a true desire for independence – not that I blame them). 60% of the electorate is a lot of voices going unheard. Rather than self determination, it seems more to me like the hijacking of the democratic process by ideologues who are hell-bent on independence, not just sometime, but right now, and at any cost.

      • Hi! I think that your sentence “…the referendum on Sunday got a “yes” from under 40% of the electorate” is an example of the cherry-picking I mentioned. It’s a strong point when considered on its own, and has much validity, but when you consider that there are almost no countries in the world that require a minimum turnout for voting to be valid, and also that the current government of Spain was elected on a similar small % of the electorate, it takes the wind out of its sails somewhat. Those people whose voices weren’t heard exercised a choice too.

        Having said that, I think that the referendum on Oct 1st just doesn’t have enough guarantees to be a valid basis to jump into the unknown of a declaration of independence, so it appears that our positions are very similar. I hope good sense prevails, even if the only common point among all parties is that no-one wants a tragedy.

        What you say about defining who the Catalan people are is very true, but I think you’re jumping the gun. Deciding if you think the Catalan people have the right to self-determination is deciding whether you think Catalonia exists as a nation, whether you think there exists culture, traditions and rights that may be distinct (but no more or less valid) than those of other nations, including Spain. Many in Spain simply can’t even contemplate such a question. Perfectly reasonable, rational, friendly people go ballistic when confronted with the mere idea. THAT, I think, is what is at the core of this, and combined with the conditions needed to change the constitution, I can’t see how it’s at all possible to make changes. Even putting aside Catalonia, there are many people all over Spain who would prefer a republic, for example, and they have got nowhere in even getting the question asked.

        In the USA it’s guns, in my home country Ireland it’s abortion, perhaps in the UK it’s the EU, every country seems to have its own red-alert-lose-all-reason hot topic. In Spain, it’s territory.

        • Author

          Hey Eugene,
          Yes, I don’t think there is a huge distance between our positions.

          My point about the low turnout was not so much that it undermines the credibility of the referendum (which it does of course) but just to point out that the idea of a united “Catalan people” at all is a bit wobbly. Within the other 60% there are many perspectives on the best way forward ranging from sticking with the status quo to other kinds of change, which currently aren’t being heard. I think the idea of “the will of the people” is a bit of a myth – democracy is (or should be) about a constantly evolving series of messy compromises between various factions. It’s pretty rare to get overwhelming unity, the trick is to find a compromise that everyone can live with, even if they’re not perfectly happy.

          But on the point you make about low turnout undermining credibility, I think we probably agree – low turnouts are a problem in many places where either people are either so well off they can choose not to pay attention to politics, or where they have given up being able to have any impact. The lower the turnout, the weaker the legitimacy of the result, and that applies anywhere (including example of Spain that you give, also Brexit) I was not singling out the referendum on Sunday as exceptional in that regard. Although I would say that the reasons that voters stayed away in this case are relevant. Fear of police violence was a factor of course, but also those who did not consider the referendum to be legal and official were likely to stay away. But what I’m trying to say is that it wasn’t low turnout that made the referendum illegitimate, it was because the law under which it was held was struck down by the Spanish Constitutional court. Democracy does rely on the rule of law (though nothing justifies the violence against voters).

          I think you hit the nail on the head with the point about nationalism. It is nationalism on both sides which is driving people to extremes. I know what you mean about some Spanish people being utterly unable to contemplate the idea of Catalonia leaving Spain, I have experienced this from some people too. We humans have a fatal flaw in our tendency to become tribal – defining insiders and outsiders, and enemies to unite against. As you are Irish you will know more about this than most. I think rights belong to individuals, not groups. Once you start ascribing rights to groups, you exclude people by definition. I think it’s important to think of shared interests instead of competing identities. In a practical sense, the culture, language and traditions of Catalonia seem to be doing pretty well under the current arrangement, it’s not the Franco era anymore. When you think of what there is to lose, is all this pain really worth it for the idea of a nation?

          Unfortunately nationalism and identity politics are making a comeback. The politics of cosmopolitanism, breaking down borders, shared interests and interdependence is going out of fashion. This is the result of the failures of global capitalism that led to huge inequalities and eventually to the financial crash, austerity, etc. But to my mind we are throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Not a popular view, I know.

          Let’s hope that disaster can still be averted, although I’m not feeling very optimistic right now. Thanks for engaging on this topic, I’ve really enjoyed having an exchange of differing views in good faith. Not so common these days!

          • “In a practical sense, the culture, language and traditions of Catalonia seem to be doing pretty well under the current arrangement, it’s not the Franco era anymore.”

            This is probably the only point we disagree on. I think that Catalans are really, really sick of feeling that their identity is a second-class identity in Spain.
            Every few years along comes someone like former Spanish education minister Wert to try to force Catalan children to be more Spanish, even in the face of evidence that the Catalan education system doesn’t need to be taught any lessons by Spain (I just realised what I did there).

            The scandal of the fact that Catalan police are kept out of the loop in terms of international terrorist intelligence is another one (of many!). I know for a fact that Minister Zoido was called by Conseller Jané on his (Zoido’s) first day on the job, repeating the urgency to address this major security lapse. But Spain chose not to do it. Then they said they would, with some fanfare, before quietly saying no, it’s not going to happen. So the intelligence to avoid another attack has to first go through Madrid.

            And the Constitutional Court making the referendum illegal is just an example of how the judiciary has become politicised in Spain. This has been documented by independent international bodies.
            If there is political will the constitution can be changed. It comes back to whether you think Catalans should be allowed to decide for themselves. Many in Spain vote for a government that doesn’t believe this, and the main opposition doesn’t appear to either. Spain constantly bans and overturns Catalan laws on many subjects, from renewable energy to bullfighting, just because it’s Catalonia that’s doing it (bullfighting has been illegal in the Canaries for years with no problem from Madrid, for example).

            Just this week the state prosecutor said that the police violence in Barcelona was “legitimate defence”, and judged it unnecessary of further investigation. At the same time they decided to investigate harrassment of the police at their hotels for possible hate crime.

            Of course, those things being wrong doesn’t mean that independence at any cost is the path, but I can understand why many Catalans might feel that way. There needs to be a clear vote. I would say that an autonomous election might be the best next choice, not to convince Spain, which is impossible, but to show the international community what the Spanish government will do to avoid Catalonia having its voice.

  • ok,but just consider one thing: only one side has used organized,planified, reiterative violence so far. In As in any such controversy this puts them automaticaly on the wrong side. Is possible to be equidistant in such case ? is equidistance acceptable in any conflict where ONLY one side uses disproportionate violence ?Be shure they ( the spanish state )are well aware tat this put them to disvantage. Mark my word :
    the spanish state will do something to provocate a violent response or a violent event odf some type. If you had seen the jordi Evole intervew to the Villarejo police officer the you knw that tis is NOT beyond the spanish state,they have done such things before, and there are all sort of flag wawing mercenary ready and impatient to do the dirty work…

    • Author

      Hey Giorgio,
      Yes it is indisputable that all the violence has been on one side. What has amazed me is not only the brutality, which was indeed horrific, but the absolute lunacy of pursuing this strategy from the Spanish point of view. To say it has been counterproductive is a gross understatement – they have provoked the exact situation they were trying to avoid. Over the last few weeks I have been amazed again and again at the actions of the Madrid government – raiding Catalan government offices, arresting officials, threatening and then actually trying to prevent the referendum from taking place. Things that I thought were just not possible have happened. I knew they were corrupt but my eyes have really been opened to the way that politics is carried out here. That they would choose to use brutal force directly on peaceful citizens is just beyond my comprehension.
      But it doesn’t follow that if one side is in the wrong then the other side must be right. That’s why this whole mess is such a train wreck.


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