Andrew Dowling – ‘We were playing poker and bluffing’. The crisis in Catalan independence

BRAVE NEW EUROPE is a broad church. We provide contrary analyses and opinions as long as it is based on a progressive approach. One of our first questions following the brutal suppresion of the Catalan  referendum by the Spanish government was why the independence movement was not able to use the popular political momentum to see the issue through. There were isolated attempts at this, but not a broad movement. There has never been a real answer to this question. Lina Galvez provided a critical piece (read here) from a firmly leftist and feminist position. In this piece Andrew Dowling analyses the hurdles the independence movement still has to overcome.

Andrew Dowling, Senior Lecturer in Catalan and Spanish History at Cardiff Univeristy. He is the author of ‘The Rise of Catalan Independence. Spain’s Territorial Crisis’ (Routledge)

Clara Ponsatí, the right-wing economist and former member of the pro-independence Catalan government, currently in political exile in Scotland, made an extra-ordinary political intervention via web link to a group of pro-independence activists in London on 8 June 2018.  Speaking about the events of the dramatic autumn of 2017 in Catalonia, she said: ‘We were playing poker and bluffing’. It has long been the case of a clear divergence between the Catalan political leadership and supporters in the streets. Ponsati, intentionally or not, revealed that the Catalan leadership has been engaged in fake politics and it is perhaps no accident that Ponsatí’s academic work has centred around game theory. Those sceptical of the Catalan Process argue that it bore little relation to a traditional movement of self-determination. This seemed confirmed to hundreds of international journalists when the Catalan government declared independence and then immediately suspended it on 10 October 2017 and then declared it and fled the country within hours on 27 October. In this sense, the Catalan movement has been extra-ordinarily sui generis.

Part of the problem has been to define accurately what the Catalan movement for independence has actually been about. In one sense, and all available sociological date supports this view, the Catalan struggle for independence is a middle-class revolt. There has been throughout a direct correlation between support for independence and high position on the social ladder. This has partly been explained by the social structure of Catalan society and the vast internal migration of Spanish speakers into Catalonia in the 1950s and 1960s. Catalan speakers are heavily supportive of independence whilst Spanish speakers are sceptical or resistant. The direct correlation language-social status-position on independence is undeniable and clearly reflected in the social support for the radical left and pro-independence Candidatura d’Unitat Popular. This party, the CUP, has non-existent support amongst those defined as working class and is strongly supported by students and radical sectors of the upper middle classes. This is because how is a left-wing movement to mobilise workers when the grievances articulated: extraction of wealth, cultural discontent, status anxiety and language issues have no traction with those who are already politically and socially marginalised, and in fact have been so for decades.

From the late 1990s it became increasingly evident that the hopes for the growth of Catalan language usage had stalled. This had been the key strategic objective of the Catalan nationalist government that came to power in 1980 and was termed a strategy for the normalisation of the Catalan language. The first phase of pro-independence mobilisation, between 2000 and 2006, brought with it actors from the cultural and language world. This phase determined the contours and narrative of the subsequent movement and reveal why the movement is trapped in social support of 45 to 48 per cent, which it has been unable to breech in every vote or election held since 2012. The more the movement has pushed for independence, the more anxiety and resistance it has obtained from working class sectors. Although commentators make regular reference to the cases of Quebec and Scotland when speaking of Catalonia, it is essential to note that over 80 per cent of the Quebec population are French speakers whilst Scotland barely has a 5 per cent English population. In this sense, both Quebec and Scotland are largely homogenous societies. In Catalonia, Catalan speakers are a minority (though dominant politically and culturally) whilst only 30 per cent of Catalans reject all sense of Spanish identification.  Thus even if the Catalan movement was a real movement for self-determination, the social resources available for political support for independence are highly circumscribed.

Political game playing, social support and language bring us to our final observations. The single most effective moment for Catalan independence was the unrestrained Spanish police violence on 1 October 2017. This was of course an attempt to stop the referendum on independence. But as with the symbolic vote held on 9 November 2014 (more game playing), the referendum on 1 October was not a referendum. It was a ‘referendum’ for one side-the Catalan speaking middle classes who support independence and was boycotted by all other sectors of Catalan society. There was no ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaign and the little campaign there was only lasted three weeks. Although we can never know the true vote on 1 October, only 7 per cent of voters turned out to vote ‘no’ whilst the ‘yes’ figure was over 90 per cent. There is no reason to believe that ballot boxes confiscated by the Spanish police would have changed this pattern. Thus the ‘referendum’ that wasn’t can be seen once again as an outlet for the accumulated frustration of pro-independence supporters who have not been privy to the game playing of the Catalan leadership.

Furthermore, the deliberate ignoring of half of Catalan society which has been ambivalent or hostile to independence has been a permanent feature of the independence movement. The term ‘people’ is used when at best, less than half of the Catalan population can fit within this definition. For the middle-class leadership and supporters of independence, the denial of the social reality and complexity of Catalan society is the greatest impediment to the advance of the movement. The recent appointment of Quim Torra, a cultural activist with no political experience as President of Catalonia is a disturbing trend. Torra embodies the ethnicist denial of Catalan reality and dreams of the return to the 1930s when over 80 per cent of the population used the Catalan language. Going back to this supposed arcadia is no more possible than return to a pre-television age and is unfortunately greatly damaging to the cause of Catalan independence. The movement for Catalan sovereignty needs to clean house and construct a narrative of belonging for all of Catalan society. Until it does so, international sympathy and support will stay marginal, and outside of the obvious sympathies of Scottish nationalists, remain limited to the Lega and right-wing Flemish nationalists.  Catalan independence is of course not going away, but we can predict that the movement will rumble on, trapped in social support of around 45 to 48 per cent and unable to achieve its objectives. The ultimate direction this movement might take should be of concern to all on the left and solidarity towards Catalans due to the actions of the Spanish state need to be combined with recognition of the reality of a movement that is also a social revolt of the rich.



  1. This opinion piece tries to ignore the elephant in the room: the consistent call of millions of catalans year after year has been “we want to vote”. The Catalan issue is one of democracy and legitimacy. Catalans are a structural minority within a Spanish state that shows itself unable or unwilling to offer millions of its citizens a voice and decent political representation: why are Catalans -all Catalans- forbidden to exercise their right of self-determination and to chose peacefully and democratically their political future, whatever that may be? Catalonia is treated de facto like a colony. Maybe many in Catalonia are happy with that status and others do not even realize they are being treated like a colony. However, there are many democratic mechanisms to give a voice to all. Why is repression, state-violence and censorship being exercised instead of dialogue, negotiation and democracy?

    • Broadly agree with Mark – interesting article, but a misreading where not downright misleading, including “middle class revolt” and linguistic angles. My take, that it’s Catalan frustrations that have turbo charged independentism due to irritation at eg treatment of Barcelona as just another regional capital, without any mechanism, like a regional chamber, for real input, as the constitution originally postulated for the Senate.

      In economic, social, cultural, logistical, political, infrastructural, strategic etc. terms it’s forcing a centrist model that just doesn’t fit reality, not just for Catalonia but for much of the periphery, especially the Mediterranean, see the dogged determination of the state not to implement Mediterranean communications. See interesting book “Madrid es una isla. El Estado contra la ciudadanía”. Carlos Pazos.

      Independentism with its baggage is an easy stick to use to beat up the Catalans, but there’s a lot more to this eternal problem than nationalism. But with only independentism till recently offering any hope of change, that’s where we’re at.

  2. Separatists, nationalists, totalitarian pro-independence people are not majority, only represents 47% of Catalonia, that’s why they don’t have enough representation at parlament (cualified majority) to pass a referendum’s law and therefore, their only option is to break the law in attempt to sepratare Catalonia from Spain. Since breaking the law is (obviously) not good idea to the eyes of the world, they desperately try to clean-up the illegality by selling a victimhood image and trying to convince world’s opinion with manipulated statements like: “we are all Catalonia” “we represent all population” “Spain is fascist and is a repressive state of violence and censorship” when the reality is that Spain is one of the 19 only full democracies in the world. The separatists are even that used to lie (no wonders why now the international community knows them as the “kings of fake news”), that for them seems natural to invent or interpretate law to their own interest, as in example with the so called “self-determination right” which is a very specific situation according to the international community and law that doesn’t apply to us in Catalonia, or better said, to the 47% of Catalonia that prefer to be always the victim, thinking that playing the victim gives them a moral win in the battle. Not anymore. This is being said by a born Catalan which is also proud to be spaniard.

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