Chris Bambery – Franco, Spanish Nationalism, and Catalonia

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To what degree is the legacy of Spain’s former fascist dictator Francisco Franco determining government policy with regard to Basque and Catalan autonomy movements?

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People’s History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.


The last thing Generalissimo Francisco Franco said to his designated heir, Prince Juan Carlos, was to urge him to defend the unity of Spain at all costs.

For Spanish rulers the idea that Spain is one and indivisible has always beencentral. That’s not just true for the current right-wing government of Mariano Rajoy’s Popular Party but for the Socialist Party and the “liberal” Ciudadanos party too.

The latest attack on Catalan nationalismby the Spanish government is anachronistic, while at the same time it is fanning the flames of Spanish nationalism

The supposed danger of Spain falling apart, because of concessions made to Catalan and Basque nationalists by the Spanish Republic of the 1930s, was a crucial factor in the 1936 military uprising. That uprising, headed by Franco, led to the Spanish Civil War and the destruction of democracy in Spain.

Catalonia was the focus of the republican resistance to Franco during that war and Barcelona was where workers took control in July 1936 in response to his coup. Calalonia would pay the price:
“Catalonia was singled out for treatment as having constituted an especially serious threat to the state’s integrity,” writes John Hargreaves in his book Freedom for Catalonia.

The banning of the public use of Catalan, the suppression of Catalan books and magazines, the sacking of thousands of teachers and fierce repression, including the execution of the Catalan President, Luis Companys, the only democratically elected head of state to be executed during World War 2, left scars which remain sore today.

Under Franco the Institutional Law of the State, the nearest thing the dictatorship had to a constitution, stated that the army guaranteed “the unity and independences of the country, the integrity of her territory, national security and the defence of the institutional system.”

Article 8 of the Spanish Constitution, agreed in 1978, echoes this by saying that the mission of the armed forces is, “to guarantee the sovereignty and independence of the state, defend its territory and integrity and the constitutional arrangements.”[1]

In the transition to parliamentary democracy which followed the dictator’s death in November 1975 the army received a number of guarantees – including one that the territorial integrity of Spain would be maintained. [2]

Under Franco the armed forces were not subjected to civilian control and had power over censorship and the judiciary. It was also directly involved in the repression of the regime’s opponents. While a Ministry of Defence was created to preside over the military, its high command was represented in the government cabinets, which answered to the dictator.

They had no choice but to give a degree of autonomy to both Catalonia and the Basque Country because they had been the principal opponents of Franco and had seen powerful mass movements on the streets demanding democracy and autonomy. But that decision was not one that the military liked:

“As far as the more intransigent sectors of the armed forces were concerned, the statutes of autonomy negotiated by the government of Adolfo Suárez (the first democratically elected government after Franco) merely confirmed the fears raised a year earlier by the introduction of the term nacionalidades in the constitution and marked the beginning of the end of Spanish national unity.”[3]

Opposition to such concessions to Basque and Catalan autonomy was central to the February 1981 military coup, when Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero and 250 Guarda Civil took over the Spanish Parliament. Parliamentary deputies were told to await an announcement from a “competent military authority”. Meanwhile in Valencia the military commander of the region ordered tanks onto the streets, proclaimed martial law and prohibited protests.

The coup ended when in the early hours of the morning King Juan Carlos appeared on TV in full military uniform and, as head of the armed forces, made it clear that parliamentary democracy had to be respected. Tejero was arrested as he left parliament with his men and in Valencia the commander announced he would obey royal orders. The King was hailed as a champion of democracy, although it emerged later that he sympathized with the military’s grievances.

Today the Tejero Coup is usually portrayed as a comic opera. With his moustache and the old three-cornered hat of the Guardia Civil, Tejero, waving a pistol in the air, is seen as a figure of fun.

In fact, this episode served as a warning to Spain’s civilian politicians, particularly as it looked likely that the Socialist Party would win the next general election, which they did the following year under Felipe Gonzalez.

In the immediate aftermath of the coup military officers were excluded from the government; a new military code was enacted prohibiting military involvement in politics; and civilian courts were given jurisdiction in the case of military rebellion. But to sweeten the pill a Law for the Defence of the Constitution gave the military a role in fighting ETA (the Basque separatist movement) in the Basque Country and the coup plotters were first tried in military courts before facing a civil trial.[4]

When Gonzalez and the Socialists came to office they not only embraced free market economic and social measures but took a hard position on Basque and Catalan nationalism. They sought to reduce the degree of autonomy both regions enjoyed and waged a dirty war against the Basque guerrillas of ETA, employing death squads against their supposed members.

Subsequent governments of the conservative Partido Popular (PP) have shared Gonzalez’s approach, even after ETA announced a permanent ceasefire and disarmed. The current Rajoy government refuses to enter into a Northern Irish-style peace process and Spain has been slated for its human rights record; still using torture; banning radical Basque parties and newspapers; and limiting freedom of speech.

All of that goes a long way to explaining why the Socialist Party has backed Rajoy over Catalonia’s independence referendum and the subsequent proclamation of independence.

In 2015, in response to the calls for an independence referendum in Catalonia, the PSOE’s leader Pedro Sánchez, told the party:
“Nobody should have the slightest doubt that we defend and will defend Spain’s territorial integrity.”

He also assured members that the Socialists would not reach any agreement with other parties (a reference to the radical left Podemos) which would imply “breaking apart Spain’s society”.[5]

Rajoy’s Popular Party (PP) is not a fascist party but it is rooted in the Francoist dictatorship. When it was launched in 1977 it was led by five of the dictator’s ministers and at its first National Congress it issued a manifesto warning of a “crisis of insecurity” caused by “excessive concessions” made to nationalists which were “disruptive for the national interest.”[6]

The PP has made efforts to distance itself from its origins but Spanish nationalism and opposition to Catalan nationalism remain central to it. When, in 2008, the Catalan government negotiated a new Statute of Autonomy, giving it more powers, with a Socialist government in Madrid, the PP took the matter to the Constitutional Court but also went out on the streets. In Madrid you came across well-heeled members asking you to sign a petition against these concessions to the Catalans. The court would eventually rip up much of the Statute, fuelling support for Catalan independence.

Today Rajoy has brought the forces of Spanish nationalism onto the streets. Now he is driven by his political base and the forces he has unleashed, just as the Catalan government was driven by the pro-independence mass movement.

But Rajoy also faces a challenge from further right, from Ciudadanos. They have gone further in demanding an even more hard-line response to the Catalan independence movement and in restricting the autonomy enjoyed by Catalonia and the Basque Country. It is a reminder how easily neo-liberals can slide into authoritarianism.

Franquist rhetoric lives on among the PP, Ciudadanos, and the far-right political heirs of Franco. That is because the dictatorship was rooted in a Spanish nationalist tradition centred on reverence for Spain’s “Golden Age” in the 16th century when it was the European super-power. That state was created by the conquest of Islam, the expulsion of Jews and Muslims, the enforcement of rigid Catholicism and the conquest and horrific exploitation of the Americas. Spain’s national day, the Día de la Raza (Day of the Race), celebrates Columbus’s “discovery” of America.

Catalonia’s elite, despite it being the richest region of Spain, has been largely excluded from political power in Spain. Since the monarchy was restored in 1875 there has been no Catalan prime minister of Spain.

Spanish nationalism is central to a Spanish state which loudly denounces the nationalism of others. The heavy-handed response of Rajoy in recent weeks is a resounding example.

[1] Howard J. Wiarda and Margaret MacLeish Mott, Catholic Roots and Democratic Flowers: Political Systems in Spain and Portugal, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001, P. 108

[2] Florina Cristiana Matei and José A. Olmedi, Executive Civilian Control of the Military: Spain, in Thomas C. Bruneau and Florina Cristiana Matei (editors), The Routledge Handbook of Civil-military Relations, Routledge, 2013, P. 182

[3] Charles Powell, Juan Carlos of Spain: Self-Made Monarch, 1996, Palgrave Macmillan P. 159-160

[4] Florina Cristiana Matei and José A. Olmedi, Executive Civilian Control of the Military: Spain, in Thomas C. Bruneau and Florina Cristiana Matei (editors), The Routledge Handbook of Civil-military Relations, Routledge, 2013, P. 184

[5] Catalan News, PSOE won’t negotiate “Spain’s territorial integrity”, 28 December 2015

[6] Richard Gunther, Giacomo Sani and Goldie Shabad, Spain After Franco: The Making of a Competitive Party System, University of California Press, 1988, P. 171

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