The Catalan independence movement has entered a new phase. This is not something that like a clock, which can be set back again.
David Whyte is Professor of Socio-legal Studies and Ignasi Bernat is an Honorary Academic in the University of Liverpool’s Department of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology
Originally published in a print version in The Herald
The scenes of Barcelona burning, the largest general strike in living memory and the huge demonstrations across the towns and villages suggest that imprisoning politicians and cultural leaders s not likely to resolve very much in Catalonia. Indeed, the shocking footage of police violence, the targeting of journalists and the indiscriminate attacks on peaceful protestors does not seem to be working for Spain. If the Spanish government has achieved one thing in Catalonia in the past week, it has been the creation of a renewed and more powerful civil disobedience movement.
This is not the same movement that took to the streets to on 1st October 2017 to make sure that the referendum would happen. This time, the Spanish government has managed to unite those who believed in the right to self-determination, and those who object to Spain ramping up the repression in the courts and on the streets. Despite the protestations of almost all of the Spanish political parties, this new movement is not exclusively pro-independence and it certainly represents the majority
And this is the importance of Friday’s General Strike, in terms of the head count, probably the largest in Catalonia’s history. The General Strike brought large numbers of workers onto the streets who are either opposed to independence or are ambivalent. Yet they know the importance of solidarity and of their movement’s role in reigning in state authoritarianism through Catalonia and Spain’s history. The civil war and anti-Franco songs that rang through the demonstrations on Friday are not mere nostalgia. The Catalan people have been here before, many times. You do not need to be a Catalan nationalist to know the dangers that a rise in Spanish nationalism contains for workers’ rights and freedoms.
General strikes like this are guaranteed to make Spain look decidedly twitchy. Two days after the 2017 referendum, the 3rd October general strike was then the biggest in living memory, bringing every corner of Catalonia to a standstill. Later that day, the Felipe VI, the King of Spain, appeared in a state broadcast on national television to remind people that they were subjected to his authority and to accuse Catalan institutions of disloyalty to the flag and the Crown.
It was a truly remarkable moment.: the grandson of the King who Franco restored in a historic pact making accusations against an entire nation. Of course, it went down like a bucket of cold sick in most quarters. For older Catalans it was a vivid reminder that the transition from dictatorship to democracy was never fully secured. For younger Catalans, it was a grotesque scene they recognised only from the history books.
This time, there was state broadcast, no King Felipe on television. Perhaps a lesson has been learned that this could only fan the flames of the fires in the streets of Barcelona. This time, Madrid is beginning to realise it has a problem on its hands that is much bigger that the one it faced in the Autumn of 2017. And this problem will not be dealt with by dealing out a few more prison sentences, no matter how harsh.
Last week’s wave of resistance was not started by the traditional pro-independence civil society groups, the Catalan National Assembly and Òmnium Cultural (the organisations represented by Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez who received 9 year sentences for organising non-violent demonstrations). The closing of Barcelona airport and the cutting of all of the major transport arteries on Monday night was organised by new group called Tsunami Democràtic, with a new and visibly younger leadership. At first the group was endorsed by the former President Carles Puigdemont. After Monday, it received a decidedly lukewarm response from the current President Torra, clearly nervous that the independence movement is not going to be easily controlled by the traditional political organisations.
The most pressing questions about responsibility for the crisis should be directed not to Barcelona, but to Madrid. All of the main state and civil society institutions, including most of the Spanish political parties, the judiciary and the key media outlets have acquiesced with the police violence, the political prisoners and the viral taunting and vocal hatred of Catalonia. It has become obvious that the root of problem is in the very nature of a Spanish democracy that never shaken off the influence of its military elite. Crucially, Spain has failed to purge its Francoist commitment to the cause of the Spanish nationalist project. This is why political repression and running battles in the street have been chosen instead of a negotiated political settlement.
For the generation who are at the centre of the latest round of protests, this frame of reference cannot work. This is the same generation that is agitating against the climate emergency and that uses social media to organise autonomously. For this generation, their desire for more democracy cannot be blocked by appealing to the memory of past glories and past atrocities, either Spanish or Catalan.
Madrid has provoked an uprising that has a younger and more socially diverse leadership. It is a movement that is not going away anytime soon. This is a millennial movement that will not be easily reined in by the mainstream political parties in either Madrid or Barcelona.