Toni Strubell, Núria Bassa – Interview: Ben Wray on Democracy and Independence Movements in Spain and Scotland

Ben Wray (Falkirk, Scotland /1989) is a freelance writer and journalist at BRAVE NEW EUROPE, coordinating the Gig Economy Project which analyses new forms of precarious work in the digital economy. He is the co-author of ‘Two Souls of independence’, to be published by Verso in August 2021. He now lives in the Basque Country and has written extensively on the struggle for self-determination of different European stateless nations such as Catalonia and the Basque Country.

Toni Strubell  is a former MP in the Catalan Parliament, journalist, and author of What Catalans Want

Article publicat en catalan aquí

Toni Strubell (L.), Bew Wray (R.) Photo by Maria José Tintoré

Before, the Basque Country was the spearhead for questioning the democratic deficiencies of the new Spanish post-Franco regime born in the 1978 Regime. Would Catalonia seem to have usurped that role today?

Rather than ‘usurped’ the way I would frame it is that Catalonia is currently the eye of the storm. However, that can easily change, and from the perspective of seeking independent states in Catalonia and the Basque Country, the ideal scenario is to have two storms raging at once. If both the Basque Country and Catalonia had insurgent movements at the same time, I think it would become extremely difficult for the Spanish state to contain that threat.

But of course, the national politics of Catalonia and the Basque Country move at their own rhythms. The Basque context is 50 years of armed conflict between the Spanish state and ETA. The country is now in a difficult post-ETA phase that requires a degree of patience for wounds to heal on all sides. My sense is the Basque Country is collectively taking a breath after so many intense years, re-charging its batteries and preparing to come again, on a different basis to before.

You can see that with the rising support for EH Bildu, which is the main representative of the ’Abertzale left’ in the Basque Country today. Young Basques in particular are once again embracing the discourse of the pro-independence left. EH Bildu made a big step forward in the last Basque Autonomous Community elections in July 2020, finishing a strong second place, and there is now a very large Basque nationalist majority in the Basque Country, if you count together EH Bildu on the left and the Basque Nationalist Party (EAJ-PNV) on the right.


The Catalan movement is more transversal, left and right, while the Basque nationalist right remains reluctant to independence. Has this to do with greater stability and funding available? Is the cooperative movement a key to the sturdiness of the Basque Country today?

The Basque nationalist right, which is represented by the Basque Nationalist Party, has been the dominant force in the politics of the Basque Autonomous Community since the post-Franco era began. I think the primary reason they shy away from independence is because the party’s DNA is one built on compromise and gradualism, not rupture, in its relationship with the Spanish state. These instincts were accentuated due to the role of ETA in Basque society, as EAJ-PNV sought to create as much distance as possible between themselves and any independence politics which smelt of being radical. They are the political establishment in the Basque Country and their main purpose is to govern devolved administration in the interests of the Basque bourgeoisie.

EAJ-PNV’s political interests are not threatened by Madrid. They have proven themselves to be a reliable partner for the Popular Party and the PSOE in terms of supporting their minority governments in the Spanish Congress, and in return for EAJ-PNV’s votes the Basque Country may get some extra funding or some new devolved powers. It’s a transactional relationship, and one EAJ-PNV were happy to continue with in Mariano Rajoy’s PP minority government even during the peak of the Catalan crisis. They put their narrow interests above defending their Catalan allies in their moment of need.

There’s no doubt that the relative success of the Basque economy has allowed EAJ-PNV to be successful with this sort of politics, and key to that success is the country’s huge co-operative movement which is a manufacturing dynamo and employs large numbers of workers in well-paying, secure jobs.

However, I would be wary of seeing EAJ-PNV’s gradualist and transactional approach as something unique to either that party or to the Basque Country. I think that all nationalist parties in stateless nations across Europe face a fundamental dilemma: are they willing to take the risks of rupture with the hegemonic state and all that entails to deliver independence, and thus put in danger the political power they have accumulated and credibility they have attained in elite society, at a domestic and international level? If they are not willing to do so, they are on a different path, one that leads them towards some degree of conformity with the orthodoxies of the hegemonic state. You can see this in EAJ-PNV, but I would argue you can also see it in the SNP in Scotland, in the N-VA in Flanders and even in the ERC in Catalonia.


You were optimistic about the last Catalan election result with regard to the outcome for Catalan independentists. How do you feel today with the stranded Dialogue Table?

Rather than ‘optimistic’ I would say that I was impressed by the resilience of the vote for Catalan pro-independence parties. Since the 2017 referendum there has been a wave of repression which one would think might lead some Catalans to say ‘this isn’t worth it’ and start voting for pro-union parties with the view of getting more stability in Catalan politics. But not only has that not happened, the highest vote ever for pro-independence parties in the Catalan election in February this year shows the public is doubling down on its rejection of the Spanish state and embrace of the independentists.

However, I also did write at the time that “crucial to whether there will be a new independence drive is the pressure the Catalan independence movement applies on its own parties”. It was always very clear to me that this new pro-independence coalition government, led by centre-left ERC, did not have a coherent plan for a new drive for independence, and I’m not even sure if they wanted a new drive for independence. I think they have a party political plan to become the dominant force in Catalan politics over the next 10-15 years, and to do that they want to be perceived to be applying pressure on the Spanish Government for a referendum in a considered and reasonable way, all the while knowing that such tactics will never actually deliver a referendum. That doesn’t mean absolutely nothing will come from the negotiations, it’s possible that we could see an offer from Madrid for an extension of devolved powers, which could divide the independence movement in terms of how to respond to such an offer.

And that is how I view “the dialogue table” between Catalan President Pere Aragones and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. It is “open-ended”, with no clear parameters for negotiation, and is expected to drag on well into 2022, at which point the next Spanish election – which could deliver the Spanish right-wing back into office – will be in sight. Sánchez wants to drag it out to maintain as much stability as possible in Catalonia without conceding anything important to the Catalans. For Sanchez, stability in Catalonia is essential to his electoral strategy. For Aragones, he wants to make Catalans feel he is trying to advance the independence cause in a serious and mature way, doing everything he can, leaving no stone unturned, etc etc. But everyone knows it won’t amount to the Spanish state consenting to a Catalan independence referendum.


President Puigdemont was recently arrested in Sardinia despite his immunity as an MEP. The EU showed no support for him. What do you make of this?

The political institutions of the European Union have no interest in supporting Carles Puigdemont. The EU Commission and the EU Council, the two most important political institutions, want to keep Spain sweet so that they can secure Spanish support for their reform agenda, and they know that the way to keep the Kingdom of Spain happy is to give no succour to Catalan independence. That is a totemic issue for the Spanish state which comes right at the top of its priorities, whereas defending the rights of MEPs, as well as human rights more broadly and the national rights of Catalonia specifically, is well down the EU’s priority list. They can live with some criticism from Amnesty and the growing disdain of the Catalan people.

It’s a hard lesson to learn, but it seemed to me that there was quite a lot of naivety from the top to the bottom of the Catalan independence movement in 2017 that the EU would act as a check on the belligerence of the Spanish state and at least broker a compromise between Catalan democracy on the one hand and Spanish intransigence on the other. That was never going to happen. The EU as an institution is dominated by elites, whether that be the heads of member-states or EU Commissioners. Generally, those elites look after one another, unless they have a direct interest in not doing so.


Tom Devine says Scotland has passed from union by consent to union by imposition. How do you see the Scottish question with regard to the Catalan and Basque question?

I think that Tom Devine is correct. Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP would dearly love a repeat of the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement, when the UK state signed up to an independence referendum, but a lot has happened in the nine years since 2012. Democracy is in decline around the world. The British ruling class have learned hard lessons from the experience of the 2014 independence referendum and the 2016 Brexit referendum. They now realise that referendums let the masses enter the arena of politics, and that their ability to manufacture consent in those circumstances is greatly reduced, which means the outcome is unpredictable.

People forget now, but before the Edinburgh Agreement was signed, support for Scottish independence was as low as 27% in some polls and no higher than one-third. Then UK Prime Minister David Cameron saw an independence referendum as an opportunity to inflict a major defeat against the SNP and against the idea of Scottish independence permanently. As it turned out, the campaign was probably the largest and most energized in Scottish history, the grassroots of the movement completely altered the terms of the debate, and the British state went very, very close to what would have been a disastrous defeat. Not only that, far from burying the independence cause, the referendum put rocket boosters on it, as that movement then turned the SNP into the largest party per capita in Europe, and made voters intent on destroying the Scottish Labour Party as a significant electoral force due to its betrayal of working class Scotland in the ‘Better Together’ campaign to defend the union.

So when you understand what has happened in recent years from that perspective, Boris Johnson would either have to be pretty mad to agree to an independence referendum at this point, or he would have to be a genuine democrat. I think he’s an opportunist, not a democrat. Opinion polls are now very tight between No and Yes. The Tories are now doing better in Scotland than Labour are. What is the political opportunity for Johnson in agreeing to a referendum? I don’t see it.

I know speaking to independence activists in Catalonia and the Basque Country that they do not like to directly compare the Spanish state to the British state, because Britain never had Francoism and there has always been a liberal-democratic tradition in the British establishment (even if it is one that is deeply hypocritical) which hasn’t existed in Spain. I understand and accept that, but I remain of the view that London is drawing closer to the approach of Madrid towards the key of national self-determination, and further away from the approach of the Edinburgh Agreement.


In August 2020 you denounced the corruption of Spain’s monarchy. Why do you think the Spanish population are so comfortablewith corruption, there being no Gilet Jaunes or any movement like that in Spain to complain?

I think the ‘Indignados’ movement of a decade ago was in part a movement against the corruption of the Spanish state. Podemos’ sudden rise in the early 2010s was largely because it tapped into that anti-establishment sentiment which was expressed in the Indignados; that the there is a ‘caste’ at the top of Spanish society which run politics and the economy in their own interests at the expense of the 99%.

So I wouldn’t say that the Spanish people are comfortable with corruption. What is probably true is there is a fatigue with the issue of corruption, where people feel fatalistically that it has always been there and will always be there. And as Paul Preston shows magnificently in his book ‘The People Betrayed’, corruption is very deeply rooted in the history of the Spanish state, and the people have known about that the whole time, so that fatigue crosses over several generations and perhaps takes the form of cynicism for many about politics all together.

I think cynicism is dangerous, because if you say ‘they are all as bad as each other’, ‘it will never change’, you open up space for the most authoritarian and least transparent elements to take power, because if they’re all as corrupt as one another then what’s the difference anyway? Well there is a big difference between far-right Vox, for example, and centre-left PSOE, even if the latter has been embroiled in the corruption of the Spanish state as well.

I think for example that Podemos suffered from this general cynicism when right-wing newspapers started publishing lies about the party having financial links to the Venezuelan and Iranian government and people bought into it. Or when former Catalan President Artur Mas was accused of corruption shortly before an election, which turned out to be complete lies but hurt Mas’ politically nonetheless. In both cases, Spanish state dirty tricks where involved.

So it’s vital that general cynicism is countered with specific critique of the relationship between the Spanish state and corruption, and that a belief is maintained in the power of people to transform society, rid the state of corruption and build democracy anew.

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