The Catalonia Question

Well, it’s not really the Catalonia question. It’s the two Catalonia questions: Do you think Catalonia should be a state? If so, do you think that state should be independent?

Today, Sunday 9th November 2014, the Spanish autonomous community of Catalonia is heading to the polls for a referendum on independence from the rest of Spain. Not a referendum, sorry, a consultation. No, it’s been cancelled. Oh wait, it’s on again, but only kind of? No…

Yeah, it’s been a bit like that for the last few months. My impression of Barcelona’s official position is something along the lines of “yeah, we know you’ve said it’s illegal, Madrid… yes, no, we’re not sure we want it either… it’s just, the thing is, there’s a lot of votes in it for us, so, you know…”

A good idea of how it’s perceived is given by the latest in of the range of WhatsApp chain messages that have been circulating over the last few weeks:*

“This Sunday, 9N, the Autumn Festival will be celebrated at many schools and institutes, which will include:

  1. A day of open doors from 9 in the morning to 8 in the evening.
  2. Exhibitions of crafts made by students, in particular, remarkable cardboard boxes in the shape of ballot boxes.
  3. The possibility for friends and relatives to put in wishes written on pieces of paper…”

Apologies for any ugliness in the translation, in a couple of places I went for fidelity to the original over fully natural English, but you get the idea.

And you know what? This is kind of what’s happening. The Spanish Constitutional Court has declared any referendum unconstitutional, although, as one no-leaning friend bitterly pointed out to me, things being unconstitutional doesn’t always stop them from happening in Madrid and besides, the constitution was rather rushed in the first place. To avoid problems for themselves, Barcelona is making a great show of it being a people-driven process, a spontaneous, volunteer-run canvassing of opinion. Any resemblance to a centrally-organised poll is purely coincidental.

So what do people think? Despite their complaints that it’s undemocratic not to allow the vote, it strikes me as a sign of a relatively healthy democracy that people are allowed to dissent so openly and vocally. What might be surprising is how reluctant people are to dissent from dissent, to support the union. Walking around town, on balcony after balcony, hanging from window after window, you see Catalan flags. I’ve seen one Chilean flag, a Mexican flag motorcycle helmet and dozens upon dozens of red and yellow stripes. As for Spanish flags, I’ve seen three. Well, apart from when I happened to be in Barcelona during an anti-independence protest. Of those three, one was on the town hall and another on a conference centre, both flying side-by-side with flags of Terrassa, the EU and, yes, Catalonia.

I don’t think it’s that there’s no support for Spain, no opposition to independence. In fact, I think that the main question will be reasonably close once you’ve added the votes that Catalonia shouldn’t be a state to those that it should, but not an independent one, and compare it to the separatist “sí-sí” votes. My impression is that although there will be majority support for independence, it will not be an absolute majority. It’s just people are apprehensive about openly saying “no”. Yes, maybe 1/5 of flats are showing Catalan flags, and some of those that aren’t will undoubtedly vote for independence, but that still leaves a lot of potential no-voters.

Only two people have told me that they will vote no to the second question, one of whom said they were only telling me as an outsider, that they were a closeted pro-Spaniard with most of their Catalan friends. It clearly meant a lot to them, and they had a lot to say – we were theoretically talking French, but they substituted trickier vocabulary in English or Spanish with barely a pause, and the conversation lasted a good half hour with little input from me. Admittedly, another person seemed to be strongly arguing for no when I discussed the subject with them, but they never explicitly stated that that was how they intended to vote on the day. For what it’s worth, the only time I’ve heard arguments about economics or politics or indeed, many reasoned arguments at all, is from the no supporters.

From the history, you can understand why the “native” population would be anti-Spain, but one might imagine that the large immigrant population would be in favour of staying within Spain, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with a lot of the people I’ve met. Moroccans, second/third-generation Andalusians and Murcians, lots of them seem to be planning to vote yes. Perhaps I mainly know those who are more integrated (in the UKIP sense of the term), when support for yes might be expected.

Whatever the outcome, we won’t know the full result for a while – voting is open until the 25th November for those who can’t make it today. So, for now, let me give the final word to one of my young students. We were practising colours in English, they were colouring in flags according to the instruction. The first was blue, white and red. “Anyone know which country’s flag this is?” “France.” “Correct!” The second, black, yellow and red. “Ale… Alema… no, Germany!” “Well done!” Red, yellow and red. First student: “Spain.”

Second student: “Spain? Yuck!”


*Full disclosure: I’d received another by the time I was typing up my translation here, this being yet another missive trying to clarify the procedure for the vote. Safe to say, I’m even less sure what’s happening. It ends: “Remember, to participate is NORMAL. There will be police patrolling and protecting polling stations like during any electoral process. TO TAKE PART ISN’T ILLEGAL.” It’s going to be an interesting day.


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