Labour Party member and author, John Payne, discusses the significance of next month’s trials of Catalan leaders in Madrid.
February 2019 sees the start of sensational political trials in Madrid. The accused are members of the Catalan regional government and leaders from civil society, who organised an independence referendum in 2017. They have been in prison for over a year already. Others, like the Catalan leader President Puigdemont, are in exile.
So what crimes have they committed?
They have been accused of ‘sedition’ and ‘rebellion’. We know all about sedition and rebellion here in Somerset – think the Pitchfork Rebellion of 1685, when many were killed at the Battle of Sedgemoor, hung after summary trials or transported to Barbados. And yet the only violence has come from the Spanish police action on Referendum Day 1 October 2017.
These politicians have also been accused of misuse of public funds to hold the referendum, despite the fact that this was the stated policy of the parties which won the last Catalan elections. That’s democracy for you.
When I lived in Barcelona in the 1960s, it was rare to hear Catalan, except in people’s homes. In the streets, shops and bars, on radio and television and in the newspapers, it was all Spanish. Catalan identity, both political and cultural, was well and truly repressed under Franco’s dictatorship which lasted until 1975.
All that changed with the 1978 Constitution which allowed Catalonia to regain its autonomy. So far, so good. But the 1978 constitution is flawed. The price the armed forces exacted for ‘allowing’ Spain to return to democracy was the clause that states that Spain is and must remain a unified state. It is that clause which has been used to try and justify the absurd charges brought against the Catalan leaders.
The independence movement, which ten years ago had very little support, has grown almost entirely on Madrid’s refusal to budge on progressive improvements in Catalan self-government. The ruling conservative party used its supporters in the Constitutional Court to declare whatever the Catalans want to do illegal. And its supporters in the Spanish media (including social media) stoked anti-Catalan feeling throughout Spain.
In 2018 the conservative Spanish President lost a vote of confidence. The new President is Pedro Sánchez of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), a sister party of the British Labour Party. He will almost certainly lose the 2020 General Election if he is seen to take sides with the Catalan prisoners. And yet that is the right thing to do. Shamefully, the European Union has remained silent. Sister parties like the Labour Party have failed to condemn these political trials.
In the long run, only a change in the Spanish Constitution can sort out this mess. Spain has never been ‘one nation’. Galicia, the Basque Country and Catalonia all have their own national identity, just like Wales and Scotland. The right to self-determination is recognised in international law. One quarter of the nations in the European Union did not exist as states just a few years ago: Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia and Slovakia.
Author note: John Payne was born in Bath and lives in Frome. His most recent book on “Catalonia is Catalans and Others: history, culture and politics in Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands” (Nottingham, Five Leaves, 2016). Copies can be ordered at Hunting Raven or bought direct from John.