These are interesting times.
I must confess that, from time to time, I do wonder whether I’ve made the right choice. As university drew to a close, I watched many of my friends leave for London and five figure salaries. If it had ever occurred to me that I might be interested in that path, I suppose I too would have followed it. But here I am in Extremadura, one of Spain’s poorer regions, getting by on a modest salary and picking up extras in private classes where I can. At the very least I have a job; for that much I am truly grateful. There are plenty of wanderers here. Worlds collide: the English graduate in me seeks confirmation, stability and satisfaction. The Spaniard in me wants to use the here and the now to go from job to job until I find the medium that suits me best. It isn’t often that I have such Jekyll and Hyde moments, but in this period of intermission, the two are often locked in combat. My devil had been long caged, and he came out roaring.
Putting my doubts and concerns into perspective was the King’s address to the nation this evening. In light of recent events in Catalonia – up to and including several counts of police brutality as the Catalans made another bid for independence – it seems foolish to break my head over my petty apprehensions. I’ve never really taken a stance on the Catalan question, treating it in much the same manner as the age old Real Madrid/Barcelona F.C. divide – that is to say, taking the easy way out (in the latter case, opting to support Sevilla’s Real Betis as a nonconfrontational middle ground). But at such a time of crisis, it is difficult not to have an opinion here or there.
I’m a reluctant supporter of the Spanish cause. And I’ll explain why. In studying for my novels, I have been paying especial attention to the year 1640 and the troubles that spiralled out of that most hectic year. Critically, it was the year that not only Catalonia but both Portugal and Andalusia all made a break for independence from a weakened, overstretched Spain. After more than a decade, and much blood, only one would achieve that privilege. Taxes, once again, were a primary concern for the Catalans, who felt unfairly treated by the government. In this case they may have had a point: Spain’s various wars were costing the empire dear and Catalonia often suffered the brunt of it. The upshot was that, despite French intervention, Spain crushed the revolt and Catalonia was reined in, thanks in part to various double-dealings with the French.
(DISCLAIMER: I apologise if my history is off. Working in the medium of alternate history as I do, I sometimes forget how much of the history I study is the product of my own alterations…)
Four hundred years later and many Catalans still want their independence. It’s been an ongoing concern for some time, rumbling along the undercurrent of Spanish news for as long as I can remember, but when images surface such as those of the clash between the police and the fire brigade and of armed men raiding polling stations, the cause becomes that bit easier to understand. Some of the pictures look as though they have been taken out of a Latin American country rather than on Iberian soil. It’s really quite shocking.
What would independence for Catalonia mean? A lot of things, of course, but not least of all, trouble. Catalonia supports Spain more than many of its autonomous communities because it has the money to do so. Were regions such as Aragon and Extremadura to shoulder the kind of burden Catalonia carries, they might easily collapse. Catalonia is strong; it’s one of their mean reasons for making a bid for freedom in the first place. Not only is it one of the wealthier regions, it also receives a significantly larger intake of the country’s tourism. If you ask a lot of holiday-goers where they’re headed when they’re off for a trip to Spain, many of them will tell you Barcelona. When it comes to a summer holiday, a weekend trip or a day out, the Madrid/Barcelona question is far more easily answered. In short, Catalonia is savvy. Whilst for much of its history Spain looked religiously inwards, Catalonia was looking out at the wider world. When the tourism industry kicked off, the Costa Brava was one of the first on the scene. Had he not been hit by a car on his way to the airport, my enterprising grandfather would have been one of the first to reap the whirlwind. Though Castilla la Mancha was his home, he responded to the call of Catalonia. You might say I have a dash of personal interest in the matter.
We get to the heart of the matter. In her strength, Catalonia is one of Spain’s greatest assets. Just as much as she is wary of a merging with Portugal, Spain is anxious not to let go of Catalonia. A break with Spain, bloodless or not, would be a hammer blow to an already weakened nation. Whether Catalonia would prosper in the long term is beyond my understanding, but for the first few years at least, there would be trouble. Regardless of the political or economic outcome, Brexit resulted in a bitter taste in the mouth for many, both at home and abroad. The Catalan question outlives the Brexit debate by hundreds of years; I should not like to see that bitterness multiplied.
2017 is, in many ways, not too dissimilar to 1640. Alright, so there’s no pan-European war, popery is no longer anybody’s primary concern and explicit empire building is a thing of the past (or at least, as it was in the seventeenth century), but the point remains that it was a year of change and unexpected events. Last year saw both a British rejection of Europe and the election of what many considered to be a joke candidate to the seat of the most powerful man in the world. These are strange times. It is fitting, then, that Catalonia should choose this moment to strike out, as it often has before, at a time when predictions are off and nationalism is creeping back after a lengthy absence.
It would not be the death of Spain. But it would come down hard, and upon a nation that has spent hundreds of years recovering from the slaughter of its golden goose. Stanley Lane-Poole once claimed that Spain had been ‘grovelling in the dark’ ever since the completion of its national genocide. Whether you sympathise with his damning appraisal or not, Spain is no longer the great power it once was, and if Catalonia broke free, it would be tantamount to taking one of her lungs.
One of the most beautiful facets of Spain is its diversity. There are few other places in Europe quite as varied, in people, countryside and culture. The Basques in the north are fiercely proud of their unique heritage, as are the Galicians, the Valencians and the Andalusians. In many respects, so are the peoples of all the other regions. Even the Leonese, within the very heart of Old Castile, have been known to make a bid for independence from their own autonomous community from time to time. In that sense, the Catalans stand out only in their dogged pursuit of independence. Where I would normally be strongly persuaded to empathise with their cause, as I was with the Scottish bid a few years back, my conclusion is much the same: one day, perhaps, but not now. With storm clouds looming, now is not the time for the severing of ties. There may come a time, and soon, when unity will be our holdfast. We should be proud of diversity where we find it and treasure unions where they can be made. It is easy to do things one’s own way. It is better for all of us, surely, if we work together. It’s the wishy-washy liberal answer, but I’m sure it’s the right one. If you knew that something you wanted would cause no end of hurt and disruption to somebody you knew, even somebody you had grown to dislike, could you take it from them? Really?
These are interesting times. I wonder what will become of us. BB x