In October 1936, on the anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the New World, a ceremony was held at Salamanca University, in the heart of the nationalist Spain, to celebrate the ‘Day of the Race’. The Bishop of Salamanca, who had recently offered up his episcopal palace to be Franco’s headquarters, stood in the great hall next to the founder of the Spanish Foreign Legion, General José Millán Astray, a one-armed and one-eyed thug of a man. Also present was the university rector, Miguel de Unamuno, an eminent Basque philosopher who had supported the nationalist coup when it was launched four months earlier, but had since become disillusioned with its viciousness.
One of the speakers, Professor Francisco Maldonado, tore into Basque and Catalan separatism, which he described as tumours in Spain’s body. The fascist’s role, he said, was to act as a surgeon, cutting into live healthy flesh to remove the cancer.
It was too much for Unamuno. Rising, he told the audience that there were moments when ‘to be silent is to lie’. Looking at the maimed Millán Astray, he lamented that Spain would soon be full of cripples. As for the vituperative language just used against Basques and Catalans, ‘I was myself, of course, born in Bilbao, and the bishop, whether he likes it or not, is a Catalan from Barcelona’. The prelate shrank in embarrassment, but the eyepatch-wearing Millán Astray was enraged. ‘Muera la inteligencia!’ he screamed. ‘Viva la muerte!’ (‘Death to intelligence! Long live death!’)
That nihilistic yell prompted Unamuno to deliver a put-down that Spanish Republicans have treasured ever since. ‘You will win through brute force,’ he told the furious general, ‘but you will never convince, for to convince you must persuade.’
Unamuno’s words serve as a rebuke to any government that sees force as a substitute for argument, but are especially apt when, as happened last Sunday, state power is again deployed against separatism.
To overseas observers, the use of riot police to break up Catalonia’s independence referendum was both disgusting and bewildering. How could a democratic government send black-clad troopers, with batons and visors, against families? How could modern Spain generate scenes that belong in propaganda cartoons about state repression? As the polls closed, and online media fizzed with images of policemen dragging women by their hair, the Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, with a pomposity that often creeps into his public pronouncements, told his countrymen they had been ‘an example to the world’. What the world actually saw was an example of brutal ‘muera la inteligencia’ philistinism.
Incredibly, the king followed suit, ticking Catalonia’s Generalitat off for its ‘unacceptable disloyalty’ and pledging to defend Spain’s unity. The Crown’s open alignment with the right is seen by many on both sides as the ultimate vindication of their stance.
All politicians sometimes march to ancestral drumbeats, inaudible except to others of their tribe. For Spanish conservatives — among whom I count many friends, and through whose eyes I saw the Catalan question until very recently — national integrity is the paramount virtue. While conservatives the world over tend to oppose separatism, in Spain national unity is elevated in an almost spiritual way. The slightest concession to the autonomists is treated as a betrayal of something sacred.
Bizarre as it seems to outsiders, Rajoy’s authoritarian response is popular in most of Castilian-speaking Spain, and not just with his core voters. When the police were dispatched to Catalonia, patriotic crowds cheered them on their way. Yet paradoxically, Rajoy has done more to advance Catalan separatism than any Barcelona politician, breathing new life into a flagging cause.
After Franco’s death, Catalonia, along with other regions, was given substantial autonomy. Although there were perennial arguments about further devolution, supporters of a break were generally a minority. Catalonia, after all, now had most of the attributes of nationhood: a parliament, a president, a flag, a police force, tax revenues. The Catalan language, repressed during the dictatorship, was given official status and became the medium of instruction in schools. Plenty of Catalans, not just those whose parents had come from other parts of Spain, were content with the status quo.
To see how Madrid has destroyed that status quo, try to imagine London taking a similar line over Scotland. Suppose that, instead of agreeing terms for a referendum with Alex Salmond, David Cameron had had him prosecuted. Picture Tory politicians in London calling for Scots to be ‘Anglicised’, as a Partido Popular minister demanded the Catalans be ‘Hispanicised’. Try to visualise Met officers knocking pensioners aside as they carted ballot boxes out of schools.
Scots would rightly have felt that they were being dealt with not as fellow citizens, but as conquered vassals. Most Irish people felt the same way following the bloody repression of the 1916 rising, when Dublin was treated not as a British city, but as an enemy redoubt. Republicanism went overnight from being a fringe position to having clear majority support. Telling people that they are not allowed to leave turns out to be a pretty good way of ensuring that they do.
A few weeks ago, I made this point to Raül Romeva, whom the Catalan Generalitat calls its foreign minister, at his exquisite headquarters in the 14th-century Cases dels Canonges, near Barcelona’s cathedral. The Gothic surroundings were magnificent, and his conversation was entertaining, so I had no desire to walk out. ‘But if I saw someone trying to lock me in, what do you think I’d do?’
Quite, he said. For months, he had been asking for a dialogue with Madrid on holding a recognised referendum, possibly one whose question fell short of outright independence, but the response was a legalistic insistence that the constitution forbade any sort of ballot. Lacking other options, the Generalitat had called its own vote, though the opinion polls were still finely balanced.
Not any more. Last Sunday’s violence will push Catalans towards independence. Public opinion in the rest of Spain, as much as the letter of the law, won’t allow Madrid to move. What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? Catalonia issues a UDI; Madrid imposes direct rule and cuts off the Generalitat’s funding; the Generalitat rushes to put a tax system in place; the stock exchange collapses and the euro crisis is back with a vengeance. Brexit may soon be the least of the EU’s problems.