Thursday, 5 October 2017

Letter from Barcelona: Labour’s Spanish lessons

Catalan flag, with the "independence" star
In between the petty spats of the Tory conference this week or the surreal cult of Labour’s gathering last week, there was a potentially seismic political event for Europe (and Britain) a thousand miles away: Sunday’s referendum for Catalan independence. It is big news: while a major general election campaign was happening in the EU’s most populous country, this little region’s impending vote was stealing the headlines for much of it.

It seems suddenly shocking but, for those of us familiar with Spanish and Catalan politics, it is essentially an event that has been at least a decade in the making, but which has approached Spain’s now largely stable democracy like a relentless iceberg, and which the national government’s general cack-handedness has made it seemingly powerless to stop.

This time, around 90% of the votes have been cast for “Sí”, although the vote is technically illegal and many anti-independence voters have naturally boycotted it. Reasons are many: there is first raw, emotional nationalism; then more rational, economic unfairness (Catalonia is a net contributor to taxes and “subsidises” poorer regions; some may even have voted yes in the (mistaken) belief that Spain’s foreign policy had somehow helped precipitate recent ISIS attacks in Barcelona and an independent Catalonia would instead be safe.

So the result, illegal or otherwise, is hugely important for Catalonia, Spain and Europe. But how did they get here?

For about a quarter-century following the “Transición” (the transition to democracy after Franco’s death), the Catalans had a nationalist party running their regional government, the CiU (Convergéncia i Unión).

But the funny thing about this nationalist party was, it didn’t really want independence.

In fact, it went out of its way to demand concessions from the Spanish government for years, without ever once making independence part of its platform (compare and contrast to UK nationalist parties). Jordi Pujol, father of modern Catalonia, managed this position as leader of the regional government with extraordinary success until 2003.

However later, following its loss of regional power for the first time ever since the restoration of democracy, the CiU ultimately decided to change its strategy and go for broke on independence. They were lucky in two ways: (i) for much of the time, they had a notably intransigent conservative (PP) national government led by Mariano Rajoy, who leaden-footedly decided that sticking fast to the Spanish constitution to prevent a vote, was the best way to go; and (ii) they managed to ride a worldwide wave of populist nationalism, which now encompasses Brexit, Trump, Scottish nationalism, Russian adventurism and a number of other local movements in many countries.

Tell someone they can’t do something, as any politician will tell you, and they want to do it all the more. Especially if their marginal cost of cocking a snook at you is, essentially, zero. And so the CiU changed from being an non-independence, nationalist party to a pro-independence, nationalist party (also losing part of its original alliance, UDC or “Unión”, in the process, who were not secessionist).

Feeding off the intransigence of Madrid, there was only one way in the end that this approach would take them: confrontation. It now has, in a very literal sense. The strategy may yet win them independence, but it’s really too early to tell.

And so last weekend, the Spanish government stood on the constitution and sent in police from other parts of Spain; while the mostly-peaceful indepdentist Catalans tried to have a ballot unrecognised by its government and a few agitators wound up the police, with predictably violent results.

All of this could really have been foreseen years ago: two sides unwilling to negotiate, playing brinkmanship. The violence, of course, might prove enough to tip undecided Catalans over the edge. But it’s not over yet.

And the lessons for Labour? The following.

One: that, for all Cameron’s hubris and overreaching afterwards with the Brexit vote, his management of Indyref in Scotland was shrewd and effective. He didn’t say no: he said, “of course you can. But…are you sure?” The resultant nervousness among Scots won him the day.

Rajoy, on the other hand, did the opposite. He said “no” to a referendum from the outset, which naturally just made people want to vote all the more. One suspects they will ultimately have to concede a legal, recognised vote, not least because the UN Charter enshrines a geography’s right to self-determination. Whether or not a constitution allows it formally seems dwarfed by that fundamental and inherently reasonable right.

Two: it is obvious that an event like this, particularly if it is ultimately successful, will have huge shockwaves across Europe, one of which will be in Scotland. As the flames of nationalism have been gradually waning there, this is likely to fan them once again. Not to mention in places such as Greece, Italy and the Balkans, where various regions have been itching to secede for years. The EU has been dreading such an outcome for years and more so now, after Brexit: its leaders have made it clear their support for Spain, despite their squeamishness about the violence. It is a political situation that they will all no doubt carefully watch.

Three: in light of these first two points, Labour itself now must think really, really carefully about how it chooses to position itself in Scotland. The Corbynites’ instincts are predictable: seeing this as a romantic “liberation” movement, they want to the support the Catalans (and any other similar groups across Europe).

But Labour also need to wins back support in Scotland, which has shown itself on balance to be nationalist-minded but not independence-minded, at least, not now. The Tories are already sweeping up the votes of those who are neither one nor the other, and Labour must win back some of those, too. The incoming Scottish leader must therefore strike a delicate balance between pro- and anti-independence and avoid getting squeezed between the two camps. Or, alternatively, jump wholeheartedly into one or the other and hope to dislodge either the SNP or the Tories.

Corbynite absolutism is unlikely to work here. It will more likely require a “Goldilocks” formula: not too much nationalism, nor too little. Labour could do worse than look at the old-style Catalan CiU: nationalist, but not independentist. Worked well for a generation. Why not?

This post first published at Labour Uncut

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