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The Catalan Animal House

The most surprising thing about Sunday’s polls is that more Catalans didn’t vote in favor of independence, argues John Carlin

The surprising thing is that more Catalans didn’t vote in favor of independence. The just-over 50 percent that didn’t cast their ballot in favor of the pro-independence parties in the Catalan regional elections on Sunday have shown exemplary patience in the face of Madrid’s deafness, and in particular, that of the government. Obviously it helps if the coalition in question does bring to mind an alliance between the Borgias and the out-of-control undergraduates of Animal House.

Which of course is no reason to under appreciate the calm and rationality — seny, as the Catalans would say — that has prevented them from telling the rest of Spain to take a long walk off a short pier. They will have done their sums and felt the fear of the unknown, but they will also have understood that breaking with Spain is forever, while the continued presence in office of the Popular Party (PP) government of Mariano Rajoy is temporary.

Some will have understood that breaking with Spain is forever, while the presence in office of Mariano Rajoy is temporary”

Were I Catalan I would have found it very hard to show such prudence. I admire my Catalan friends that have been able to. I understand those that haven’t.

For 15 of the last 17 years I have lived in Catalonia. When I arrived here in 1998 the secessionist movement seemed to consist of three old geezers sitting at a table covered with the Catalan flag on Barcelona’s Rambla. Few people took much notice of them. But more and more began to do so by 2006, following the Constitutional Court’s decision overruling proposals that would have given Catalonia greater autonomy; and then support picked up again in 2008 when the economy crashed, simultaneously uncovering a crisis of what we might call moral legitimacy; and then, in September 2012, a million people took to the streets of Barcelona to demand independence.

And what was the PP’s answer? Did it listen to what this section of Catalan society was saying? Did it think about what the still-significant majority of Catalans who didn’t want to abandon Spain thought? Was there any effort to create a dialog or to show respect – in short, to practice the art of politics? No. The ruling party stoked the Spanish masses to indignation and then put that indignation to its own uses. Rajoy and his cohorts didn’t actually say “Go to hell” to the Catalans but this was the message that was transmitted to Catalonia, and the message that was heard there. The PP’s words and acts, and failure to act, have been characterized by arrogance since 2012 (if we’re honest, we’d have to admit that this approach dates back to the late 1990s under the PP’s first prime minister, José María Aznar). Rajoy may look like a mummy, but you can see the contempt in his eyes.

In 1998 the secessionist movement consisted of three old geezers at a table covered with the Catalan flag on Barcelona’s Rambla”

Most of the Catalans I have grown close to during my time in the region are not nationalists. Personally, I don’t find nationalism offensive, it just bores me. But I have noticed a change since 2012. Friends who until then never believed the independence project could fly now began to say that they understood why people supported it. Others, among them those business leaders who knew that Catalonia’s economy would suffer if it left Spain, used to say to me that they were increasingly angry at the way the central government treated them and that it didn’t matter if they lost money, the time had come — that it was a matter of dignity — to choose independence.

But we shouldn’t forget that the PP’s contempt toward the Catalans doesn’t take place in a vacuum. This is something that my Catalan friends who travel to Madrid detect; I can also detect it in my frequent visits to the capital and other parts of Spain. Sooner or later somebody makes an offensive remark about “the Catalans,” putting them all in the same category, effectively dehumanizing them. At such moments I think of my Catalan friends, each one of them infinitely varied, and it makes me angry. It happened to me last week in central Madrid. An angry local burst out with what to me is the incendiary term “the Catalans” while preaching to me about the evils of independence. Through the exercise of great personal control, I managed to avoid telling him what I thought of him. And of course he told me that as an outsider I just didn’t get what was going on. It reminded me of what many white South Africans used say back in the days of apartheid: “The thing is that you don’t understand our blacks.” The context is different, but the dehumanization is the same.

We shouldn’t forget that the Popular Party’s contempt toward the Catalans doesn’t take place in a vacuum”

That said, there’s no denying that the Catalan independence movement has its share of idiots who have fanned the flames and who must take some of the blame in all this, but this has already been covered extensively in the Spanish media. The point now is that the Spanish government has to show some maturity and pragmatism and deal with this issue: the world is as it is, not how we’d like it to be.

If for no other reason than political expediency, the starting point has to be respect, which is precisely what Rajoy and company have so conspicuously failed to show over the years. And the result is political chaos in Spain and Catalonia, a chimps’ tea party.

Of course all of this could have been avoided through dialog. Personally, I would have gone further. I would have followed the example of Britain’s Conservative government, and rather than hiding behind the Constitution, as Rajoy has done, I would have simply created the mechanisms to enable an independence referendum in Catalonia. Had that happened, we wouldn’t be mired in chaos and uncertainty. People wouldn’t be at each other’s throats, and Catalonia would be part of Spain. Or, of course, it could be that I just don’t get what is going on.

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