Guest post: Catalunya in chaos


“Jack Smith” (not his real name) is a UK citizen living in Spain. As the volatile situation in Catalunya continues, with military police drafted in to suppress protest and a Spanish court blocking an attempt by the Catalan president to unilaterally declare independence, ‘Jack’ writes about the situation with a different perspective from what readers will have heard either from the BBC or among instinctive supporters of Catalan independence.

One which has a faint echo of the right-wing, anti-government protests in Venezuela, although with more shades of grey. The situation, ‘Jack’ believes, is more complex and nuanced than we might assume – here’s his thought-provoking, ‘on the ground’ analysis:

The two sides in the calamity in Catalunya are rapidly building a situation where ordinary people will be the losers. Dialogue is urgently needed, as the global trend of right wing movements clashing, spreads to Spain.

The disastrous speech by King Felipe VI on 3 October — allied to a near-simultaneous pronouncement by Catalan regional head, Carles Puigdemont, of an imminent unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) — is pushing the region to the brink.

The world watched as the People’s Party (PP) government in Madrid, sent thousands of national police, the Guardia Civil, to violently suppress voting at an independence referendum on 1 October. The vote had long been planned by the regional autonomous government, based in Catalunya’s capital, Barcelona.

As many will have seen, the brutality of the Guardia appalled many onlookers. It came as no surprise to those of us in the new centre. We have been repeatedly subject to similar violence by para-military security services, from Seattle and Genoa at the turn of the century, to the present day. Even Barcelona in 2001. But to a wider audience, it was shocking.

Much of the reason for the PP’s assault on the vote is its desire to stay in power. The PP is a minority government in Madrid, following two inconclusive elections in 2015 and 2016. The attack played to its core vote.

The national courts had deemed the referendum illegal. But rather than ignore and mock the result — Puigdemont said there would be no UDI after the vote — the PP chose direct, physical confrontation. In neglecting to call for peace and dialogue King Felipe essentially backed that stance, state violence against his own peaceful subjects. His partisan entry into the problem fanning the flames.

Across the world right wing movements are at war. Whether it is British nationalists versus the EU, Macron versus Le Pen, Conservatives versus UKIP, or the wider conflict between Islamic fascism and the US and its allies. Until now Spain avoided this trend, but no longer.

Because while Catalan independence does have admirable common sense components, its core is an aggrieved centre-right block which feels short-changed, quite literally, by a fiscal grab from Madrid.

Following the collapse of the global private sector in 2007-2008 the Spanish economy nosedived. Its richest region Catalunya raged at centrally imposed cuts and the independence movement gained strength, lead by the centre-right Democratic Party of Catalunya (CdC) and its president Artur Mas. In the complex world of Catalan coalitions the CdC held power alongside the centrist Catalan Convergence and Union (CiU) party. Often it did this in deals with the Catalan PP. Either to vote for or abstain in key decisions.

In 2010, as the financial crisis engulfed Spain, Mas declared support for independence. When Mas organised Catalunya’s first illegal referendum in 2014, he was fined, and barred from public office for two years.

Apparently this legalistic approach to referenda in Catalunya ended as the nationalist-royalist PP chose violence. The police rampage on 1 October outraged many, even those Catalans who are against an independent state. In any future elections the PP are likely to be wiped out in Catalunya.

The actions of Puigdemont — a member of the CiU — are also reckless and threaten the lives of ordinary people. There is little evidence a majority of Catalans want independence, even after the recent vote. The vote itself, understandably, was also chaotic and sparked deep social divisions in Catalan society, with demonstrations by both sides in the region on 3 October.

It also remains unclear if foreigners would be eligible to vote if a legal referendum was held, or what their status is in the event of an UDI. The many central and south American and African workers in Catalunya lead lives of often desperate poverty. Those unable to find work root through Barcelona’s bins to survive in an ugly display of inequality, ten years after the crisis began.

The Catalan police, the Mossos D’Esquadra, were praised by many on 1 October as the Guardia crashed through central Barcelona loosing off rubber bullets. But the Mossos were the reason rubber bullets were banned in Catalunya in 2014, having shot out the eyes, and testicles, of several citizens during protests over poverty.
Only the insurgent national Podemos party, Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau and to some extent the socialist party (PSOE) have attempted to forge dialogue. Colau hit back at the PP and King Felipe’s blundering, also attacking Puigdemont’s UDI threat. Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias has also repeatedly criticised the reckless abandon of the country’s political caste, calling for talks.

The short-term future may rest with PSOE which can withdraw support from the PP in Madrid, forcing new national elections. The actions of 1 October also make a legal referendum far more probable, likely when the PP government leaves office.

Because taking a path away from dialogue — and ultimately a legal vote on independence — could lead to consequences in the region unthinkable just months ago. It is incumbent on the PP and Catalan authorities to avoid this, if they care at all about the lives of their citizens they claim to represent.

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  1. A sad and sorry situation, but it should come as no surprise. These events are symptoms of the neoliberal, capitalist illness, not to be mistaken for the illness itself.

  2. Speaking as a Brit living in Spain, I think this is an informed and balanced take on what is going on. Personally I would like to see PSOE withdraw their support for PP (the political heirs of Franco), which does not really have a mandate for what it is doing, although sadly I think that would not necessarily guarantee a PSOE (socialist) victory in any General Election. The reason for that is because most Spaniards are very much opposed to what the regional government has attempted to do, seeing it as a straightforward transgression of the 1978 Constitution. This attitude in turn arises from the hidden fault line in Spanish society stemming from the dreadful divisions during the Spanish Civil War, meaning that for the majority of Spaniards the question of the breach of the Constitution is of greater significance than any considerations of Catalonian autonomy. All this is particularly sad for a delightful country and people who have successfully emerged from a totalitarian state just under forty years ago. The fact of the matter is none of the independence referendums organised by the regional government have conclusively proved that the people of Catalonia want independence because the numbers participating like the results has always been well under 50%. The only answer to this, because it is difficult to see how Madrid can give them any more autonomy short of Dr facto independence, is to hold a proper state organised referendum supervised by international observers. I’m not sure though whether Madrid (certainly impossible under PP) would be brave enough to do that.

  3. this was a fascinating account, very useful. but…
    “there is little evidence a majority of Catalonians want independence”
    apart from the 90% who voted for independence, right?
    I mean this whole thing about anti-indy people staying away from the vote needs to be put to bed. even if it’s true, it doesn’t matter. It was an official referendum organised by the governing party of the region, and in a democracy, you vote, you get a say, you don’t vote, you don’t. simples.

  4. This article reminds us that, as national journalism retreats into lobby-ism, there is a growing need for ‘international’ alternative voices. Can skwawbox not engage writers/bloggers in foreign countries to give us an update on what is REALLY happening around the world. As someone who worked all over the Middle East, North Africa and sub Saharan Africa, I am well used to laughing at the biased articles, one sided diatribes and misinformation by the mainstream media. There has been a need for a long time.

  5. Not entirely sure this article is subjective, whilst i think the Podemos approach is probably the best, the article ignores the fact that the CdC coalition partners are 2 pro independence left wing parties ERC and CUP, together they hold a majority in the Catalan parliament as given to them when standing on a pro independence platform. There is very high levels of support for independence and would be reasonably tested in a properly conducted poll.

  6. Not entirely sure this article is subjective, whilst i think the Podemos approach is probably the best, the article ignores the fact that the CdC coalition partners are 2 pro independence left wing parties ERC and CUP, together they hold a majority in the Catalan parliament as given to them when standing on a pro independence platform. There is very high levels of support for independence and would be reasonably tested in a properly conducted poll.

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