Catalonia: Getting Braver

Three weeks ago I went to Glasgow.  No sooner had the plane from Barcelona opened its doors and let the Prestwick mizzle fall on my flinching face than I got the exact same feeling I'd had when I visited Scotland for the first time, some 30 years earlier: that it was definitely another country.
My Catalan travelling companion slapped me on the back and said 'Well, here you are, back home'.  'No, I'm not,' I snapped politely, 'this isn't England.' 
And after 28 years of living here, I have no doubts that Catalonia is no more Spanish than Scotland is English.  A detail that the 14 million tourists who flit along the Costa Brava every year usually miss, and understandably so: unlike Scotland, which has never lost its national status, Catalonia had its sovereignty whipped away from it 300 years ago when - far from being incorporated into an emerging nation-state by an act of union - it was forced to join the fledgling Spanish state after losing its war against the centralising Bourbon dynasty in 1714.
After which, its laws and institutions were promptly outlawed by the Crown of Castile and its language was banned (in the 18th century, in schools, courts, books and churches; in the 19th century, in public places, on the phone, and in theatres; in the 20th century, absolutely everywhere under the fascist dictatorships of Primo de Rivera (1923-30) and Francisco Franco (1939-1975)).
This persistent linguistic oppression has neither been forgotten nor forgiven by the Catalans, whose language (and the culture it has generated) is crucial to their sense of identity.  To this day, active or even just passive knowledge of Catalan (a Romance language spoken by 9.5 million people, and not just within Catalonia proper) is the only passport to their country that most Catalans would recognise as valid: a resident who had no understanding of the language whatsoever would not be regarded as Catalan.
The upside of this is that the one million Catalan citizens born outside Spain and who have arrived in the last decade, are being integrated into Catalonia simply through language learning, much of it done through 'linguistic volunteers', that is, Catalan speakers, native or not, who pair up with new arrivals from the five continents for free weekly conversation practice: a highly successful programme that Brussels has slated for emulation elsewhere in Europe.
Sadly, this openness to Catalan language and culture on the part of many new arrivals is not shared, and much less fomented, in Spain outside Catalonia.  On the contrary, centralist politicians and their affiliated media have been generating negative stereotypes of most things Catalan for generations, with the result that even after 31 years of democracy, speaking Catalan within hearing of people in Burgos, say, or Salamanca, remains a medium-risk sport: I personally have been told of dozens of cases of people who were thrown out of bars, threatened physically or simply insulted on the street for talking amongst themselves in Catalan in monolingual Spain. (Whereas Britain has had several Scottish Prime Ministers, the centralist prejudice against Catalans is such that the odds against one ever becoming president of Spain are considered well nigh insuperable).
This is all the more galling when it is in borne in mind that since 1986, Catalans have shelled out 200 billion euros to Madrid – 2.251€ per citizen per year - none of which have come back to them in any form or guise; this non-stop fiscal drainage (8% of Catalan GDP) is the highest by far of any region in Europe, according to a report earlier this year by the Wall Street Journal.
Put all these factors together – along with boycotts of Catalan goods, attempts to reduce the use of Catalan in schools, prohibition of national sports teams, etc. - and you have the current push for independence, supported now by 57% of the population (October, 2012).
This is not the first time the Catalans have headed for the exit door (the last serious attempt, nipped in the bud by the Spanish military, was in 1934).  This time round, with pro-referendum parties in a firm two-thirds majority in the Catalan parliament after the recent elections, there is a real chance they might just make it through.

Matthew Tree, Newsnet Scotland 28/11/2012


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