An open letter to Catalonia from an undecided voter

When I moved to Barcelona in 2008 I was only vaguely aware of the existence of this strange land called ‘Catalonia’. Six years on, I spend almost every day debating its political future. There was even a point, around the beginning of this year, when I probably would have voted Yes to independence in a referendum.

But I’m not there any more.

Ambiguous and proud

Ambiguous and proud

I support Catalan self-determination, of course, but right now I don’t know how I’d vote in a binding referendum, or which result would be better for the country. What is more, I’m finding the ‘true believers’ on both sides of the debate are increasingly turning me off.

Andrea knows how I feel

Andrea knows how I feel

I thought it might be useful to try to trace out my journey from ignorance and scepticism, to understanding and sympathy, and on to disillusionment. Not because any of the arguments themselves will be new to anyone familiar with the Catalan question, but because I think coming out and saying ‘I have really mixed feelings about all of this’ is, in itself, a potentially useful contribution to an increasingly polarised debate.

One disclaimer, before I begin: I’m not from here, but I’m coming at this as someone who loves Catalonia deeply. I don’t write it too often because there are already plenty of foreign Catalanophiles doing enough of that for all of us put together, but I am heavily invested in this place. I chose it. I’ve made personal and professional sacrifices to be here. I’ve learned two languages in order to understand and fully participate in this community, and I want Catalonia to thrive and be everything it can and wants to be.

With this in mind, this is where I am and how I got here:

2008-2010: London liberalism

When I arrived in Barcelona in September of 2008, Catalan independence was nowhere on the political agenda. Nevertheless, I did stumble upon a small hard-core nationalist demonstration on 11 September, Catalonia’s national day. I was, quite frankly, freaked out. My experience of nationalism was as sometimes violent, usually right-wing, always nasty phenomenon. As a Londoner with Irish roots, my default setting was a rather naïve, citizen-of-the-world, ‘can’t we all just get along?’. Plus, I’d read Benedict Anderson. I knew that nations are ‘imagined communities’ and that the nation-state is an artificial construction of 19th century Europe that has caused a lot of unnecessary suffering and is probably an inadequate model for the 21st century. No essentialist nationalist argument was ever going to convince me.

2011-2013: Independence to change everything

Then, the political scenario began to shift. The economic crisis, challenges to the use of Catalan in schools, and the striking down of the Estatut, all contributed to a rise in support for Catalan independence. In parallel, I was learning more about Spain and Catalonia. I could see for myself the inadequacy of the post-Franco transition to democracy and the intolerant way that many centralizing, conservative, Spanish political institutions treated Catalonia. I also became familiar with progressive, left-wing movements that claimed to support independence principally in response to aggressive Spanish nationalism. In fact, most pro-indy people on both the left and the right denied they were nationalists at all. They were, they said, simply reacting to the provocations of a regressive and aggressive Spanish nationalism. The pitch went along the following lines: ‘Spain is in economic and political crisis. We’d love to change it from within, but three decades (nay, centuries) of history have shown that we can’t. The only hope for progressive social change is to leave and do it on our own.’ And I kind of bought it. If independence is a tool to achieve all of my political priorities (democratization, transparency and accountability, the empowerment of women, a better education system, a more sustainable economy, etc.) then, why not? Obviously it would be better to achieve these goals for all 46 million people in Spain than for just the 7 million in Catalonia, but if that’s impossible, then better to do so for 7 million than for none at all, right?

2014: Back to reality with a bump

A number of things have happened this year that have caused me to question this ‘progressive independence’ narrative. If you’re really a democrat, or a radical, or a social reformer, you don’t just apply that principle to your own pet cause. And yet, in 2014, when the causes of Catalan independence and progressive politics have collided (or have been seen to), I’ve seen many people defend the former at the expense of the latter. I’ve started to suspect that ‘Catalans want to vote’ and ‘Independència per canviar-ho tot’ are little more than convenient slogans to sell the same old essentialist, illogical, nationalist agenda. I still hold out hope that isn’t the case, that this popular movement can be a tool for radical reform, but I’m less sure than ever before.

Of course, because of the Spanish government’s refusal to contemplate a referendum, the debate on whether Catalonia would be better off in or out of Spain hasn’t gotten properly underway. We’re still stuck in a meta-debate about the process itself. Even so, this has been enough to reveal some of the underlying thinking on both sides. I’m not going to address Madrid’s argument against holding a vote here, as I think it is self-evidently retrograde, undemocratic and self-defeating. I’m more concerned about the contradictions within the Catalan movement itself. Madrid often sets such a low bar for political debate that people in Catalonia think they can claim victory by raising it an inch higher. I think we need to demand more of ourselves.

Some Catalans are more Catalan than others

The first red flag came in the form of a number of conversations I had both on and offline about the franchise of a potential indyref. A surprising number of people were very insistent that, for example, their aunt Montse, who’s been living abroad for thirty years and is never planning to return to Catalonia, should be able to vote on the issue, but that my right to participate, and that of other immigrants, was far more dubious. I advocated the Scottish solution: people who live in a country should decide on its future. One Catalan (with a senior position in the Mas administration) told me that if he lived in Scotland he wouldn’t vote because, ‘who would I be to turn up there and tell the Scottish people what to do?’, clearly implying that immigrants in Catalonia are somehow ‘turning up and telling Catalan people what to do’. This kind of argument reveals a rather disturbing definition of who ‘the people’ are on the part of many indy supporters. In these debates I would point out that the decision would affect me far more than Catalans abroad, that I pay taxes here, and that I see myself as part of Catalan society. But time and again I was confronted by a concept of national belonging based in ethnicity, rather than the ‘civic’ form that was being sold in more abstract debates.

Who are you calling a democrat?

Then came the announcement of the abdication of Juan Carlos on 2 June. While republicans across Spain called for anti-monarchy protests and a referendum on the future of the monarchy, the reaction of many Catalans was to shrug and say, ‘well, he’s not my king, I don’t care what happens in Spain’. Seriously? People in Spain are calling for a referendum on a progressive constitutional change and you don’t see this as a common cause? You don’t feel like the King of Spain is your king, but, NEWSFLASH! neither do republicans in the rest of Spain! He is your de facto head of state whether you like it or not, unless you do something about it. But they didn’t; CiU MPs abstained from the abdication vote in Madrid (to their credit, ERC representatives did vote against). To me, this attitude on the part of people claiming to be democrats was not just inconsistent, it was the first sign that the claim of pro-indy Catalans that they really *would* like to reform Spain if they could might be disingenuous.

One issue to bring them all and in the darkness bind them

June also saw the launch of Guanyem Barcelona, a platform aiming to build a progressive candidacy to stand at the May 2014 municipal elections. Despite the complete irrelevance of the national question in municipal politics, people tried to make it about independence. Does Ada Colau support the dret a decidir? Will Guanyem push for a Sí+Sí vote? Just this week, the CUP have included Catalan independence in their list of ten policies that any radical municipal electoral candidacy must subscribe to. No question is safe from the smothering embrace of the independence debate. I’ve been told that everything from pickpocketing in Barcelona to the Ebola crisis in Spain is really a debate about independence. And the only solution to all of these social and political problems? Independence! This idea that Catalan independence is ‘the only political issue that matters’ isn’t just implicit, it’s a position that people explicitly advocate and use to shut down any other form of debate. ‘Un país normal’, indeed.


This absurd situation is epitomised in Joan Manuel Tresserras’ recent article ‘The mono-topic is all topics’, whose contents are almost beyond parody. I can understand this coming from the right; after all, the classic accusation from the left is that conservatives use nationalism to distract from social issues and divide the working classes. But I’d have thought that pro-indy people on the left would make efforts to avoid this trap, to continue to advocate for reform and social justice within the current state, even as they push for the formation of a new one. Some are, but I fear they are few and far between.

In July, the Jordi Pujol scandal broke. The news that the former-Catalan president had been hiding money in Andorra blew apart the narrative that Madrid is the only home of corrupt kleptocracy in Spain. But the desire to protect the father of the nation was strong. Mas said the issue of tax evasion of the man who was President of Catalonia for 20 years was a ‘family matter’ and insisted that Pujol ‘loved his country’. He certainly had a funny way of showing it. Someone who was genuinely committed to democratic regeneration would not make that kind of statement. They would condemn Pujol in the strongest possible terms and see his actions as a betrayal of his responsibilities to his people. And it wasn’t just Mas. Much of the Catalan twittersphere went eerily quiet on 26 July when the scandal broke, or even tried to blame Pujol’s crimes on Spain!

'Our own state with institutions that don't copy the worst sins of the Spanish public sector'

‘Our own state with institutions that don’t copy the worst sins of the Spanish public sector’

Democracia Real where?

All of this brings me to the fact that Catalonia isn’t the only part of Spain where politics has changed beyond recognition since 2011. Most of the factors that have been driving support for independence in Catalonia (unemployment, budget cuts, corruption, and unaccountable democratic institutions) have also been pissing off people across the country. It’s taken 3 years, but the work of the indignados of 15M is finally starting to pay off, most notably in the rise of Podemos. Podemos isn’t the only (or even necessarily the best) product of the ‘new politics’ in Spain, but it certainly the most visible, and the party is now leading national voting intention polls. The intensity of the attacks on Podemos by pro-indy Catalans on both the right and the left has been breathtaking. There are legitimate questions to be asked of Podemos, and I can completely understand why people might prefer other radical parties, like CUP or the Partido X, but reactions in the pro-independence camp have gone way beyond constructive criticism. When they’re not in denial about their popularity, they accuse Podemos of being ‘espanyolistas’ or a unionist ‘trap’ created to fool Catalans into believing that a federal Spain might be possible. The same people who lamented the impossibility of change in Spain are panicking now that someone is offering the prospect of it, in the same way that they previously used any sign of Spain’s intransigence to fuel their arguments for independence. Can Spain be reformed? Is Podemos the party to do it? I don’t claim to have the answers to these questions, but I see no incompatibility in supporting progressive movements in Spain and advocating for independence as a last resort at the same time. The view that ‘what’s bad for Spain is good for the Catalan cause’ may be true, but it’s a cynical position that shouldn’t appeal to anyone who sees independence as a means to an end (a better political system), rather than as an end in itself – as is the case for all of us non-nationalists, remember?

So, here we are, at the close of 2014. I’m not complaining, and I’m definitely not bored. I don’t think there’s any more exciting place to be than Barcelona right now, politically. The city has given birth to la PAH, Guanyem, the X Party and 15PaRato, some of which have already had more political impact from outside public institutions than many political parties with elected representatives have working within them. Podemos is poised to smash apart the two-party system across Spain with as yet unknown consequences. And, on the question of Catalan independence… Will we get our vote? If we did, which way would it go? Which way should it go? Well, I just don’t know.

‘Being against the liberation of an oppressed people puts you on the side it puts you on. Up to you.’