Between Scotland and
Catalonia, the differences
are increasingly apparent
The history of Catalan and of Scottish autonomy within their respective states in the late 20th century, culminating in the foundation of autonomous parliaments in each country in 1980 and 1999 respectively, has increasingly been portrayed as operating on twin tracks, yet the apparent similarities hide many differences which have become increasingly apparent in Spain as the current global financial crisis has struck home.
Whereas the genesis of the Scottish Parliament was a pacific democratic evolution which might reasonably claim to draw its roots from the union of the parliaments in 1707, the Catalan experience was far more tormented.
Football apart, Catalonia does not figure on the radar of the average Scottish school student as they learn a sprinkling of European history to complement their profound knowledge of the Black Douglas, Mary Queen of Scots and the tobacco lords. This is primarily because from 1150 Catalonia had lost its own political identity on being subsumed within the Crown of Aragon, a kingdom whose sway at one point reached all the way to Athens. Subsequently King Ferdinand married Isabel of Castile in 1469 to found modern-day Spain. Despite a brief flowering of national identity roughly 100 years ago when the Mancomunitat was set up to help administer the area, it was not until the proclamation of the Second Spanish Republic in 1932 that Catalonia really awoke from its slumber of centuries and began to re-assert its identity.
Those were extremely turbulent days in Catalonia culminating in the outbreak of the Spanish civil war (1936-39) when, in the shadows in the prelude to the second world war, Catalonia became the centre of savage anti-Catholic pogroms in autumn 1936, a period which even the most liberal of contemporary nationalists find hard to confront.
Later the short-lived republic, its war-time government heavily infiltrated both by Stalinists and anarchists, was itself crucified by the rebel generals with their Italian, German and native Moroccan troops in tow. There followed a 36-year dictatorship under Generalissimo Francisco Franco, whose slogan was 'Spain: united, great and free'. The first decade of Franco's rule, coinciding with the second world war and its immediate aftermath, included a bloodbath of repression which eliminated all traces of leftist and non-Spanish-nationalist politics and influence in Spain. The 'justice' his henchmen meted out was still crueller in rural areas than in major towns but it was also heavily skewed against the two regions which had fleetingly enjoyed autonomy during the republic.
Whilst probably marginally less total than the political, social, cultural and linguistic vengeance visited upon the Basque Country (in the words of the regime 'traitor provinces'), Catalan repression was second in savagery. With this bleak historical background Catalonia's politicians began to play their part in consolidating Spanish democracy when the dictator finally died in his bed in November 1975.
In the final years of dictatorship, democratic parties were partially tolerated and very considerable jockeying for political and economic advantage in the new Spain took place in the weeks, months and years after Franco's death. Once it became clear that the still powerful army high command and previously hegemonic Francoist bunker would not countenance the hard left's desire for a democratic-rupture to consign the whole elaborate apparatus of Francoism to the dustbin of history, Spain's democratic politicians set about drawing up a new constitution which evolved almost seamlessly from the existing totalitarian structure.
In this strange process, the most surreal moment came on 18 November 1976, almost a year to the day from Franco's death, when the existing handpicked 'parliament' voted without duress by 425 to 59 to commit hari-kari and to make way for a genuine parliament voted in at the polls.
However the problem of Basque and Catalan nationalism stubbornly refused to go away and the Catalan politicians and population who had undoubtedly made most of the running throughout the period of pre-democratic effervescence of the early and mid 70s would not be fobbed off with anything less than a full restoration of the Generalitat, the regional parliament which had flourished before and especially in the early years of the civil war. How then were politicians of the nascent Spanish democracy to square this concept with the hitherto prevailing emphasis on Spain's indissoluble unity, precious to many Spaniards?
In a political coup de theatre worthy of the most machiavellian of British mandarins, the Spanish politicians conjured from thin air the concept of 'café para todos' (in English 'coffees all round') whereby Catalonia and the even more hated 'traitor provinces' would indeed have their autonomy restored. But Galicia, the only other region of Spain with its own separate language would also be given this status for the first time ever.
Ditto the Balearic Islands and the Canary Islands, both obviously exceptional geographic areas within the state. But then so too would Andalusia, the impoverished rural southern belly of the country. Not to mention two fairly awkward combinations in the heart of the country, Castile and Leon to the north of the capital and Castile and La Mancha to the east. Likewise the province of Madrid surrounding the capital city would also be given its own autonomous parliament. And so the list went on in a bewildering cornucopia of ever more improbable autonomous regions culminating in the absurd identification of Santander, Logrono and Murcia provinces as three further single province autonomous regions, the first two with the added complication of new names, Cantabria and La Rioja respectively.
So there; the Basques and the Catalans did indeed have their much cherished autonomy. But it was nothing special since, to paraphrase the words of George Brown: 'we are all autonomous now'.
In the period 1979-83 a tortuous process of negotiation, including the imposition of devolution on several unwilling regions, finally drew up the present-day map of Spain where more than 50% of public employment posts are now located within the autonomous administrations. As a result Spain is a federal country just like Germany. But with one important difference. Whereas the Germans flaunt their federalism, the Spanish political class and indeed many Spaniards, especially but not exclusively those on the right of the political spectrum, are in denial and continue to argue that despite the enormous degree of devolution enacted since Franco, their country somehow remains a unitary state.
Fast forward 35 years and the economic picture looks very bleak indeed. Unemployment rates nationally are around 25% and the figure for youth unemployment is almost double this. The peseta has been abolished and the euro is now the national currency. The monies which flowed from Brussels in the bonanza years have been squandered in many cases; the nation is pocked with a series of empty new airports with only a handful of passengers. None at all in the case of Castellon where the runway was built too short for commercial operations, though long enough to leave room to place a life-size statue of the local politician who built it in front of the empty terminal building.
Spain now has the most extensive network of high speed trains in the world yet the link which would bring them to the French border is still a number of years away. Not, incredibly in this time of integrated European planning, that the French are yet committed to building their own line to meet it. Ditto Portugal.
If the new democratic Spanish political class has proved anything in the period since Franco's death, it is that when it comes to feather bedding, direct grants of monies to fund political parties, wildly inflated salaries for MPs and councillors and even more generous pension arrangements for the former, myriad layers of equally well-paid political advisers, unquestioned expenses (not to mention dipping their fingers or those of their spouse, their offspring, their tailor, their chauffeur, their mistress or their accountant in the till) they figure in the European champions' league finals with a regularity which would make Guardiola or Mourinho green with envy.
So the enormous cost of this multiplicity of political institutions falls on the hapless taxpayer. This increasingly means the German or French taxpayer since the massive Spanish unemployment figures, currently nudging 25%, combined with the lack of enthusiasm for declaring income found in so many southern European countries guarantees that shortfall is now the default setting in Spanish public finances.
Inevitably those Spanish voters always ideologically hostile to the very concept of autonomy have now been joined by utilitarians who argue that the de facto cost of the enterprise has got completely out of hand. Enter Esperanza Aguirre, mayor of Madrid City and a significant right-wing thorn in the side of current conservative Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy. Her solution? 'Let's scrap the autonomous regions, if not completely then in the three major spending areas of education, health and justice. Okay, so it would put some politicians out of a job but we can manage to put up with that, I reckon', was her somewhat disingenuous claim recently.
In short order the current minister of justice, former PM of the Madrid autonomous region and old sparring partner of Aguirre, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon came out to pooh-pooh the idea and the Catalan PM Artur Mas replied stingingly that if the minor regions with no history of autonomy nor real interest in the concept wanted to hand back their powers then so be it but Catalonia was not playing that game. However his coalition partner, Josep Duran i Lleida, declared himself amenable to the idea of reducing autonomy to a hard core of four more or less historic regions – Catalonia, Galicia, the Basque Country and Navarre.
Inevitably these suggestions present prime minister Rajoy with an acute dilemma as he knows that the statement by Señora Aguirre strikes a chord with most of his supporters and that any such rationalisation would warm the hearts of his Berlin paymasters. Nevertheless the uneasy doubt remains as to whether a time of massive European economic turmoil which has for example brought the citizens of Greece out on the streets of Athens and of Thessalonica with monotonous regularity to battle the local cops really is a propitious moment to revisit the constitutional fudge on which the whole edifice of Spanish democracy has been built.
Jim Scott is a Glaswegian who worked as a maths teacher in Scotland and England. He first visited Spain, including Catalonia, in 1973, and taught English in Tarragona in 1976-7 in a day school. He now lives in a small town in Tarragona province.