Catalonia's National Day 'la Diada' falls on 11 September, coinciding both with the anniversary of the fall of the Twin Towers and that of the Chilean coup d'état which resulted in the death of President Allende and rise of the Pinochet regime. Since 2012, stuffy, formal official ceremonies guided by the Generalitat (the name given both to the government of the Catalan autonomous region as well as to the parliament which elects that government) have been consistently overshadowed by massive political demonstrations. The slogan for the 2012 demonstration was 'Catalonia, a new European State'.
Though usually centered on Barcelona, in 2013 the demonstration famously formed a 400km long human chain from the French border near Le Perthus to Vinaros in the Valencia Region in support of independence.
These demonstrations were organised from the outset by the then very recently constituted grass roots ginger group pressing for independence known as the Catalan National Assembly (ANC). Initially, political support for the ANC was sufficiently wide as to attract to the 1st demonstration many prominent members of the PSC; PSOE's Catalan wing. Their presence was, however, an explicit challenge to the formal refusal by PSC to support the independence aims of the ANC and within very few months such independent and independence-minded members had either fallen in line with Madrid or else left the party.
The intervening years have been turbulent in the extreme for Catalonia with the apogee or nadir, according to one's predilections, coming on 27 October 2017 when Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan PM, declared UDI before in the very next breath suspending its effects. However conciliatory he or his supporters might have considered the second part of his statement, the first was enough for the Madrid Government to react within hours, reaching for the constitutionally sanctioned weapon of political mass destruction viz the immediate suspension of Catalan autonomy and subsequently the jailing of nine alleged leaders of the UDI process. Two of these were non-politicians; one from the ANC and the second from a fellow travelling, initially mainly cultural, group Omnium Cultural. They were convicted of a multiplicity of crimes including, in all nine cases, sedition. Individual sentences ranged from nine to 13 years; total sentences amounted to just short of 100 years.
Subsequently all were released in a Madrid Government granted conditional pardon after serving three years and eight months each in a country where first offenders, as these all were, need not enter prison if sentenced to less than two years and repeat offenders can reasonably expect to serve only 50% of their sentence.
The Generalitat Parliament was dissolved by Madrid on the same day with fresh elections announced for 21 December 2017. One of the greatest paradoxes of the whole imbroglio is that all three parties which had supported Puigdemont's UDI with the explicit concept that Madrid is the capital of a foreign country were willing to compete in the December election despite apparently being 'imposed from abroad'.
In a record poll involving almost 80% of the electorate, though an anti-independence party won the most seats, the pro-independence parties secured a 70/135 majority. The subsequent process of government formation over the next few weeks was obstructed at every turn by the Spanish judiciary who left no stone unturned in frustrating the will of the Catalan electorate as expressed in the centrally-controlled ballot box. They either disqualified some Catalan MPs from voting or even precipitately remanded in custody one candidate for the post of Catalan PM midway through the vote in the Catalan Parliament.
The judiciary also brought the 2017 two party Junts/ERC coalition government and the parliament to a premature halt some three years later when they sentenced Quim Torra, the new Catalan PM, to 18 months loss of right to elected office for the crime of being too slow in obeying a 2019 instruction to remove a banner reading 'Freedom for Catalan prisoners and exiles' from the balcony of his office during that year's Spanish national election.
This judicial hyper-activity has many foundations, the most obvious being the role of judges in upholding the rule of law. An important secondary one is the posture of the conservative PP Spanish Government from Christmas 2011 till summer 2018 under PM Rajoy, which refused resolutely to engage with the ever burgeoning Catalan nationalist movement throughout its two mandates, preferring to let the courts do the dirty work it found so unpalatable.
Moreover, when discussing the Spanish judiciary, a generic term which in Spain includes the whole panoply of fiscals and investigating magistrates, it is essential to remember that the same judges who served Franco loyally till his death on 20 November 1975 and remained stoically in post whilst the current Spanish Constitution was negotiated, under the ever watchful eyes of Franco's army and police force, accepted in referendum and then promulgated on 12 December 1978, at which historic juncture they transmuted, chrysalis-like, into guardians of liberal democracy, were never once asked to account for even a single action they had undertaken in that hazy, distant, fog-enshrouded period known euphemistically as the pre-democratic era; though generally, for reasons of prudential good taste, never directly referred to at all.
The current Catalan Government dates from the 2021 election where, although PSC was the party winning most votes, the pro-independence parties gained a still clearer majority, this time 74/135. Yet the current two-party ERC/Junts coalition government has been plagued by multiple divisions from the outset with Laura Borras, the leader of the Junts MPs, refusing to serve in it; opting instead to preside over the Catalan Parliament.
Early this summer the courts ruled, in a case dating back to Borras's employment in a public post between 2013-17, that she must stand trial for allegedly manipulating a series of public contracts to a total value of £300,000 in such a way as to favour an office colleague who won them all. The standing orders of the parliament make clear that procedures in this criminal case had reached a threshold where Borras must be suspended as a Catalan MP and thus as President of the parliament.
This decision, supported by ERC and a majority in parliament but not by Junts, resulted in an amazing lengthy live diatribe on local TV by Borras where she berated all and sundry who had voted against her for being lackeys of Madrid and for failing to protect her position as President of the parliament.
The main problem for both parties in the present Catalan Government is that each one has indulged in considerable degrees of political magic realism to plot the path to independence after the catastrophe of 2017. ERC has staked all its chips on a round table for political dialogue between the Catalan and Spanish governments. In theory, Junts was on board in this endeavour but, from the outset of its implementation, Junts has contended that, although PM Sanchez in Madrid had agreed, in reality he was just spinning the Catalan side along.
The dispute is further complicated by the insistence of Madrid that only full members of the respective governments can sit at the table whereas Junts argues that the coalition agreement signed with ERC doesn't include this limitation. As a result, Junts has refused to take part in those very few meetings of the round table which have gone ahead.
The extremely fitful pattern of meetings and the lack of specific progress so far appear to give credence to Junt's analysis. Certainly, the ostentatious decision by Sanchez, press photographers in tow, to personally abandon the historic formal first meeting in Barcelona shortly after it began in order to hold a meeting with the PSC leader in Catalonia on the outside terrace of a nearby café, was hardly designed to mollify doubters within the Catalan Government.
Yet the perception by Junts of a lack of genuine interest on the part of the Spanish PSOE Government has not persuaded ERC to change; if anything the effect has been the opposite and ERC has doubled down on its gamble. Despite an apparent near rift over the summer when a Toronto University investigation highlighted that members of the Catalan Government had recently been subjected to surveillance by Israeli spyware, products which the manufacturers insist are only available to governments, ERC has made clear its faith in this dialogue; even claiming it was willing to continue the meetings under a new conservative PP Spanish Government should one be elected. A statement made notwithstanding repeated assertions by the PP that it has no intention whatsoever of continuing with the round table.
For Junts, the problem is that when they urge ERC to abandon the round table and begin an 'intelligent confrontation' with Madrid, nobody, not least senior figures in Junts, is at all clear what this slogan means in practice. Constantly threatening to bring down the coalition without ever doing so does little either to add to the credibility of Junts.
In this sea of confusion, a further split in the Catalan independence movement which may well be judged in future to be of historic proportions has occurred. The ANC has become increasingly frustrated with the failure of the two parties to make progress towards independence and increasingly outspoken in voicing that opinion. They recently declared: '[The time for] expecting anything from political parties is over, only the people themselves and organised civil society will bring us to independence'.
Indeed, ANC leaders have mused aloud as to whether the time has come for the movement to run its own slate of 'endorsed non-party' candidates at the next round of elections to the Generalitat. Musings which have gone down like a lead balloon, especially in ERC, which sees itself clearly as being the main party in the ANC's cross-hairs.
Consequently, few were surprised when the Catalan PM Pere Aragonès from ERC announced that he would not be coming to the demonstration this year, citing the anti-parties nature of recent ANC statements and accusing them of attacking local institutions rather than the Spanish state. He also accused them of increasing divisions amongst supporters of Catalan independence. The ANC shot back to the effect that the demonstration is for independence and not against anyone 'though we don't support (the continuation of) devolved government'. With a sting in the tail to the effect that: 'We don't understand why the Catalan PM is so eager to have his photo taken alongside the Madrid Government but not with 100,000 Catalans'.
As the political temperature rose, Jordi Sànchez, one of the nine jailed Catalans, who has in the past served both as President of ANC and subsequently as Secretary General of Junts, though currently he holds no office in either group, had no hesitation in observing that neither of the governing parties in Catalonia currently has a clear strategy for achieving independence. Not to be outdone, Dolors Feliu, President of the ANC, confirmed the belligerent posture of the ANC when at this year's demonstration she told the Catalan Government to either 'Get Independence done or call fresh elections'.
In 2022 the slogan, after two years of Covid-inspired obstruction to normal demonstrations, was 'Let's get back to it to win: Independence'. But no clever slogan can hide the perception that, this time round, a strong whiff of betrayal permeates the Catalan independence air.
Jim Scott is a retired Glasgow-born teacher who spent most of his career in England. He first visited Spain in 1973 and has been resident in a 'Catalan heartland' since 2005