SPANISH SIGHS

A day after around 350,000 anti-independence Catalans (or non-Catalans bussed in from out of town) swamped the streets of Barcelona to declare their unity with Spain, France has declared it will not recognise an independent Catalonia and that it should be expelled from the EU. Would that be expulsion free from the divorce fees demanded of Brexit? If so, go for it! Rumours of big businesses discussing relocating from the Catalan heartland in the event of the autonomous regional government proclaiming separation from Spain will be familiar to anyone in this country; powerful corporations imagining issuing threats will somehow force the people round to their way of thinking is a futile exercise that will only strengthen pro-independence sentiments in the same way Madrid’s response to last week’s referendum did.

At the height of the Civil Rights movement in the mid-60s, white residents of America’s Deep South were prone to remarking the rest of the US didn’t understand their corner of the country; it’s true that the old Confederate States retained their archaic identity well into the twentieth century, in defiance of the self-image the USA had created as an international export, and the same could be said of both Catalonia and the Basque region in relation to modern-day Spain. Enforcing the authority of the National Government by dispatching the militaristic wing of the Spanish police force and battering anyone in sight is not the best way to send out a message to either Catalans or the watching world that the rest of Spain is Catalonia’s friend.

The remarkable sight of local fire-fighters protecting the public from outside policemen supposed to be on the same side was one of many startling images to emerge from the chaos of referendum day. From the pictures most of us saw, it seemed those wishing to exercise their democratic (or illegal) vote were largely non-violent, whereas the police regiments were the ones throwing their weight around; the Catalan constabulary, standing alongside the fire-fighters to shield the crowd, looked stunned by the level of force their Madrid counterparts were employing to prevent the referendum from going ahead. The region’s chief of police has even been charged with ‘sedition’ for failing to protect the invaders from protestors. But the EU responded by declaring ‘reasonable force’ was perfectly fine as a means of the National Government keeping the country together. Bring on that expulsion from Brussels now.

There are right ways and there are wrong ways of dealing with a troublesome neighbourhood of a nation that was pieced together from constituent parts over a century before. As a response to three years of the Northern Ireland Troubles, Ted Heath’s Government granted a plebiscite to the people of Ulster in 1972, offering them the opportunity to vote on whether or not they wanted to remain in the United Kingdom; when the vote took place the following year, the result was a landslide for ‘remain’, though this was probably aided considerably by the fact that the majority of Nationalists boycotted the referendum. In 2014, when the Scots were finally given their chance to decide once and for all if they wanted their independence, they also voted to stay with the rest of us; as we all know, the losers continue to whinge about the result, but Westminster didn’t dispatch riot police to Edinburgh. If it had, chances are Alex Salmond would not now be out of a job.

During the Miners’ Strike of 1984/85, many local constabularies maintained cordial relations with strikers in the early stages of the dispute; it was only when Mrs Thatcher sent in the Met, foreign troops looking upon the inhabitants of the communities they invaded as sub-human pond-life, that the picket-line violence escalated and the likes of Orgreave occurred. The Guardia Civil appear to exhibit the same contempt towards Catalans as the Met exhibited towards the miners in 1984, and in the process have probably boosted separatist support when previous polls had suggested, though close, most Catalans didn’t favour independence after all.

The latest statistics from the disputed referendum suggest 90% of Catalans voted for independence, though the turn-out was 43% and it’s believed the majority of ‘No’ voters didn’t visit the polling station; perhaps they were exposed to the same level of intimidation as Scots wishing to remain in the UK allegedly experienced in 2014 and opted out as a consequence. Some of the pro-Spain protestors that made their voices heard at the weekend may well have been sponsored by Madrid, but it’s equally possible many of them were genuine Catalans who don’t buy into the separatist agenda. If we again cast our minds back to events north of the border three years ago, the independence crowd certainly shouted the loudest, giving the impression they were speaking on behalf of the majority if one recalls the amount of airtime they received. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the same applies in Catalonia.

The Catalan President Carles Puigdemont will be addressing the region’s parliament tomorrow, and though there are no signs of any diplomatic compromise with Madrid yet being reached, the anticipated declaration of independence hasn’t appeared either. Lest we forget, however, the economic stability of the region in comparison to many areas of Spain post-2008 is a valuable bargaining chip for the Catalans, something that makes the National Government’s approach to dealing with the separatists a baffling blunder. If Madrid wants to keep the country intact, it’ll have to devise a different method of doing so.

© The Editor

ANOTHER HOMAGE TO CATALONIA

Bombs couldn’t do it in Basque Country, and now it seems the ballot box can’t do it in Catalonia. So, where do Catalans go from here? Mind you, it’s not as if they haven’t been here before. The regular redrawing of the European map over the past millennium – reflecting wars, rising and falling empires, revolutions, repressive dictatorships, and territories swapping hands – have all played their part in the grievances of Catalonia. The unification of Spain in 1492 took place much earlier than the similar joining of independent dots that created Germany and Italy several centuries later, thus giving the Spanish a crucial head start in conquering the globe; Catalonia’s position as a principality was rarely a comfortable one.

The Iberian Peninsula changed hands from Visigoths to Moors to Franks before the counties that became recognised as Catalonia were united under the Crown of Aragon in 1137; during the Franco-Spanish War of 1635-59, Catalonia declared itself a republic, though in reality remained a principality, only this time under French protection. The end of the conflict saw the Catalonian counties of Roussillon, Conflent and Vallespir ceded to the French by King Philip IV of Spain; but it took until the end of another European bloodbath – the War of the Spanish Succession – before Catalonia was reduced to a Spanish province in 1716, belatedly abolishing the Crown of Aragon.

Whenever countries are created by strong regional states (Prussia in Germany, Castile in Spain) assembling often reluctant junior partners under one unifying federal umbrella, the lingering legacy of former independence survives as an inherited collective memory. All nations born this way have their ‘problem people’ (Yorkshiremen, for example), but Spain has had to deal with the explosive Basques as well as the Catalans. Franco had his own ways of dealing with perceived sedition, which is why the rather physical response of the Spanish Government to the planned Catalonian independence referendum this week has provoked such anger.

Catalonia had been granted status as an autonomous state within Spain in 1932, but within a couple of years autonomy had become insurrection and was crushed. Although the region had a resurrected autonomous status during the Spanish Civil War, Franco’s victory saw him impose increasingly repressive measures upon the Catalans, banning the native language and abolishing their independent institutions. The post-war growth of Barcelona as an economic powerhouse as well as a major tourist attraction fuelled further separatist ambitions, and the 1975 restoration of democracy in Spain at least granted the region a degree of independence; for some Catalans, however, this has never been enough.

An unofficial and non-binding self-determination referendum took place in 2014, which was branded illegal by the Spanish Government; it’s estimated 80% of Catalans who took part favoured independence, though the Government of Catalonia claimed it was merely testing the waters. This warm-up for a ‘proper’ referendum gave confidence to the most stridently separatist members of the Catalonian Government and a date has been pencilled-in for 1 October for the real deal – even though a recent poll stated 49% of Catalans were opposed to independence, with 41% in favour.

Spain’s well-publicised economic woes since 2008 haven’t affected Catalonia as badly as some regions of the country; it remains relatively wealthy in comparison to those more badly hit, though Catalans say they pay far more into the national budget than what they get back from Madrid. Limits were also set on Catalonia’s independent ambitions by Spain’s Constitutional Court on 2010, which further angered separatists. The referendum plans have pressed ahead, but with less than a month to go, the Spanish Government has delivered the strongest warning yet of how it will react to the result, something the Catalonian Government has undoubtedly provoked by announcing it will declare a state of independence within 48 hours of a Yes vote.

Yesterday, local government offices, ministries and private companies organising the 1 October referendum were swooped on by Spanish police, with 14 Catalan officials arrested and detained during the raid. They confiscated documents, computers and upwards of 10 million ballot papers. The determination to hold the referendum is viewed as a direct challenge to Madrid’s authority and Madrid has seen fit to enforce that authority; indeed, Spanish police enforced it rather brutally to break-up a protest outside the Catalan economic ministry in Barcelona, their tactics reviving those of Franco’s storm-troopers for those old enough to remember. The division of the Spanish police force dispatched to Barcelona were the militarised Guardia Civil, which made the authorities’ intentions pretty evident from the off; they anticipated trouble, and they got it.

The prospect of virtual direct rule from Madrid and the curtailing of Catalonia’s autonomous institutions is one threat that the National Government can impose if Catalans insist on proceeding with their plans for 1 October; however, when even one of Catalonia’s most revered exports, Barcelona FC, throws its weight behind self-determination, a Government faced with little option but to react to constant demands that contradict a constitution at the core of its existence may have to rely on force. This story has a long way to go yet. Adiós.

© The Editor

THIS YEAR’S MODEL

It says a lot about ‘terrorism fatigue’ that the latest atrocity – 14 dead in Barcelona to date – is something I’m struggling to write about without being overwhelmed by déjà-vu. Spain hasn’t experienced this kind of attack since the appalling Madrid bombings of 2004, but Blighty hadn’t undergone anything on the scale of 7/7 until Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge in our ‘Spring of Discontent’ earlier this year. By the time the third of these casual massacres came around, the media clichés were becoming familiar enough to induce the kind of reaction that dilutes the brutality of the slaughter and renders it almost on a par with all the other eye-rolling headlines that newspaper proprietors concoct to arrest falling sales figures.

The censorship of the gruesome reality is part of the game. There was an almighty storm on Twitter last night in which some thought it vital to show images from Barcelona whereas others regarded doing so as insulting to the people who lost their lives. Key to their recruitment policy, ISIS don’t spare the gory details in screening the aftermath of allied bombing raids on innocents abroad; seeing pictures that news outlets prefer not to show us has an impact that the Jihadi mindset responds to with a sense of vindication for their own retaliatory actions. What, one wonders, would the response in the west be were our broadcasters to practice a similarly uncompromising disregard for the editor’s scissors in the wake of another terrorist incident? Perhaps their very worry as to what response it might inspire is significant.

Whereas television news initially picked up the fearless baton from cinema newsreels and broadcasted the grim warts-and-all facts in vision from the 60s through to the 80s, recent trends have seen oversensitive censoring that leaves the reality to the viewers’ imaginations. Footage of Nazi death-camps may not have emerged until six years of conflict were already reaching their climax, but the horrific sight solidified hatred of the Germans for a generation and offered further justification for the Second World War, even if it was hardly still needed by 1945. Programmes this week marking the 70th anniversary of the partition of India have screened archive film of the bloodbaths in the wake of the British exit from the Subcontinent, yet it’s almost as though the grim images being in monochrome and from so long ago means they’re permissible in a historical context – akin to a false admission that this kind of brutality is something the civilised world left behind more than half-a-century ago.

Hearing of one more massacre on European soil and being denied the evidence transforms mass murder into an abstract concept and distances it further from the gut reaction images naturally provoke. When the world was shown the 1982 butchery at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut, Israeli troops absolving themselves of responsibility led to impassioned demonstrations in Tel Aviv that spilled over into Israel’s parliament; merely hearing of what had happened probably wouldn’t have inspired the same level of outrage as seeing the images did.

But seeing the hideous truth of precisely what it is Jihadists are capable of would tarnish the fatuous script Theresa May recited with routine precision last night – the whole ‘standing with…’ speech, which has no doubt already been accompanied by complementary appropriation of the Barcelona FC badge as a makeshift profile picture on social media. The pat sentiment of this speech, echoed across Europe in the respective languages of all the other leaders who recycled it, says nothing about the issue and fails to address it because to address it would leave the harmonious Utopian narrative in tatters. Jeremy Corbyn’s dismissal of Sarah Champion for having the nerve to say a fact out loud is symptomatic of this brush-it-under-the-carpet and don’t-frighten-the-children attitude which is fine for an ostrich but won’t prevent another atrocity in another European city before the year is out.

Unrelated on the surface, though sharing the same spirit, are the increasingly fanatical demands by the Puritan militants to remove public monuments to long-dead American heroes whose philosophies are out of kilter with contemporary mores (no surprise when most have been deceased for over a century). Confederate generals are the current target, though one enlightened online idiot apparently advocated the blowing-up of Mount Rushmore yesterday. Considering the first handful of US Presidents were slave-owners and that the White House itself was built by slave labour – something Obama at least acknowledged with a refreshing absence of froth in his mouth – means any rewriting of American history on this level will require the removal of a good deal more than a statue of Robert E Lee from the landscape.

The Taliban or ISIS destroying ancient antiquities and Islamic iconography that they find offensive or insulting to their twisted take on the faith is no different from what is being allowed to take place in America at the moment; to condemn one and condone the other is hypocrisy of the highest order. These are not the symbolic gestures of revolutionary rebellions emanating from a subjugated populace breaking the chains of totalitarian bondage, but the product of those indoctrinated in the ideology of fanaticism. Whether on an American campus, in a Middle Eastern Jihadi training camp, or inside English churches under the reign of Edward VI, it matters not; the motivation is the same, and it is this unswerving tunnel vision that drives the greatest threats to freedom of thought, speech and living we are confronted by in 2017.

© The Editor

ROCK ON!

One of the most contentious issues during the EU Referendum was – it goes without saying – immigration, and specifically the subject of free movement within EU countries. However, the system that enables foreign nationals from other EU member states to be ‘fast-tracked’ into the UK to serve as convenient cheap labour – whether in a Sports Direct sweat-shop or as an au pair to Notting Hill twats – doesn’t necessarily mean they intend to put down permanent roots in Blighty. Many make as much cash as they can and then take it back home; but that fact was glossed over by those who stood to gain from their demonisation as it aided the Brexit cause.

We have been here before, though. Up until the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962, all citizens of British colonies and overseas territories had full UK citizenship and were entitled to set up home in the Mother Country. Natives of nations with whom we had long-standing cultural and historical ties had been raised to believe Britain was their homeland, and those who arrived on these shores in the immediate post-war era contrasted with many recent ‘economic migrants’ in that their aim was to build new lives for themselves. Unfortunately, that didn’t prevent racial tensions in areas that experienced high immigration levels in the 60s and 70s. Further moving of the goalposts, not especially aided by the inflammatory language of Enoch Powell, came with other immigration acts in 1968, 1971 and 1981.

Those born in Hong Kong found their status as British subjects particularly affected by these changes; but Mrs Thatcher was aware of China’s impending takeover of our last imperial possession in the Far East and sought to stem an expected tide of immigration from Hong Kong, something that was heightened after the 1989 events in Tiananmen Square. Such circumstances didn’t – and don’t – apply to Britain’s lingering Mediterranean outpost, however. Gibraltar is also uncomfortably close to a large unfriendly neighbour with vague territorial claims, though there is no handover earmarked where Spain is concerned. As a consequence, the 30,000 strong population there is often more defiantly British than Britain itself.

Since being ceded to Britain in perpetuity as part of the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht – following its capture by an Anglo-Dutch force during the War of the Spanish Succession in 1704 – Gibraltar has been a permanent thorn in the side of relations between Britain and Spain, often surfacing in the most bizarre manner, such as accusations that General Franco ‘fixed’ it so that Cliff’s ‘Congratulations’ lost the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest to the Spanish entry at the eleventh hour. Its status as a British Overseas Territory may seem antiquated today, but its origins as such are very much in tune with how European powers settled disagreements in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, using the odd strategic island or peninsular as bargaining chips. Cyprus was acquired by Britain from the Ottoman Empire in not dissimilar circumstances.

The nascent Brexit negotiations have already thrust Gibraltar back onto the front pages; lest we forget, though, Gibraltar voted overwhelmingly in favour of Remain during the EU Referendum last year, being the first result to be declared that eventful evening – something that gave false hope to Remainers in the UK. The revelation that a clause in draft guidelines drawn up by Brussels mandarins suggests Brexit negotiations won’t include Gibraltar unless there is an agreement between Spain and the UK has provoked anger both here and on the Rock.

The draft negotiating guidelines state: ‘After the United Kingdom leaves the Union, no agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom.’ In response, Andrew Rosindell, vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Gibraltar, commented: ‘British people must and will stand together. We cannot be bullied by Spain. Any agreement must apply equally to the whole British family and that includes Gibraltar. There can be no compromise on this.’

Spain’s claims on Gibraltar have no more proper legal standing than Argentina’s claims on the Falklands, so to evoke the Spanish on this issue was guaranteed to enflame patriotic passions. Both Theresa May and Boris Johnson have responded to the EU proposals re Gibraltar by emphasising again that the concerns of the people of Gibraltar will not excised from the negotiations. And it’s worth remembering that Gibraltarians have twice voted overwhelmingly ‘no’ to shared sovereignty between the UK and Spain in referendums (in 1967 and 2002); moreover, the border between Spain and Gibraltar was only permanently opened after decades of petulance on the part of the Spanish when Spain joined the EEC in 1985.

If one excludes the Episkopi Cantonment enclave of Cyprus, essentially a military anomaly since the island’s independence in 1960, Gibraltar is unique amongst the fourteen remaining British Overseas Territories in that it is not some distant landmass in the Caribbean or South Atlantic, but essentially sits on Britain’s doorstep. Its presence during the EU Referendum may have seemed incongruous, considering it has no British Parliamentary constituency, but it certainly had a right to be there.

Whether or not one believes leftovers from the Empire should be ceded to their nearest neighbours, the Gibraltarians themselves are steadfast in their loyalty to the Crown and their preferences should be taken into account. It appears yet one more strand to the tangled web of Brexit needs to be dealt with sooner rather than later.

© The Editor