Can Europe Make It?

Spanish nationalism loses the plot

The English nationalism unleashed by Brexit is not the same as the Spanish nationalism unleashed by the Catalan crisis. Not yet.

Ignasi Bernat David Whyte
14 October 2019
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at the opening of the 2019 SNP autumn conference, October 13, 2019.
Jane Barlow/PA. All rights reserved.

Imagine if what just happened in Spain, happened here. Imagine if the Scottish government declared the date for a second independence referendum against the wishes of the Prime Minister. Imagine if the referendum went ahead anyway and Ken MacIntosh, the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament was jailed for 11 years for allowing the Scottish Parliament to organise the referendum. Imagine Nicola Sturgeon was forced into exile in Brussels and half of her cabinet were sentenced to 12 years in prison; and if Sally Mapstone, the President of the Scottish cultural association, the Saltire Society, was sent down for 9 years.

This is exactly what has just happened in Spain. Elected representatives and cultural leaders sent down for a very very long time, for seeking a democratic settlement to the political crisis in Catalonia.

Elected representatives and cultural leaders [have been] sent down for a very very long time, for seeking a democratic settlement to the political crisis in Catalonia.

The leaders of the two major cultural societies Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart were convicted of sedition. Key evidence in their case was that they shouted No Pasaran!, the anti-fascist slogan that is commonplace in demonstrations of all kinds in Catalonia. Six former members of the government: Oriol Junqueras, Joaquim Forn, Jordi Turull, Raül Romeva, Josep Rull and Dolors Bassa have been convicted of sedition and misuse of public funds. The misuse of public funds charge relates to expenditure of public money on the referendum which had been approved by the Catalan parliament. Three other former ministers Meritxell Borràs, Carles Mundó and Santi Vila were convicted of misuse of funds and ‘serious disobedience of public authority’.

In Britain, like in most European countries, the offense of sedition no longer exists. Treason is still on the statute books, but it is unlikely it will be used against ‘rebellious’ or ‘verminous’ Scots (to use the phrase from a poem once published in Boris Johnson’s Spectator). The last treason case in Britain was in 1946: the trial of William Joyce, "Lord Haw-Haw", who was executed by hanging in 1946. Both Labour and Conservative governments have sporadically threatened to prosecute foreign fighters in the Taliban and in ISIS with treason, but have not actually done so.

Perhaps it is unimaginable in the UK. Perhaps.

It is now odds on that the Scottish Parliament will vote for a second independence referendum before the end of the Parliamentary session in May 2021. Boris Johnson, who as Prime Minister has acquired a habit of using a constitutional crisis as a political football, has already stated baldly that he would not allow a second referendum in Scotland. If we don’t have a new British PM in the next 15 months, then he might relish the prospects of a second constitutional crisis.

The Scottish question is always posed in terms of Scottish nationalism. But the constitutional crisis that we face now has been driven by the upsurge in residual English and British nationalism. The spike in racist attacks, and the specter of a Prime Minister who is apparently comfortable with his own openly racist statements is sufficient warning of this.

The English nationalism unleashed by Brexit is not the same as the Spanish nationalism unleashed by the Catalan crisis. Not yet at least. What marks out Spanish nationalism is the extent to which principles of Spanish unity are enforced, without mercy, by the legal apparatuses of the state. There is a deep residual nationalism at the heart of the Spanish state which has its roots in the Franco period, and has never been adequately purged after the dictatorship.

Since Franco, no mercy has been shown to opponents of a unified Spanish state – personified by the King. The current clampdown was intensified in the period following the financial crisis of 2008, the subsequent ‘indignados’ protests and campaigns to prevent repossession and evictions by the banks led by groups like Pah. The so-called ‘gag-laws’ introduced the most draconian powers in any liberal democracy to criminalise opponents of the government and purge non-violent protests from the streets.

Now, it is commonplace for those who speak publicly about police violence in Catalonia to face charges of ‘hate crimes against the police’. Numerous comedians, artists and singers have been sentenced to imprisonment in recent years for ‘offences against the Crown’. The recent rounding up and jailing of 7 non-violent pro-independence activists was accompanied by a raid on a fireworks warehouse preparing the local fiesta in a failed attempt to concoct ‘explosives’ charges. Those raids on peaceful activists are now routine events and will certainly continue to be after yesterday’s verdicts.

Those raids on peaceful activists are now routine events and will certainly continue to be after yesterday’s verdicts.

When it comes to its response to peaceful protest, the Spanish state is clearly out of control. And yet we should take heed of Spain being driven by a similar brand of extreme, residual, state nationalism that is threatening a number of European democracies: Poland, Hungary, Germany, Italy, France. In England, a similar brand of residual state nationalism will almost certainly hasten the break-up of the United Kingdom.

In Spain, state nationalism has lost the normal plot followed in liberal democracies. This is why we can have elected politicians sent to jail for a long time merely for enacting the wishes of the electorate. And it is why we need to send a strong message that we cannot tolerate political prisoners in a nominally democratic state, in the European Union, in the twenty-first century.

Can there be a green populist project on the Left?

Many on the Left want to return to a politics of class, not populism. They point to Left populist parties not reaching their goals. But Chantal Mouffe argues that as the COVID-19 pandemic has put protection from harm at the top of the agenda, a Left populist strategy is now more relevant than ever.

Is this a chance to realign around a green democratic transformation?

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData