Opinion: ‘Much of Spain’s political history has been a tale of savage partisan strife’

The tension in Catalonia is an uncomfortable reminder of Spain's torn past, writes Spanish author Alberto Letona in an opinion piece.

Opinion: 'Much of Spain's political history has been a tale of savage partisan strife'
Protestors at a far-right anti-separatist demonstration called by the "Falange Española". Photo: Pau Barrena/AFP

Like many of my fellow countrymen in Spain I feel strained and anxious these days. I hate the sectarianism and tension created between two democratically elected governments, whose only victory so far has been to pass on their antagonism to a large portion of the  population. Emotions are running high, and coherence seems to have flown out of the window. Things can only get worse.

I want to hold on to the idea that Spain is not the former Yugoslavia, and that Catalonia is not Kosovo, a country whose conflict I covered as a reporter between 1998-1999. Before those days neighbours who had been living together for centuries became the fiercest of enemies. The amount of cruelty on both sides was unthinkable. I cannot believe that what I saw in the Balkans could be repeated in modern Spain. However, it has to be said that we have had a difficult and ugly history. Much of our political history has been a tale of savage partisan strife.

For many years the Popular Party, with a small political representation in Catalonia, has fuelled the resentment of many by ignoring their demands. The region, one of the wealthiest in Spain, has gone through a long recession and at the same time its autonomy has been substantially weakened by the central government. All this has created a climate of indignation between different layers of Catalan society, a climate that the Prime Minister disregarded completely despite numerous requests from the Catalan government to meet and try to find common ground.

Mr. Rajoy's reaction to the referendum was wrong and callous. He first shielded behind the judges and later behind the police. Millions of people throughout the world could see the  violent reaction of the police against peaceful citizens armed with nothing but a ballot paper. He has obstinately been following that path, and paying little attention to other political forces. Dialogue with those who want independence is out of question.

King Felipe VI has not done much to improve things. His harsh discourse against the Catalan government and his lack of sympathy for the people who were injured has put the monarchy at stake by taking sides with Mr Rajoy.

For the Spanish government, the Constitution – the cornerstone of the legal system- is written in stone, and it chooses to ignore that legality and legitimacy are different concepts. Everybody knows that laws change with the times, without this there would not be any progress. Furthermore, the reputation of the legal system in Spain is distrusted by many who accuse it of being controlled by the two main parties.

Triggering article 155 in Catalonia, that is to say voiding the autonomy of the region and putting their politicians in prison, can only lead to disaster. People will rebel against it, but even if they do so peacefully the situation could get out of hand. Would Mariano Rajoy ready to use the military force against a civil population? Some former politicians are in favour, but for most of us it would be suicidal.

There is another way: dialogue. They could call simultaneous elections in Spain and in Catalonia. The political map could change and the current politicians along with it. If they make their programme on Catalonia clear, we would know who to vote for and would respect the electorate’s decision.

The Catalan crisis has brought out some ghosts from the past. Jingoism has awoken and it is not difficult to foresee the rapid rise of the Spanish far-right that until now seemed non-existent. Their allegiance to the security forces could prove uneasy for the government in Madrid.

For some of us who lived under Franco's regime, a semi-fascist dictatorship that survived the victory of freedom over the Nazis, the problem is not Catalonia, but rather, Spain and her failure to create a modern state. The always glorified Transition did not finish with Franco's legacy. Fear was difficult to overcome after so many years of brutality.

Blaming only the PP is unfair. The Catalan government has ignored its own legality (Estatut). Many citizens in the region, seemingly between 70 and 80 percent, wanted to have a referendum, but not all of them are in favour of independence. They don't have the support of any country and their romantic vision could end in disaster. The main party of the opposition, the Partido Socialista, is also at fault, as is some of the more vociferous and sensationalist media.

Victorian traveller, Richard Ford, said that Spain is “a bundle of local units tied together by a rope of sand”. And the truth is that a century and half later, many Spaniards are still arguing how to shape a nation, whilst not asking for total independence.

For many years, Spain was socially, politically and economically torn by civil wars and military coups. I hope that the ghosts from the past will not come back to haunt us.

Alberto Letona is a Basque journalist living in Bilbao. He is the author of Hijos e Hijas de la Gran Bretaña -Sons and Daughters of Great Britain – in which he delves into the psyche of the British in an attempt to explain them to his own countrymen. 

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Seven things you should never say to a Catalan person

Catalans are usually friendly people but also very proud of their culture and language, so saying the wrong thing can make things awkward. Journalist Julia Webster Ayuso, who is a Catalan herself, lists seven faux pas to avoid.

Seven things you should never say to a Catalan person

1. Call the capital of Catalonia “Barça”

Our capital is often associated with football, and while for some that’s a real point of pride, not all Catalans are football fans. “Barça” is the nickname given to FC Barcelona, and you will hear people chanting it during a football match. The team is not, however, the same as the city, so don’t say “I love spending time in Barça”, it won’t make any sense to us. We have our own affectionate nickname for Barcelona: Barna.

2. Ask ‘isn’t Catalan a dialect?’

Catalan is one of Spain’s five official languages, along with Castilian Spanish, Galician, Basque and Aranese. Catalan is considerably different to Spanish as it’s from the Gallo and Occitano-Romance branch of languages whereas Castilian is an Iberian Romance language. So, even though there is vocabulary that’s similar in Spanish and Catalan, in some ways Catalan is closer to French or Italian because it wasn’t heavily influenced by Arabic like Spanish was. Catalan is not merely spoken at home: it’s the main language used in government, institutions and taught in schools.

3. Call Catalans “Catalonians”

The citizens of Catalonia speak a language called Catalan and are known as Catalans (Catalanes in Spanish, Catalans in French, Catalani in Italian, etc). English speakers have often used the term “Catalonians” instead, but this won’t go down well – it’s just wrong.

3. Mix up the senyera and the estelada

The Catalan national flag is made up of four red stripes on a yellow background and is known as la senyera. Though it looks similar to the estelada, there’s one very visible difference: the star on a blue triangle, which makes it a symbol of the pro-independence movement. The senyera is a patriotic symbol, while the estelada expresses someone’s support for the movement that would make Catalonia independent from Spain.

The estelada flag, not the senyera. (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP)

4. Ask if you want to go trick or treating in Catalonia on the 31st of October

Halloween is a relatively new thing in Spain and while some people like to dress up and go knocking on doors on October 31st, many Catalans feels like it overshadows our own traditions. This autumn holiday is historically celebrated as la castanyada, a day dedicated to eating chestnuts and making panellets (little marzipan pastries).

5. Celebrate Valentine’s Day instead of Sant Jordi

Another imported holiday! We’re not fans of Valentine’s Day and you won’t see many Catalans carrying heart-shaped boxes of chocolates and fluffy toys or wishing each other a Feliç dia de Sant Valentí! on February 14th. For us, the most romantic day of the year is the April 23rd (also St George’s day, the patron saint of Catalonia), when it’s traditional for lovers to exchange roses and books as gifts.

6. Say cava is a lesser version of champagne

Yes, you may know of cava as “Catalan champagne”. And while cava is generally much cheaper than champagne, the production process is almost the same. We have some great producers like Codorniu and Freixenet, so maybe you should stop wasting your money on the more expensive French stuff!

7. Say what you think about Catalan independence

Passions run high over Catalonia’s independence and Catalans themselves remain divided, with the latest poll in 2022 showing 41 percent in favour of separation while 52 percent wanted to remain in Spain. Politics can be a touchy subject anywhere, but in Catalonia it’s best avoided all together, unless the Catalan person you’re speaking to wants to talk about it.