Friday, 5 January 2018

Clink the Difference

What’s the difference between Catalonia and Scotland?

The weather? Well, yes. The food. Yes, again. The beaches? Hmmm. There are those lovely beaches on Coll…

But the big difference?

The big difference is that Nicola Sturgeon is not in exile in Brussels, and Patrick Harvie is not in the clink with Ross Greer, Robin McAlpine and, say, Lesley Riddoch.

Because that is what is happening to Catalonia. Spain has four people locked up for their opinions: prisoners of conscience, or political prisoners. Two of these people – Oriol Jonqueras and Joaquim Forn – are elected politicians, re-elected in the ballot imposed by Spain on the 21st December. The other two, Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart are the leaders of two charities, yes charities, that promote Catalan culture and democracy. Omnium Cultural, the charity led by Jordi Cuixart, was set up in the 1960s amongst Catalan exiles to preserve and promote their culture in the face of the onslaught and assassinations of the Franco regime.

All four – Jonqueras, Forn, Sànchez and Cuixart – are prisoners on remand. They have been charged, but not tried. They are innocent until and unless proven guilty. The Spanish state has gone back to its origins, and is charging the men with ‘sedition’ and ‘rebellion’, accusations that would have resonated in the 15th century but which nowadays seem antediluvian. In an extraordinary piece of invention, the state has also decided that the men should be charged with creating a violent, ‘tumultuous’ affray. The charges relate to the various pro-indy demonstrations in Barcelona and Catalonia; demonstrations that have attracted a million people each year…and which have resulted in zero arrests, zero charges, and zero police claims (at the time) of violence. Now the Spanish state is trying to portray these peaceful, warm, friendly, demonstrations as ‘violent.’

Meanwhile ‘our Nicola Sturgeon’ is in exile in Brussels. ‘Our Nicola’ is Carles Puigdemont, chosen as President of the Generalitat (the Catalan Parliament) after the September 2015 elections, and selected again as the leader of the biggest pro-indy party at the December 2017 election. He and four other elected members of the Generalitat fled the country in early November to escape imprisonment by Spain.

Spain’s militarised Civil Guard have now decided to extend the assault, by charging more than 30 more people with crimes against the state. These new charges – amongst which the militarised police have included charges of ‘violence’ – could see many more elected politicians locked up.

Spain has used a paragraph in its Constitution – para 155 – to take control of the Catalan government and civil service. Just like in Scotland, Catalans thought that they lived in an ‘autonomous’ region, with its own parliament, its own rules and its own civil service. But as Scotland discovered during the court case over Brexit and the Sewel Convention, ‘autonomy’ is an empty word. You can have your autonomy, but only with our say so.

Imagine that Westminster had decided to lock up, or drive into exile, our elected politicians. Imagine that Westminster had taken over the Scottish parliament, closed websites, used armed riot-police to break up queues of people voting in Scottish elections, had trumped-up charges against civil leaders, politicians, police officers. Imagine the affront to democracy that would represent.

And then work out just how stupid this policy would be. Stupid (from Westminster’s point of view) because it would drive many more people into the arms of the SNP. Many more people would vote for independence, exactly as happened in the 21st December 2017 elections in Catalunya, where 106,013 more people voted for pro-indy parties than in 2015. We’d have ‘martyrs’ to the cause in jail or in exile. We’d have cases heading for the European courts and the international justice system, and campaigns at the UN. We’d be the Palestine of northern Europe.

That’s the clink of a difference. Scotland is not Catalonia; Nicola is free to speak her mind from her Holyrood office. But as you hear her speak, think about Carles Puigdemont, Oriol Junqueras, Jordi Cuixart, Joaquim Forn, Clara Ponsatí, Antoni Comín, Meritxell Borràs and Meritxell Serret, who are either exiled or jailed for speaking out.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Skin in the Game

Politics is a dangerous game. It can appear childish, or pointless, or it can appear that despite much jaw-jaw there is too much war-war in either the literal or the metaphorical sense. But beneath all the hot air, the postures and the editorialising there are people, sometimes many people, with skin in the game.

That is how it feels here in Catalonia, now. After the extraordinary events of the last few weeks – extraordinary in the sense that the creation of a new nation state is definitely out of the ordinary – we have had the anti-climax of leaders leaving to seek asylum in Belgium, and of a fudged takeover, in which civil servants in Madrid will run Catalunya at least until we hold a new set of elections in late December.

So that was the outcome of more than two million people voting, in polling stations defended, over the weekend of 1st October, by thousands of volunteers. Of more than a million people turning out each year on 11th September to create massive demonstrations in Barcelona, or along the Mediterranean coast. Of bloody attacks by Spain’s militarised National Police and Civil Guard on people in lines at voting stations. Of what Julian Assange has called the first Cyberwar in Europe (yes, his hyperbole is sometimes a little far-fetched). Of widespread censorship. And of locking up the leaders of two charities on charges that could put them down for up to 15 years.
All of these people had skin in the game. Many will be charged with mediaeval-sounding offences such as rebellion and sedition, knowing that the courts in Spain – where this type of justice is still a relative novelty after years of dictatorship – are unlikely to be lenient in sentencing. More than 700 town, village and city mayors, for starters. Many civil servants. The bosses of Catalan radio and television stations. People – such as my neighbour, a farmer – who were selected at random to run the voting stations on 1st October. People – such as this writer – who have written about the referendum in positive terms. All of them, all of us, have skin in the game.

And for what? So that the Sixth Catalan Republic could last just one weekend, from 15:27 on Friday 27th October, when the vote in the Catalan parliament, the Generalitat, was announced, to around mid-day today Monday 30th October, when we heard that the Catalan president Carles Puigdemont had arrived in Belgium and was seeking political asylum? All of the brilliant planning before the Referendum – hiding the voting boxes so that even Spain’s ‘intelligence’ service could not find them – wasted on a grey Monday afternoon with the disappearance of the team who led us this far?

For what? 

For community. 

Because the people who had and have skin in the game are people who have built a community. We’re a community of sufferers, today. But we showed the incredible power of a mass movement, enough power to create, even for a weekend, a new state. Power and organisation enough to evade an entire police force and intelligence service. Power to force Spain to reconsider its relationship with Catalonia. Power to move the bond and stock markets. The people are not powerless pawns in the grip of multinationals, media and our Imperial Leaders. We have power, we have wielded that power, and we can do that again – whether the cause is Catalonia, saving the environment or rights.  We have the power because we are willing to risk our skins – literally in the case of the people attacked by the National Police – for a cause that we believe in.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Mariano, my friend

Spanish President Mariano Rajoy could not have done a better job. A better job, that is, for Catalan independence.

On Saturday morning he announced a series of measures that raise the hairs on the back of the neck. The aim, he claims, is to restore constitutional democracy. The effect is quite the reverse.

Mariano's government will decaptitate the Catalan government (and as collateral damage, the government of the tiny protectorate of the Vall d'Aran.) Mariano becomes, effectively, the president of Catalonia and his Ministers take over the Catalan ministries. Every cent spent by the Catalans government will be controlled by Madrid. He will take control of the radio and television channels subsidised by the Catalan government, and the Catalan centre for telecommunications (CTTI), and thus the internet. His Ministers will run the schools and the police, the health service and the suburban railway. Every agency, company, foundation or department of the Catalan government will now be controlled by Madrid. The El País newspaper (whose shareholder structure includes the Madrid government) reported on Sunday that Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont, is to be charged with inciting revolution and faces a 25 year prison sentence.

This is the same Mariano Rajoy who led a campaign, whilst in opposition, to overturn the statute that would govern relations between Spain and Catalonia as an autonomous region, the 'Estatut'. The statute had been voted through by the two governments and in a referendum, but none of this was good enough for my friend Mariano, who took the statute to the politically controlled Constitutional Tribunal and destroyed it.

Now this friend of an independent Catalonia has given the Catalans exactly what they needed. By revisiting Imperial Spain, by sending in his violent, militarised police to beat old ladies in voting queues, and by attempting to take over a government that thousands of Catalans lost their lives to defend in the 18th and 20th centuries, my friend Mariano has catalysed a social revolution in Catalonia. People who were undecided have become staunch nationalists. The demonstrations are getting bigger, although they remain, despite the provocations of plain-clothes policeman placed there for the express purpose of inciting violence, completely peaceful.

And people are smiling in wonder at the utter stupidity of Madrid politicians. What are they thinking? How do they imagine that they can control the people? Because this is a people's revolt, something that Madrid has failed to understand. This is emphatically not, as it is painted in Madrid, a few crazed politicians leading a hypnotised electorate to a cliff edge. It is the voices, bodies and votes of millions of Catalans who would rather be poor and free than live under the heel of the Spanish Empire.

This is Jeremy Heimans' "new power" in action, and my friend Mariano has no idea how to channel it.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Referendum, just for the record

Just for the record of having taken part, for the record of Yes votes, for the record of a wonderful, terrifying emotional weekend, a few notes on the Catalan Referendum on Independence, 1st October 2017, as seen at Sant Esteve de Palautordera, the village in Montseny, Catalonia, that is my home:

We got the call-out on Thursday. Everyone should be at the old primary school - the polling station for the village - on Friday night. The fear was that the police would seal the polling station. In Catalonia and Spain this official seal (it's done with Police sticky tape) makes it illegal to enter a building. So we had to make sure that the police did not seal us out.

Friday Night

By 6pm on Friday there were a couple of hundred people in the school playground. The numbers grew during the evening. We organised food, there was street theatre from Tortell Poltrona of Circ Cric and a story from the Marduix theatre group. And we watched Pride, dubbed into Catalan. The struggle of the lesbian and gay community in London to support, and be accepted by, the striking miners seemed especially appropriate as our tiny village took on the might of the Spanish Empire.

The film was still running when around 1am on Saturday morning the shout 'Police' went out. We shut off the movie, and crowded round the entrance to the playground. We phoned and texted friends and within three minutes there was a crowd of 250 people and growing, jammed into the entrance of the playground. Two very calm, decent Mossos d'Esquadra (the autonomous government's police force) drove up and told us that they had to read a charge against us. Was there any single organisation behind all of this? 'The people of the village' we replied. Was there any one person who was responsible? 'The people' went the shout. The police then told us that they would be back - and this time there might be four of them - at 06:00 on Sunday morning to 'precintar' (officially seal) the school. But that if there was 'such a big crowd that, in our judgement, we might cause public disorder by closing the school' then they would be unable to seal the gates. They repeated this message so that we all understood clearly.

I slept, fitfully, that Friday night at the school with around 50 other people, waking repeatedly at small noises and shouts in the night. In the morning, with three other volunteers and the generous donation of wonderful fresh croissants from the Valflorida bakery we made breakfast for around 150 people.

A Festival for Democracy

Saturday morning was a festival. The group organised dance classes (I took part in tap-dance, and Menorcan 'ball de bot'), drawing classes and talks. There was music, and people contributed food and drink -  we were all avoiding alcohol so it was soft drinks all round - to sustain the crowd. There was another visit by the Mossos with the same message about the timing of their Sunday visit, and the relevance of the crowd. And so into Saturday evening, now with some 500 people in the school and the playground. I retired home for a few hours sleep, and then came back at 05:00 to make breakfast. At 05:30 we served over 200 breakfasts to the volunteers - so many that the local café's coffee machine broke down with the demand. By 05:00 there were at least 500 people there, and by 06:00, the appointed hour that number had grown to represent more than half the number who would eventually vote.

The police did come back, but made the sensible judgement that the crowd was too big to control (it was two friendly Mossos, and 800 people at the school.) The Mossos stayed with us all day, parked just a little way away from the school, watching the entrance to the playground.

The Voting Boxes

Just before 08:00 the shout went out 'Police!' By then we had been drilled to block the entrance, and climb onto the barrier fence surrounding the playground. The crowd was enormous, all of us facing outwards, packed along the fence. Behind us, and thus completely hidden from the two Mossos in their patrol car, three people appeared with black bin bags. The voting boxes! The famous voting boxes that had been hidden so successfully that the entire Spanish police force had been unable to find them! They were smuggled into the school behind our backs and out of sight of the Mossos. And then, realising what had happened, realising that this had been a false alarm designed to distract attention, we all cheered. The boxes, with the voting slips and envelopes were safely in the polling station.

Now an enormous queue formed. We heard that - another masterstroke by the Generalitat - the Catalan government had introduced a universal census so that people whose polling station had been shut down could go to any other station to vote. This depended on access to the web, and so the team had organised IT specialists to be on hand, backed by a team of hackers somewhere in Catalonia, to keep the census open against attacks by the Spanish intelligence service.

Police Brutality

Then we started to see the videos. The awful videos of brutality by the Policia Nacional and the 'Civil Guard' against defenceless voters. The rubber bullets - banned across Catalonia two years ago after an incident in which a woman was blinded. We were all thoroughly scared. WhatsApp and texts began to arrive from friends in other places who had been attacked or seen the attacks. We reorganised the queue to ensure that the oldest people could vote early and leave. And we did more drills to prepare for what we presumed would be an armed attack by Spain's militarised police.

We uncovered a secret police officer. She was identified (in our village, everyone knows everyone so it was particularly stupid of the Civil Guard to send in a plain-clothes cop), surrounded by a group of women, and gently moved away until she left the village.

The Farmers (and Firefighters) Save the Day

Then the tractors came. The local farmers came out in force to support the referendum, and used three tractors to block the main access to the polling station. One farmer parked a livestock truck across a fourth entrance and the fifth was closed with four tonnes of sand, courtesy of a local building supplier. The firefighters arrived - the roar of pleasure from the crowd must have been audible a kilometre away - and added to the blockade by parking a fire tender across the road. 

That was all a relief, but it did not stop us being vigilant, especially when, during the afternoon, we heard that more than a dozen Policia Nacional vans were parked on the main road a few kilometres from the village. People were still frightened - at one point in the afternoon an old lady asked me, from outside the playground, if it was safe to come in and vote; I reassured here that here, now, it was safe.

The young people of the village were incredible, reinforcing a weak section of the fence around the playground with street barriers, and zipping around on their scooters and bikes to watch out for arriving police.

As the referendum closed, the brim-full voting boxes were smuggled out of the school in a reverse of their arrival, and the counting team was taken to a safe house in the village to compile the results.

Democracy Wins

In the end, aside from the plain-clothes police officer, no-one came to assault our village. The people of the village, together, saved the day. The evidence is in the figures - in a village of a couple of thousand voters we achieved the highest ever result for voting in an election or referendum;  85.36% participation, and 95.8% (1,525 people) voting Yes.

It was an extraordinary day. A day of mass participation, of powerful emotions - fear, laughter, many, many tears of pain (when we saw how the Policia Nacional hit old ladies to try to prevent them voting) and joy (at the farmers, the fire fighters, the four tonnes of sand). It was a day of new friendships, of many hugs and much dancing. And a day when democracy, the will of the people, proved that it was stronger than the 'argument of force' from Spain. A day to remember forever.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Light Shift

There was a moment this morning, under the trees, when the three-quarters moon cast a shadow as the dawn light from the East caught the topmost leaves. The moon's brilliance outshone the sun.

That is how it feels in Catalonia. The cool, quiet, clean light of a tiny planet outshining the raging solar flares from Madrid.

Catalonia has outmanoeuvred Madrid at every step of the referendum process, keeping calm and carrying on while Madrid sent in its violent militarised police to beat people standing in line to vote. The Catalan government successfully delivered voting slips, envelopes and voting boxes to more than 2,000 polling stations despite a vast operation over weeks by the Spanish police force. Crowds of people, this writer included, slept over at the polling stations and barricaded the entrances to stop armed police intervention, all so that more than two million people could cast their votes. Teams of hackers kept our voting system operational despite mass attacks by others, assumed to be the (patently slightly useless) Spanish 'intelligence' service.

And now the Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont, has made the move that is check-mate to Madrid's blundering game. Having won the referendum he has declared independence, but has asked the Catalan parliament to delay the actual moment 'for a few weeks' to give time to Madrid to negotiate.  A brilliant move, this forces Madrid to take a decision; carry on the violence, the arrests, the trumped up charges against Catalan politicians? Or accept that the Catalan people have spoken and negotiate a settlement, possibly with an international mediator.

Madrid will know the consequences of the first option; an immediate confirmation of independence and widespread revulsion, here and internationally, of the Spanish government.

But don't rely on Madrid to care. It is perfectly probable that the Spanish government will carry on its long tradition of bullying the Catalans, in the vain hope that they will submit. International opprobium does not seem to concern Madrid.

The comments on the village street last night were approving: Puigdemont had made another brilliant move. People here have a lot of confidence in him - one person told me that 'selecting Puigdemont was the best thing that [former president] Artur Mas ever did'. He and his team of advisers have played a brilliant game so far, and the expectation here is that the team have worked out the next few moves in the game, whatever Madrid do.
So now we wait. Wait for the next move from Madrid. And ready ourselves for a long, steep road to independence.

Friday, 8 September 2017


It's a simple idea. Vote yes, or vote no.

But the government in Madrid will do almost anything to stop the Catalans voting yes, or no, on 1st October 2017. The referendum on independence, the clearly-stated aim of the government here in Catalonia and one for which the public voted at the last elections, is the subject of a complex game of chess with Madrid.

The latest move has been that the Minister for Local Government in the Spanish Government, Roberto Bermúdez de Castro, has written to the mayors of Catalonia telling them not to provide facilities (schools, town halls or other public buildings) for the Referendum.

The effect has been immediate.In less than 24 hours more than 560 mayors have signed a decree stating that they WILL collaborate with the referendum by providing facilities.

Here's the mayor of my village, Sant Esteve de Palautordera, signing:

Citizens of Sant Esteve de Palautordera, you can vote!

Down here in the villages and towns of Catalonia it's simple; people simply want to vote, quietly and calmly, yes, or no. Txarango's new song sums it up; people from the coast and the hills, reaching for the new horizon.

I can't vote, but a campaign - #votaxmi - has been launched to support the Referendum, aimed at anyone who lives here but who cannot vote. We #LoveDemocracy.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Catalonia, Untangled

The climate in Catalonia is getting hotter every day, and not just because it is high summer here. The Generalitat, the Catalan government, is planning an October 1st referendum on independence and Carles Puigdemont, its President, has said that a Yes vote will mean a near-immediate declaration of independence. The conservative ('Partido Popular') party in Madrid is using the Constitutional Court ('Tribunal Constitutional') to overturn the decisions of the - supposedly - autonomous Generalitat, and is checking - each week - every payment made by the Catalan government to ensure that its funds are not being used for the plebiscite.

At any point over the next few weeks this could erupt into a real face-to-face confrontation. Puigdemont will reconvene the Generalitat two weeks earlier than normal, on August 15th, and the plan is then to pass the laws that would govern the referendum and its aftermath. It is likely that the Madrid government will intervene - the use of force is being talked about - while the Catalans will respond with mass protests of the sort seen each 11th of September.

Picture source:

Why is this happening? And what are the parallels with Scotland?

Three reasons stand out: bad governance, regional finance, and the wealth gap.

Bad Governance

The Spanish government in Madrid has consistently mis-read the signals from Catalonia. President Rajoy promised 'dialogue' but has offered none. Instead he and his conservative government have used the Constitutional Court to overturn, again and again, decisions made by the 'autonomous' government of Catalonia. The first, and for many Catalans the worst, of these decisions was to overturn the 2006 Statute for Catalonia, which had been passed first by the Generalitat and then approved by 74% of voters in a referendum. The process in the Court took four years - the decision was published in 2010 - and the result confirmed what many in Catalonia had suspected - that our government had no real power, and that at any moment Madrid could intervene to change a policy that it did not like.

The parallel for Scotland is the overturning of the 'Sewell Convention' in the Brexit case taken by Gina Miller et al to the UK Supreme Court. That decision demonstrated that the Scottish Parliament has no real powers and that Westminster is supreme.

Back in Spain, the conservative government continues to use the Constitutional Court to overturn the Generalitat's decisions - on everything from how we can pass laws to what we can call our ministries. This is simply bad governance. Instead of engaging with the Generalitat, the Spanish government is bashing it with a large legal hammer. It's law-law, not jaw-jaw.


In a state made up of autonomous regions you'd expect a sensible system of financial transfers so that wealthy regions help to fund poorer regions. 

In Spain, this is a muddle hidden in a black box.

The Basque Country and Navarra are treated differently from other regions - allowed to gather and spend their own taxes and to pay the Spanish state an annual sum for shared services such as defence and foreign affairs. (This is called the 'Foral' system here.) The remaining regions either pay into the central pot (Catalonia and Madrid are the principal contributors) or receive from the pot (poor regions such as Andalucia and Extremadura are normally net recipients.) But it is not nearly as clear as that, and there is endless political horseplay with successive Spanish governments favouring regions that voted for the party in power, and pharaonic projects planted in some regions and not in others. It's a mess, but the Spanish government seems unable to sort it out.

The Catalans - consistently one of the regions paying out - are sick of it. Catalunya has been a net contributor for years, and yet sees very little benefit, or change, in the recipient regions.

The parallel for Scotland is, of course, our oil. Oil from Scotland's waters has been squandered by Westminster (the phrase comes from Kevin McKenna's article here). Scotland's poor have not benefited from the country's huge natural resource wealth - check the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation if you need confirmation. Like the system in Spain, the UK government has hidden from the Scots the extent of the squandering, and has favoured political friends in the City of London over the people who really need the money in Possil Park or Pilton. 

The Wealth Gap

Something has made more people in Catalonia, more discontented than they were. One possible explanation is the combination of the 2007 financial crisis, and the wealth gap.

The financial crisis forced millions of people across Spain into unemployment. Youth unemployment rose to over 50% and millions of families were left with no breadwinner in a country in which unemployment benefit is limited and short-term. During the crisis the Spanish government passed a series of laws to create more 'flexibility' in the workplace - meaning the same sorts of zero-hours, flimsy contracts that the Tories of Westminster favour. For their employees, not for themselves of course.

Spain, like the UK, has the dubious distinction of being in the top - worst - dozen countries in the OECD index of wealth inequality. Wealth is not being shared out and so, like other countries in the top 12 (Turkey, Mexico, the USA...) folk at the bottom of the wealth pile are increasingly discontented and are expressing that discontent in their votes and on the streets.

The wealth gap is not the only reason for discontent, but it seems to be a catalyst for anyone who feels that injustice is being done. Catalonia hardly needs a catalyst - enough injustice is being done to this nation to ensure that, come 1st October, Yes will win outright in the referendum. The big question then is - what will Spain do next?