Monday, 30 October 2017
Monday, 23 October 2017
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.
Thursday, 12 October 2017
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.
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 BoxesJust 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.
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 DayThen 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 WinsIn 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
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:
Thursday, 10 August 2017
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: http://www.ara.cat/2014/09/11/videos/el-radar/11_setembre_2014-V_1210108985_16906799_987x555.png
Why is this happening? And what are the parallels with Scotland?
Three reasons stand out: bad governance, regional finance, and the wealth gap.
Bad GovernanceThe 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.
MoneyIn 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 GapSomething 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?