Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

How Spanish progressives took back control

Spain’s new centre-left leader Pedro Sánchez sets out a blueprint for stemming the tide of nationalism, writes Callum Tipple

In his iconic Homage to Catalonia, Orwell states that ‘I have the most evil memories of Spain, but I have very few bad memories of Spaniards’. These historic memories live long in the Catalan consciousness, manifesting themselves in a distrust of a Spanish state perceived as oppressive, illiberal and ignorant of the concerns of the Catalan people. 

The ugly scenes of the October 2017 referendum, and the ensuing incarceration of Catalan political leaders, brought this same distrust into the view of the world. However, the surge in support for Catalan nationalism is a relatively modern phenomenon. Having been granted special autonomy in the 1978 constitution, Catalonia coexisted peacefully within Spain for some 30 years; fully fledged nationalism was reduced to fringe elements of independence parties. 

It was the casting out of a progressive statute of autonomy in 2010 by the Madrid courts – backed by the centre-right People’s party (PP) – that allowed the nationalists to seize the agenda. The election of PP and Mariano Rajoy in 2011 further fuelled the flames. Rajoy bowed to pressure from his backbenchers in refusing to give any concessions to Catalonia, leaving an indelible impression among ordinary Catalans of a country which detests its own community. This was a sentiment felt even more intensely in poorer rural areas, where even the financial advantages of integration into Spain were not being felt. 

Given the tension between Catalonia’s renowned liberalism and the central government’s conservative agenda, coupled with a Madrid-based media showing little engagement with Catalan concerns, it is no wonder nationalism was able to take hold. What is more surprising is the stark similarity between the Catalan case and the British case in 2016: communities let down by the political machine, lashing out at an established system which entrenches privilege and power, and which ignores the things that matter most to them. 

Michael Gove’s infamous ‘experts’ remark was replaced by ‘España nos roban’ (‘Spain robs from us’) and ‘Nosaltres decidim’ (‘We decide’). These pithy and powerful phrases captured the desire amongst ordinary people to ‘take back control’ from an amorphous body which wilfully ignores their voice. The focus on immigration over supposedly illiberal values is one of the few points of distinction. 

What, then, may be done to halt this kind of nationalism in its tracks? Both Catalonia and Brexit demonstrate the inefficacy of suppressing or ignoring substantial discontent. The only effective strategy must focus on engaging directly with the root anxieties which fuel nationalist sentiment: isolation from the political system and a lack of engagement which allows nationalist politicians to shape the narrative.  

The new centre-left leader Pedro Sánchez, from the Spanish Socialists, understands this; since taking power, he has initiated a series of reforms to invest in Catalonia, and to reform the constitution to afford more autonomy. Will Hutton and Andrew Adonis have similarly proposed a new federal settlement for a European Britain. Engaging in these ways will help communities feel valued, will offer them the support they need and will ‘take back control’ of the narrative from nationalist rhetoric. 

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Calum Tipple is a writer for Progress. He tweets @Callum Tipple

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Photo: Rob Shenk / Flickr

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