This weekend Now Scotland, a membership organisation for the Scottish independence movement, will be launched. It draws inspiration in part from Catalonia. We can learn a great deal from the strategies developed by Catalan activists, the innovative tactics they have developed, and how they relate to their own pro-independence parties, writes Chris Bambery.
The Assemblea Nacional Catalana (ANC), the Catalan National Assembly, is a unique organization. It is made up of around 100,00 individual members committed to campaigning for an independent Catalan Republic, that prioritizes social justice, democracy and freedom. The ANC’s structure is decentralized and includes sectoral assemblies as well as more traditional geographic organization. The sectoral assemblies provide a space for different groups to organize: there are assemblies of firefighters, teachers, IT workers, and other workers groups. There are also assemblies for LGBTQ+, women’s organizations, and other groups who want to organize together.
No incumbent politicians are allowed to take up positions within the ANC. And in contrast to the male dominated leaderships of Catalonia’s political parties – including the pro-independence parties – the ANC is led primarily by women. The most notable of these is Carme Forcadell. Forcadell, a Catalan philologist with a background in both education and language planning, was a founder of the Plataforma per la Llengua (Platform for the Language) in the 1990s, which promotes and defends the use of Catalan language. After leading the ANC Carme Forcadell would become Speaker of the Catalan parliament. She is now serving nine years in prison for her role in organizing the 2017 independence referendum.
The origins of the ANC
The ANC’s name was chosen to evoke the memory of the celebrated Assemblea de Catalunya. Founded in the dying days of Francoism the first Assemblea united Catalan Communists, Socialists, nationalists, trade unionists and cultural organisations in support of “Liberty, Amnesty and [a] Statute of Autonomy.” After Franco’s death the Assemblea was the organization that mobilized against the remnants of the old regime that attempted to cling to power. In September 1976 Assemblea took to the streets to mark the Diada, Catalonia’s national day. Despite numerous violent attacks by the police more than 80,000 marched in Barcelona.
In parallel to this historic event, the ANC’s first major activity was to organize a mass demonstration on the Diada, on 11th September 2012. Marching under the slogan “Catalonia, a New State in Europe,” 1.5 million citizens flooded onto the streets of Barcelona to demand that Catalan politicians act immediately to achieve independence. A fleet of more than one thousand buses brought people from across the country, while the municipal councils of Figueres and Girona chartered trains to bring their residents to the Catalan capital. A mobilisation of this magnitude, such a short time after the ANC’s founding, was remarkable.
At the conclusion of the march a group of delegates entered the Catalan Parliament to make a request on behalf of the demonstrators that the government should immediately do whatever was necessary to achieve independence for Catalonia. The Catalan president, Artur Mas, promised them a referendum. After a legally binding referendum was vetoed by the Spanish, the outcome was the consultative referendum of 2014.
Human Chains, Citizen’s Assemblies and Innovative Tactics
The next year saw a more complex operation initiated by the ANC, the Via Catalana (Catalan Way).
This was the organization of a 400 kilometre (250 mile) human chain in support of Catalan independence. An estimated 1.6 million people linked hands along the ancient Via Augusta, from Le Perthus in France to Alcanar on the Mediterranean coast, the southernmost extremity of Catalonia. The inspiration for the project came from the Baltic Way demonstration of 1989, which saw two million people in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia link hands to demand independence from a crumbling Soviet Union. In a demonstration of internationalism, the Catalans invited two key organisers of the Baltic Way, Henn Karits and Ülo Laanoja, to come to Barcelona to advise on the mobilisation.
Participation was organised via a website, where people were asked to sign up to a particular
section. More than 100,000 photographs were taken along the route to provide a “Gigafoto”, allowing people to search later for their own photograph on the ANC’s website. Ultralights were used to film the route from the air, with the results quickly being made available on YouTube.
The organisation of the Via Catalana epitomised the approach of the ANC. Decentralization was one of the main features of the organizational structure, in which a total of five thousand ANC members and other volunteers formed what was referred to as a “pyramid”, that had at its base one section coordinator for every five hundred meters of the human chain itself.
These mobilizations were followed in May 2014 by El País que Volem (The Country We Want), a series of citizens assemblies held across Catalonia. Organized alongside other groups, these grassroots assemblies brought people to discuss and debate what they thought a Catalan Republic should look like when it gained independence.
For the Diada that year, held prior to the consultative referendum, the ANC and Òmnium Cultural organised a demonstration that formed a gigantic Catalan flag spanning 11 kilometres of Barcelona’s main streets and avenues. 2.5 million people took part. Two days later the ANC presented the Speaker of the Catalan parliament a petition signed by 750,000 people demanding the parliament uphold the result of the forthcoming referendum and declare independence if a majority of voters cast their ballots in favour of sovereignty.
The ANC is not the only civic organisation campaigning in Catalonia. Òmnium Cultural works to promote Catalan culture and organisation. Òmnium has some 200,000 members and its branches extend into Valencia and Mallorca, the Països Catalans (Catalan Countries). It is led by a National Directive Board (Junta Directiva), headed by its president, Jordi Cuixart, who has retained this position, despite being jailed by the Spanish government for sedition.
Òmnium Cultural was founded much earlier, in 1961, by members of the Catalan elite at a time when the use of Catalan language was forbidden. When Catalonia fell to Franco’s army in January 1939 the population were ordered to speak the “language of Empire,” Castilian. Catalan books, newspapers and magazines were outlawed. And in scenes reminiscent of Nazi Germany they were seized and burned in the streets. While the Catholic Church was a supporter of Franco’s Nationalist “crusade” during the Civil War, in the 1940’s – as in the Basque Country – it had to use the local language to preach, particularly in rural areas. The great Catalan abbey on Montserrat saw huge protests in defence of its use in services.
By the early 1960’s restrictions on language were loosened, and Catalan could be used for religious purposes and writings of “high culture” could be published. Radio and TV, however, remained totally Castilian. But despite this relative thaw, Òmnium was banned and had to operate underground until 1967.
Over the last two decades Òmnium has once again taken centre stage in Catalan politics. It initiated a million strong protest in Barcelona the day after the Spanish Constitutional Court struck down key paragraphs in Catalonia’s new Statute of Autonomy, including the definition of Catalonia as a nation. This was despite the Statute being approved by the Catalan and Spanish parliaments and by a referendum in Catalonia. The slogan of the protest was “Som una nació. Nosaltres decidim“ (We are a nation. We decide).
Subsequently, Òmnium became involved in the unofficial referendums held in towns and municipalities across Catalonia between 2009-2011, the official consultative referendum called by the Catalan government in 2014, and the October 2017 independence referendum approved by the Catalan parliament but declared illegal by the Spanish Constitutional Court. Since then it has worked closely with the ANC in support of jailed Catalan leaders.
The ANC, along with Òmnium, other civic organisations, the ERC (Catalan Republican Left) and the CUP (Catalan Popular Unity) were central to the go ahead of the 1 October 2017 Catalan independence referendum.
After violent police repression of the referendum, reminiscent of scenes from the US civil rights movement, Catalan independence was declared by the Catalan parliament later that month. In many respects the ANC’s finest hour came in the wake of the declaration. The Spanish state reacted, unsurprisingly, with further repression and Catalan political leaders either fled into exile or were jailed awaiting trial on charges of rebellion and sedition. The ANC immediately moved into gear. Its grassroots organisation meant it could act as a focus for the now disorientated independence movement, quickly pivoting the emphasis of the campaign to defending Catalan democracy and acting in support of the prisoners.
A New Strategy in Catalonia and Scotland
In March 2018 Elisenda Paluzie was elected president of the ANC. This represented a change of direction for the organization. Up until this point the ANC’s strategy was focused on pressuring the Catalan government: after each mass mobilisation it, and the wider movement, demobilised, waiting for politicians to determine the agenda. This paralleled a wider strategic problem for the independence movement – it was not sufficiently reaching out to social layers that were agnostic (or even hostile) to independence, but who could be won over. Nor had the movement had any real success in making inroads with the large immigrant communities concentrated in Barcelona’s poorer suburbs.
To change this ANC activists had to become involved in other key social protest movements, such as the struggle over housing rights organised by La Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (Platform for People Affected by Mortgages), who were fighting evictions and rent rises.
There are differences and similarities between Scotland and Catalonia. Back in 2018 when George Kerevan and I wrote “Catalonia Reborn” we argued:
Today 72 per cent of those supporting the Catalan Republic say they are left-wing as compared to 40 per cent who voted No. Polls also suggest that a majority of those supporting independence do so because they want to transform society and the economy. True, the language issues remain important; the Spanish Constitutional Courts continue to strike down laws that protect the Catalan mother tongue… But the desire of those crowds gathering in front of the Palau del Parlament on 27 October [when deputies voted to declare Catalonia an independent Republic] was less about high taxes and more about social change and the Catalan Republic that could bring it about.
Elisenda Paluzie has started the discussion about what a Catalan Republic could achieve for its people, and how the grass roots independence movement can begin the task of creating that Republic themselves. This has meant a more difficult relationship with the pro-independence parties, many of whom clearly wanted to see the back of Paluzie when ANC elections were held last year. But she, and her supporters, were re-elected convincingly.
Another lesson we can learn from the ANC is the international scope of its organizing efforts. The ANC has branches in 37 countries across the world, including Scotland. It brings together exiles but also organises events in cities like Washington, London, Brussels, Paris and Berlin to brief and engage politicians on what is happening in Catalonia. It is hard work, but it has achieved small successes – not just in countries like Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Flanders, where there is natural sympathy for the Catalans, but also in the USA, England, France and Germany.
The ANC is evident across the villages, towns and cities of Catalonia, especially in the build up to major mobilisations. We cannot simply replicate it in Scotland, but we can learn a great deal from how it organises and how it mobilises.
Image: Ivan Bernard McClellan