Chris Bambery reports on a huge pro-independence manifestation in Catalonia, and the strategic tensions between the street movement and its parliamentary representatives.
On Sunday (11 September) some 700,000 people marched through the centre of Barcelona in support of independence on Catalonia’s National Day, the Diada. The march had been organised by the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) but prior to it setting off, at the exact hour the city had surrendered to the Borbón king of Spain on that day in 1714, there had been considerable trepidation about the turnout because of infighting in the pro-independence camp.
In the event the turn-out of several hundred thousand exceeded last year and was claimed as Europe’s biggest demonstration since the Pandemic commenced. The size of Sunday’s march is a major boost for the independence movement. Yet it also marks a major inflection point for the Catalan independence movement, with its mass extra-parliamentary elements at loggerheads with parliamentary leaders.
The ANC emerged in 2011 from a National Conference for the Catalan State (Conferència Nacional per l’Estat Propi), held on 30 April in Barcelona and attended by 1500 people. This flowed from the huge protests a year earlier which had greeted Spain’s Constitutional Court ripping up key clauses of a new stronger Catalan Statute of Autonomy, passed by both the Spanish and Catalan parliaments and approved by a referendum held in Catalonia.
Over a million and a half people took to the streets under the slogan “We are a Nation, We Decide.” The reaction to the Court’s action saw support for independence mushroom to reach a near majority.
In 2012 the ANC called the first Diada march which drew 1.5 million people. Its name consciously drew on the memory of the Catalan Assembly (Assemblea de Catalunya) formed underground to co-ordinate opposition to the dictatorship of Francesco Franco, victor of the Spanish Civil War.
As support for independence grew so did the size of the Diada marches, peaking in 2014 with 1.8 million turning out in the build up to a non-binding referendum on independence.
In 2017 one million marched in the build up to a referendum called by the Catalan Parliament but declared illegal by Spain’s Constitutional Court. On the day of the referendum the right-wing government in Madrid sent in the paramilitary Guardia Civil National Police to attack polling stations, batoning voters and seizing ballot boxes. When the Catalan parliament voted to declare independence on the back of the referendum victory the Madrid government prorogued Catalan autonomy, imposing first rule, and seized nine Catalan leaders, six ministers, the Speaker of the Catalan Parliament and the two Presidents of the ANC and Omnium, the massive language and cultural movement.
In response the 2018 Diada drew around a million people in support of the prisoners and exiles (President Carles Puidgemont and other minister had fled to Brussels to avoid arrest), many wearing ANC t-shirts declaring “We’re making the Catalan republic.”
Since then the nine leaders have been pardoned (though not amnestied) but hundreds of others face prosecution for “crimes” such as ripping down pictures of King Felipe Borbón or flying Catalan flags from municipal buildings on Spain’s National Day. Spanish judges removed President Quim Torra from office for displaying a banner in support of the nine prisoners from the government building in Barcelona.
This ongoing repression was designed to wear down and demoralise the pro-independence movements but in subsequent elections to the Catalan parliament following the end of Madrid direct rule, pro-independence parties have won a majority and formed a government.
Parliament and Streets
The last election in 2021 saw pro-independence party win a majority of votes, at 50.9 percent, and the centre-left Left Republicans (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, ERC) replace the centre right Together for Catalonia (Junts per Catalunya) as the biggest pro-independence party. The far left Popular Unity Party (Candidatura d’Unitat Popular, CUP) increased it number of seats from four to nine.
Catalonia’s independence movement is, therefore, rather more complicated than those in Scotland and Wales where there is essentially one pro-independence party and nothing to compare to the ANC (although Yes Cymru represents something approaching that model).
An institutional split has emerged in Catalonia between the street and parliamentary wings. But whereas this resulted in the subordination of the extra-parliamentary movement in Scotland, in Catalonia the ANC represents a more independent and self-reliant force.
A degree of demoralisation in the movement, and anxiety over the turn out ahead of the protest, relate to the Catalan President, Pere Aragonès, announcing he would not attend. His reason: “because it is against [pro-independence] parties and not against Spain.” Aragonès and the ERC have urged a policy of dialogue with the Madrid government to achieve a legal independence referendum – rejecting the policy pursued in 2017 of holding an illegal vote and unilaterally declaring independence and drawing the ire of many in the wider movement. Protest leaders have voiced criticism of the retreat from a more intransigent strategy.
In 2018 and again in 2020 the votes of the ERC’s representatives in the Spanish parliament led to the Socialist Party’s Pedro Sánchez being able to form a government. In the latter case he had to form a coalition with the radical left Podemos (which then accommodated itself to its ally) and relied on the votes of the ERC and EH Bildu (the Basque left pro-independence party) to form a government.
The pardon for the nine jailed Catalan leaders, some fiscal concessions, and the promise of dialogue between the Spanish and Catalan governments were the price Sánchez paid. All of this was denounced bitterly by the centre right Popular Party (PP) and the fascist party, Vox. Not just unionism but anti-Catalanism is a vital part of their electoral base.
But the formation of a government relying on the votes of pro-independence Catalan and Basque parties was also attacked by significant sections of the Socialist Party, including former prime minister Felipe González.
Spain faces a general election next year with the PP ahead in the polls. In that situation Sánchez is under pressure from the right to rule out any major concessions to Catalonia, while granting a legal independence referendum is regarded as a breach of Spain’s constitution, a unionist mantra.
That constitution is the result of a flawed transition to parliamentary democracy following Franco’s death in 1975, born of a compromise worked out behind the scenes between the Socialists, led by Felipe González, and the ex-Francoists, then labelling themselves Christian Democrats, who had come to government. It left most of the Francoist state intact, excluded any element of popular sovereignty and amnestied Franco’s executioners and torturers.
Since reaching a pact with Sánchez, Pere Aragonès, has defended a process of negotiation, despite little having taken place in the way of talks. Just before Sunday’s Diada march, under pressure from the street movement, he announced he would hold a referendum. Later this month he is expected to announce a plan to achieve self-determination For their part, Junts will soon consult its members on whether to remain in the coalition government with the ERC and on 1 October, five years after the independence referendum, will propose a fresh roadmap towards a split from Spain.
While their approach differs, many in the independence movement are sceptical of both approaches. They don’t trust Spain and do not believe accord can ever be achieved with Madrid, whoever is in government.
On the Sunday march, ANC President Dolors Feliu asked the politicians for “sincerity, courage and determination” to get to independence. “And if they don’t do it, we are determined to do it ourselves, using the elections, with new actors if necessary”, insisting that “there is enough depth to present a civic candidacy” which would compete with the established parties for votes. Chants on the march were also critical of the parliamentary parties, with some slogans demanding either a fresh drive for independence now, or elections in Catalonia.
The singer songwriter, Lluis Llach, has previously attacked what he described as “neo-autonomism” – acceptance that independence is off the agenda with the aim to acquire more power for a devolved Catalonia and in the long run prove to Brussels, Washington and Madrid that you can be trusted to be well-behaved.
On Sunday Llach said: “There is a lot of talk about a divided independence movement. That is in another place because on the streets I have seen it as solid as ever.”
For him it is the mass movement that is key to winning independence, reflecting the ANC’s strategy.
Whatever weaknesses the Catalan movement has, it is not overly reliant on its parliamentary representatives. It has a life, institutions, leaders and debates separate from and – if recent days are instructive – sometimes superior and prior to the official political leadership.
Reading all this from a Scottish vantage point, where an official independence campaign continues to languish, we might draw some lessons from this more robust and self-determining movement.