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Miquel Gil


Changing Spain: a failed project

In spite of the fact that there have always been people in Catalonia and within Catalanism who have considered national independence to be a moral good in itself, the main political currents since the loss of the Catalan Constitutions have been characterized by their attempts to accommodate Catalonia within the Spanish State. Being aware of the Castilian-centered origin and structure of the Spanish nation-state, Catalan political movements concentrated their efforts on attempting to reshape Spain in order to integrate Catalonia within while avoiding a complete assimilation by Castile.

Mainstream Catalanism—a movement which appeared during the second half of the 19th century—has distinguished itself up until recent years by its will to end Castilian hegemony within Spain and replace it either with shared control or, even, with ‘soft’ Catalan hegemony. Although Catalanism never renounced the right to national independence, it often argued independence was inconvenient for pragmatic reasons and proposed instead—probably ingenuously—to transform the Spanish State. For instance, Valentí Almirall refused Catalan independence on account of the fragility of small states of his time but claimed that if Catalanism stopped “some point before getting to separatism, it is not because it lacks the right, but because it doesn’t think it convenient to exercise” (Almirall 1979: 95). Enric Prat de la Riba at the heyday of central European empires regarded that the World’s natural tendency led to the formation of great conglomerates of national states and argued in favor of a Catalan imperialism that should lead a federation of “all the Iberian peoples, from Lisbon to the Rhone” (Prat de la Riba 1978: 118), a federation in which each nation could preserve its singularity by means of “state structures”.

Catalanist demands of a composed Spanish State soon ran into two brick walls, which in fact were two sides of the same coin: Castilian political culture, characterized by its Jacobine centralism and its contempt of diversity, and open belligerence from the Castilian agrarian oligarchy controlling the State, who were not of a mind to share it with anyone, let alone to yield its control to some sort of Catalan imperialism. Therefore, Catalan arguments had to overcome an important obstacle: total Castilian indisposition. After numerous failures, the Núria Charter of Autonomy, the 1934 events and two dictatorships, accommodationist Catalanism began to realize Spain didn’t wish to be changed. When faced with this truth, Catalanism during the Francoist period developed a new objective: to modernize Spain. This new goal was built upon a new myth: that democratization and economic development of the Spanish State would lead to a change of mentality as far as Catalanist demands were concerned.

As it is now evident, Catalanism’s main objective has not been fulfilled: the Spanish State does not recognize itself as plurinational. Despite the fact that the Spanish constitution establishes a distinction between “nationalities” and regions, it makes it explicit in the same article that it is based upon the “indissoluble unity” of one Spanish “Nation”. For the reasons that will be explained below, in all legal documents and court rulings, only the State’s self-definition as a “Nation” will be relevant, while “nationality” is a merely decorative—when not altogether ignored—term which was only relevant during some few years for aspects related to the different speeds at which the central government transferred powers to the new territorial divisions, which are now the same all over the Spanish State, except for the Basque Country and Navarre. There have been many consequences stemming from the Spanish State’s self-definition as a nation in opposition to the views of a majority of Catalans. First of all, the very Spanish constitution establishes the supremacy of the language of Castile, which is, with no reciprocity whatsoever, official throughout the Spanish State and whose knowledge is mandatory for all citizens.  Secondly, this self-definition has also lead to the Catalan nation being equated to Castilian administrative regions such as Murcia or Extremadura, and to the State’s territorial Senate Chamber, which lacks any real power anyway, not being an effective counterbalance to Castilian hegemony. Thirdly, it also means something which would be unthinkable if Catalonia’s national condition were acknowledged: the final drafting of Catalonia’s Charter of Autonomy is in the hands of a Spanish parliamentary majority instead of a Catalan one, something which differs from what happens in truly federal regimes, where the federated states’ constitutions are issued by their own parliaments. Finally, the denial of Spain’s plurinationality has also led to Castile monopolizing the State’s institutions due to its sheer demographic power: as there is no recognition of multiple nations, there is no system of national checks-and-balances preventing the judicial body, the army or the police from being entirely in Castilian hands.

Lack of counterbalances to the Castilian demographic majority, which intervenes without restraints in the affairs of the Catalan society, has led the Catalan perpetual minority to total helplessness: they witness impotently how an external majority tells them how to organize themselves, imposing their own norms and overruling those of the minority, something which is especially felt as far as language, culture and identity are concerned. With the passing of years many Catalans have realized that the modernization of Spain has not changed the attitudes of either its oligarchy or the Castilian people. The 2006 Charter of Autonomy was the last Catalan attempt to change the situation and although the Catalans reduced their goals progressively as the bill followed its course, they failed nonetheless: in spite of the fact that the final version of the Charter adopted by referendum was quite diminished from its original draft, in 2010 the Spanish constitutional court still modified some of its most substantial aspects both through the interpretative technique and through the outright suppression of articles. This has brought about the little known situation that 1) the Catalans have a Charter of Autonomy nobody has voted for and that 2) by means of the suppression of articles of the original Charter it has been shown that Catalans have voted against the Spanish constitution.

The Spanish constitutional court’s last stroke to the Charter of Autonomy led up to the boom of the “sovereigntist” movement, which points at the unfeasibility of changing Spain and its political culture and instead proposes to constitute an independent Catalan state. Faced with this movement, Spanish parties and institutions have reacted unanimously by being intransigent. However, we are beginning to hear siren calls that, without any promises and generally refusing to treat the core of the matter—plurinationality, advocate for an ethereal constitutional reform. Leaving aside that such a change is most improbable in the light of majoritarian views in Spain and ignoring the reasonable suspicion this calls arouse as regards their sincerity, it must be said that constitutional amendments alone would not solve the problem. Even though the Spanish constitution’s main problems regarding Catalonia lie with the lack of counterweights to Castilian hegemony, the existence of such counterweights is not in itself sufficient.

The most relevant theoretical definition of the importance of institutional balances that we have today is, apart from Montesquieu’s, that of the Founding Fathers of the United States, who believed that the creation of a sphere of autonomy for individuals and the protection of minorities required institutions to be designed in accordance to the principle of the separation of powers and the idea of checks and balances to avoid tyranny. In the 10th Federalist Paper James Madison distinguishes two classes of popular government: tyrannical pure democracy (that of Ancient Greece, where everything was decided by majority rule and powers were not separated) and the republic (where democracy is not direct but representative and powers remain separated but control each other). Madison, liberal and distrustful of human nature, considered that only by means of a system of penalties and controls could power be prevented from becoming tyrannical. However, we now know this is not enough. Firstly, it must be noted that the same institutional design will not serve different countries: the unsuccessful experience of Mexican federalism—which is a copy of American federalism—and the control of institutions by a national majority in Spain are proof of that. Secondly, Madison didn’t take into account the importance of political culture and education when explaining the functioning of a particular society.

The partiality of Madison’s understanding is probably passable due to the good functioning of his model in the United States, which results from the adequacy of that country’s protestant political culture to the complex institutional system it adopted for itself. Nevertheless, the failure of that same model in Latin America shows that political culture is as relevant as Law when explaining the functioning of a particular society. Isocrates, born in the 5th century B.C., was the first who without downplaying the coercive power of Laws noted (in his Aeropagiticus) that “men who are badly reared will venture to transgress even those laws which are drawn up with minute exactness” (Isocrates 1982: 131), something instances such as the unfortunate Weimar Constitution or general corruption in current Spain seem to prove. Thus, Isocrates, without renouncing “punishment” and “watchfulness” (Isocrates 1982: 133), which are necessary because in their absence even virtuous people get corrupted, proposes education as the ultimate warrant of institutional well-functioning. Without the adequate values, he says, no law serves as a guarantee. This last point brings us back to the siren calls of constitutional reform.

Spain’s demographic composition is, whatever the laws, that of an overwhelming majority of people of Castilian culture, educated in the political culture of Jacobine centralism, the denial of plurinationality, and the supremacy of Castilian elements, understood as “common” elements. The political majority of more than two thirds of the Spanish parliament for the PP, the PSOE and the UPyD leaves little room for alternative interpretations. If we assumed that this overwhelming majority would accept changes to the Spanish constitution in order to acknowledge Spain’s plurinationality, something which is unthinkable because the three parties are totally opposed to it, and if we assumed that this overwhelming majority would accept the creation of a system of national counterbalances that would convey the end of their formal hegemony over the State, we would still run into the problem of most of the citizenry’s political education. The majority of the Castilian people would be hard pressed to accept a system such as that, since it would be understood as a Catalan imposition, which would be fought against and finally brought down, some way or another, as the Weimar Constitution’s case shows. Furthermore, any legal gap would be utilized by the oligarchy controlling the state in order to neutralize precepts and legal control mechanisms, as has happened in the case of the term “nationality” and the Third Additional Disposition to the Catalan Charter of Autonomy.

Historical Catalanism, eager to find nationally acceptable alternatives to separation, has insisted on modifying Spain. These “realistic” alternatives to independence have been shown to be, actually, impossible. But moreover, apart from being impossible, perhaps they were not adequate. Castilian political culture is of a particular nature and the State Castile desires is a result of this culture. Indeed, Catalans do not have the right to force them to be some other way. However, we do have the right not to be assimilated. The dominant classes of the Spanish State have had time to promote an educative shift to enable a plurinational accommodation of Catalonia to take place. Legitimately, they have refused to do so. This leads the Catalans to a choice: do you want Catalonia to be an independent State?


Almirall, Valentí 1979. Lo Catalanisme, Barcelona: Edicions 62/“La Caixa”

Isocrates 1982. “Aeropagiticus” a Isocrates in Three Volumes, Harvard University Press

Madison, James 2012. “The Federalist Papers” a The Constitution of the United States of America and Selected Writings of the Founding Fathers, New York: Barnes&Noble

Prat de la Riba, Enric 1978. La nacionalitat catalana, Barcelona: Edicions 62/”La Caixa


Originally published at Finestra d'Oportunitat. Translated and republished with permission.