Beneath the sleek surface of this sparkling Mediterranean metropolis boil passions generated by Spain’s version of identity politics. The passions are aroused by demagogues who hope to shatter a nation. The turmoil in Catalonia — the northeastern of Spain’s 17 regions, which exercise considerable autonomy (over police, health care, education, etc.) — is the toll taken by lies used to manufacture grievances. This is pertinent to the United (for now) Kingdom, and wherever populist resentment-mongers stoke feelings of victimization.
The illegal 2017 referendum staged by Catalan secessionists (some are in jail or in exile to avoid trial) yielded a muddy result: The organizers claimed that 90% voted for independence, but turnout was only 43%. Many boycotted the voting because of its illegality. Nevertheless, 26 days later, the Catalan parliament declared independence. However, on Nov. 10, 2019, in the fourth national election in four years, only 42.5% of Catalans supported pro-independence parties. Nevertheless, secessionist leaders will continue to feed to the gullible fictions such as these:
Catalans have more “genetic proximity” to the French than to Spaniards. Madrid is “ripping off” and “strangling” Catalonia. Every year every Catalan family sends to Madrid enough money to buy a car. (Catalonia, which contributes 19% to Spain’s GDP and 19% of national revenues, has 16% of the nation’s population, and receives about 15.8% of disbursed national revenues.) Madrid elites despise Catalans. (A banner on a balcony here: “Independence means dignity.”) Having five Catalans among the 11 starters in Spain’s 2010 World Cup-winning soccer team was a plot to subvert Catalan independence by inspiring national sentiment. And so on.
What makes secessionists think a soup of fictions and paranoia will be swallowed? In Britain, the most potent factoid in the 2016 Brexit campaign that won 52% approval was that the U.K. sends to the European Union 350 million pounds ($455 million) a week that otherwise could go to the National Health Service. This propelled Boris Johnson, who has always been parsimonious with truth, into office as the queen’s first minister. In Scotland, where a 62% majority opposed Brexit, a large minority feels, as Catalonia’s secessionists do, that they are a nation without a state. In a referendum two years before Brexit, 45% of Scots favored independence. That might not have been the last such referendum.
Catalan secessionists bowdlerize history in order to weaponize it. At 17 minutes and 14 seconds into FC Barcelona soccer games, independence-minded fans roar. Never mind that 1714 did not, as secessionists insist, end Catalan independence. It ended a war, with few Catalan participants, between two factions supporting rivals for the Spanish throne in Madrid. Secessionists recast the 1936-1939 civil war as a regional conflict between Spain and Catalonia rather than a maelstrom of political pathologies (fascism, communism, anarchism, anti-clericalism).
When Woodrow Wilson proclaimed a right of “self-determination,” Secretary of State Robert Lansing saw dragon’s teeth being sown: “What has he in mind? Does he mean a race, a territorial area, or a community?” Or perhaps a linguistic cohort? Catalonia’s primary and secondary schools devote more than 12 times more hours to teaching the Catalan language — Francisco Franco’s dictatorship (1939-1975) tried to extinguish it — than to teaching Spanish. Catalonia’s public television, which is watched by 84% of those who voted for independence, promotes independence.
Catalans should study Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, delivered after seven states had voted to secede: “Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments,” none of which “ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination.” Lincoln refuted the South’s “contract” theory of the American union: Can a contract “be peaceably unmade by less than all the parties who made it?” Catalonia has no such theory: It never was a sovereign contracting entity. Furthermore, Spain’s constitution, which says the nation is “indivisible,” was ratified by a 1978 referendum of the national electorate, wherein 90.5% of Catalonia’s 70% turnout approved it — higher support than in Madrid or the entire nation.
A minority of the 7.5 million Catalans — one-third of whom were born elsewhere — will continue to seethe about being a “stateless nation,” and will remain as prickly as when, centuries ago, people of this region swore this oath to Spain’s ruler: “We who are as good as you swear to you who are no better than us, to accept you as our king and sovereign lord, provided you observe all our laws and liberties; but if not, not.” Spain, however, will not fragment.
George Will’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.