A recent occupational hazard of being an historian of modern Spain has been the expectation that you can explain what is going on in Catalonia right now. Friends and colleagues, stunned by the images of violence seen around the world last weekend, want to know where this has all come from.

There have been no shortage of those seeking historical parallels. Is this a return to the authoritarianism of Franco, whose preferred solution to the Catalan ‘problem’ was a (very) firm hand? What would Orwell think about all of this? British (and French, and American and…) volunteers fought in the 1930s to protect Spanish democracy, would they be outraged at this blatant attempt to forestall a free vote? Are we on the verge of another Civil War?

None of these parallels seem convincing, or rather, helpful. Orwell’s cause was not nationalism, whatever his affinity to Catalonia. The British volunteers who fought for the Spanish Republic would have been as confused about the situation as anyone else –  they envisaged a more federal system that would accommodate Catalan autonomy, but what about the fragmentation of the Spanish Republic they fought for?

What’s more, whatever one thinks of the Partido Popular, Rajoy is no Franco. He is constrained in the usual fashion of a democratic leader; one doesn’t have to be cynical to appreciate that his approach here is designed to win him votes, not lose them. Catalan independence is not a popular cause elsewhere in Spain, even on the left. A firm hand chastising those who want to destroy Spain is exactly what a large swathe of Spaniards want, particularly those who would consider voting PP in the first place.

What I do think this episode has made clear is the fragility and perhaps bankruptcy of modern nationalism. I’m not talking about the Catalans here, but mainstream ‘Spanish’ nationalism. It’s telling that the response has been to attempt to enforce Spanishness rather than reaffirm it. No one is building a case for ‘Spanish’ identity, or trying to convince Catalans that there is a version of being Spanish that is both attractive and compatible with their own identities. The response was purely defensive, small ‘c’ conservative, from those who don’t like the idea that their idea of ‘Spain’ might need to be revised.

The issue is shared in other contexts where there is a big, diverse nation state, in which the common ground of nationality has slowly eroded. What positive, meaningful vision of ‘Spain’ can be still be constructed? Such nationalisms rely on unquestioned assumptions: that those who share the label are more or less the same as you; attach meaning to the same symbols and value the identity the same way you do. It only works so long as no one is ever forced to start listing what actually matters or is integral to this identity. The vagueness of the meanings of national identity is what empowers it, because everyone can see what they like in it.

To my mind, this has echoes of the Scottish independence referendum, where the deafening silence on the question of ‘Britishness’ became very apparent. The Unionist campaign, while it could draw on any number of practical arguments, never attempted to construct a positive vision of Britishness that would counter the Nationalist narrative about Scottishness, beyond vague appeals for the maintenance of shared symbols such as the BBC and the monarchy. Such a vision would either be trite (‘a sense of fair play!’) or expose the reality that in modern Britain, there is no real consensus on what underpins national identity. The No campaign relied on enough Scots already feeling ‘British’ by themselves and wanting to retain that feeling, knowing that as soon as that label started to mean anything specific, it would lose rather than gain power. For me, the fragility was inherent to the assumption that the British identity (on both sides of the border, perhaps) would be destroyed by Scottish independence. If Britishness had any real defining power, why would it suddenly end along with the state? Catalan identity, to take but one example, survived and even thrived for many years without any state apparatus to back it up, so why wouldn’t Britishness, unless all that was left of it were the institutions?

cata1I’m not the only one to see parallels I guess?

National identity, as any historian would tell you, is a construct. Much like other types of constructions (like buildings), that doesn’t mean they’re not real. Scottish and Catalan identities are as artificial as any others, but their status as movements with a positive goal in mind has forced them to better define exactly who they are and what that means, for better or worse. But for some of the old, established national identities, even the artificial construct seems to have withered away. What we’ve witnessed in Catalonia is the reaction of those for whom violence is preferable to confronting this unwelcome realisation.

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