My family connections with Catalonia stretch back to 1958 – the year my parents discovered their own little part of the Costa Brava. In those days, indeed until 1975 when Franco died, the Catalans – their culture and language – were suppressed. Once the Generalissimo was out of the way Democracy returned to Spain and Catalonia began to assert its individuality. Mum and Dad, living in Palafrugell, saw their street name change from Spanish to Catalan and saw the regional language return everywhere – not least in the schools.

A democratically elected government in Madrid and the return of a constitutional monarchy benefited all Spaniards but especially the Catalans. The suppression of their culture during the long years of Franco’s dictatorship had been brutal. Catalonia is really more than a region – it has legitimate claim to nationhood, in the same way that Scotland has. In fact the language makes it more different to the rest of Spain than Scotland is to the rest of the UK. This was to be celebrated in 1992.

In 1992 Barcelona was host to the Olympic Games. Ann and I were lucky enough to go to many events from our house in Pals (Costa Brave). This included the opening ceremony which was a proud celebration of Catalonia. There was a bit of flamenco and a nod to Castilian Spain but Barcelona 1992 was 99% Catalan.
Over the years we have regarded our little corner of Catalonia as a second home. We had successively two houses there over that time – though we sold the second of these a couple of years ago. We expect to continue to have a holiday at Aigua Blava (see photo) as long as we can.

Catalonia is different to other parts of Spain, but so is the Basque Country, Andalusia and other regions. The Catalans are very commercial – they created mass tourism in Europe on the Costa Brava and they have strong industrial, financial, marine and viniculture sectors as well as tourism. They are proud of their separate identity and have a high degree of autonomy. But some of them want more. The Basques are the same but unlike them the Catalans have never resorted to arms in their pursuit of independence.

You can make a case for Catalan independence though it is a case based on the “Take our own decisions” credo rather than there being any urgent or credible case to break away from Spain. The clarion call is “Sovereignty” – sound familiar ? The enemy is in Madrid not Brussels but the gut instinct is the same.

Nationalism is, history teaches us, that most divisive of ideologies. Anyone who grew up in Franco’s Spain should not need reminding of that. But in difficult times the nationalist appeal can be strong. The rise of Hitler would not have happened without the Wall Street crash. But proper democracy and Nationalism are incompatible. When Spain had its first free elections for generations in the late 1970s we were in Mallorca. We saw elderly people voting for the first time for forty years. The turnout was huge. They were celebrating freedom – a freedom that had continued ever since despite a few rocky moments.

The so-called Catalan independence referendum is unofficial – illegal according to the judges in Madrid. But if as is likely there is an overwhelming “Yes” vote the Catalan government has said they will declare Catalonia independent. This would be unprecedented in modern Europe. It’s a chilling prospect. It could even lead to violence – Madrid is not in a conciliatory mood and the Catalans would seem to be emboldened to act.
We live in troubled times. In extremis people seek a scapegoat and cling onto the familiar. The introspective and nationalist nonsense of Brexit is part of this. As was the rise of the SNP in Scotland. In Catalonia it’s the same. George Orwell in his “Homage to Catalonia” paid tribute to this distinctive and resourceful and cultured people. Can they come to terms with being Catalan and Spanish at the same time? Can they have joint allegiances ? Or will they decide that the two loyalties are mutually exclusive – conclude that it’s a binary choice? And plump to be Catalan not Spanish.

I’m told by my Government that because I celebrate being European as well as British my allegiances are questionable. In Catalonia I would expect to be similarly split – proud of being Catalan and proud of being Spanish. To choose is invidious and unnecessary. But the prevailing nationalist imperative of our times – from Trump, to Brexit to Barcelona may win. There is a tragedy in the making.

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