Catalan referendum reaction

“Yes! Yes!” the Catalans proclaimed in the two headed referendum beast. 80% in favour of Independence read the reports with over 2.5 million turning out to vote. What a resounding result.

Undeniably a huge amount of people who wanted Catalan independence turned out to vote for it. But from here it is a sad story. It is a true tale of a relatively low turnout. Evidence to this great region’s subservience to the greater Spanish State. For the establishment across Europe it was much a do about nothing.

The week following the vote was answered with a collective shrug of the shoulders from Europe led of course by Rajoy’s Spanish Government. The reaction is wonderfully covered here on “Catalonia Is Not Spain”. 

The Catalan Parliament views ignored. Along with 2.5 million Catalans.
The Catalan Parliament views ignored. Along with 2.5 million Catalans.

So what about the reactions from the winning side? If one could call open bickering and finger pointing a truce then for the pro independent parties it was over by Monday. Artur Mas was rounded on by as many who supported his undeniably brave decision to place Catalunya’s Generalitat at the heart of the vote. He stood shoulder to shoulder with the people in speaking up and out against Spain but with an inevitability that was all too predictable we have to ask: to what real end?

Many Catalans are already questioning what impact this vote will have besides the bill someone has to pick up. In political terms the harsh reality is that it had the effect of throwing an apple at an oncoming tank. And one of the main reasons was that Catalunya’s greatest strength was in fact its greatest weakness.

In almost every state in Europe a vote of 2.5 million on anything contrary to Government policy – besides War as this travesty is people proof – would be enough to stir a State in to action. When accompanied by pictures of voting queues snaking round and across school playing fields and amplified by millions on social media a State would listen. Add the deafening noise of footsteps in famous plaças, rambles and calles, as 120,000 people demonstrate, all clad in Catalan yellow and red, and you surely have a cocktail to frighten the most secure establishment.

But for Mas, the Generalitat and a massive chunk of Catalans their impressively passionate calls were brushed away as if some tired fly was buzzing and banging its head against a closed window.

The unfortunate truth is that when any group plays the numbers too often its impact will significantly reduce. In Football parlance it’s like having all the possession and the chances but miserably failing to score. In the end it counts for nothing. It leaves the players despondent and the spectators questioning the tactics. What’s left is just hope that somehow it will count for something or anything.

It is shattering that Catalunya’s people power has fizzled out. Its people, the Generalitat and its cross section of pro independence parties must chisel out a different path. They know the destination but they have to find new tools to meaningfully impact Madrid. 80%, 2.5million, 120,000; the numbers are impressive but in 2015 numbers it seems will not be enough.

Votar és normal!

To vote is normal in a normal country says the sugar accompanying my coffee.

It's hard to miss the vote in Catalunya at the moment!
It’s hard to miss the vote in Catalunya at the moment!

This week – the 9th November – a majority of Catalans will cast their votes. They will answer two questions:

“Do you want Catalonia to be a State?

If so, do you want Catalonia to be an independent State?”

The turnout will be relatively low expected at around 55% – nowhere near the dizzying 86% turnout in the Scottish referendum – but there will be a majority of voters saying yes to both questions. However no matter the result it will carry as much water as an old fishing net. It’s more of an opinion poll than an election: it’s a ghost referendum.

This vote will be opposed as much as the original “formal” vote was by the Spanish Government ensuring that it will be ridiculed in the Spanish media and discounted by the establishment press across the globe. Maybe Catalans spoke but no one was listening.

Inside the Catalan Parliament
Inside the Catalan Parliament

It is a great shame that it has come to this. There was so much hope – buoyed by the momentum in the #indyref – that a true plebacite would go ahead with a weight that forced the hand of the establishment. But it hasn’t quite turned out that way. Sounds familiar doesn’t Scotland?

Artur Mas the head of the Generalitat thinks it’s still worth having some kind of vote. This watered down version won’t cost that much – everything was in place for the official vote – and it will be run by volunteers, so I am sure he is right but not everyone agrees with Artur: not even those who favour independence.

Whatever the internal wrangling within the Yes campaign a Yes vote will increase the conversation nationally about the situation of Catalunya and other “states” within Spanish.  Anything that demonstrates that there is a desire for more localised decision making has to be good for the democratic process across Europe. This vote on the back of the large Yes vote in Scotland will keep the momentum going.

Maybe the vote in Catalunya will unite the independence parties – although they argue like teenagers – to form a united and consistent front that can represent a majority in Catlaunya.  It’s a small hope for something that had such high hopes.

It would be unfair to say the independence movement failed before it was out of the starting gate because the result isn’t where the victory lies: it is post vote and what the pro independence parties do next. And here the similarity with the Scottish referendum is striking.  November is a big month in these two nation states. 2015 is a massive, gigantic year!

Gigantes!
Gigantes!

The power of localisation

Chatting with a shop owner about the local brewery is a pretty universal conversation. “Muy fuerte” says the proprietor as he points to his favourite Pale Ale: “Very strong” he says and smiles. This guy knows I am Scottish.

From my Barcelona apartment I can peer into this politicised state and observe the political situation around the Catalan referendum and luckily I can do that while drinking locally brewed Pale Ale.

I’ve been here on and off for two years and the barriers that any land has to a foreigner are beginning to fall. The hidden meanings behind phrases – like “quatro gatos” “four cats” – meaning there’s nobody here; the closeness of families and the bizarre breads are all beginning to make sense. However in the way that strong ale loosens the tongue I don’t totally understand things but I can have a stab at them.

With the mist cleaning I see many similarities and many differences between Catalunya’s search for proper and meaningful representation and the similar struggle taking place in Scotland.

With this in mind I’d like Scotland and Scots to get to know Catalunya that bit better. I’d like them to take a virtual walk down the Ramblas which criss-cross the city. Come and see a human tower being built. Join a political demonstration that sucks 100,000 people on to the street. Follow “Gigantes” down the street. Wave their flags, buy the t-shirt and read the books. And above all strive for some of the wonderful things that Catalunya takes for granted.

One of the differences between Scotland and Catalunya is how and where people shop. Now this may appear insignificant at first but I believe it goes to the heart of why many people backed the Yes campaign: an anti-establishment agenda focusing on localisation as the answer to more commerce and more jobs.

Cakes and Bread. And strong coffee.
Cakes and Bread. And strong coffee.

To sum up the differences between Catalunya and Scotland all you need to do is to take a walk down any medium sized street. Let’s pick the metro station of Clot. Think of it as Charing Cross in Glasgow or Haymarket in Edinburgh. It’s just outside of the city centre and is a busy hub for the local community.

Head up the main shopping drag and within one block you will find 30 shops. On this street it’s €1.50 for a coffee and 10c more buys a bottle of Estrella. Within this compact retail space there are six places you can buy fresh bread. There are three bars all serving food cooked fresh on the premises and one restaurant. In seven places in total you can buy that €1.60 beer.

A local bar on Carrer Rogent
A local bar on Carrer Rogent

The other twenty or so shops range from shoe shops to printers, from ice cream shops to a gym. Many of these types of shops would be seen on a UK high street (well maybe not the ice cream shop) but there the similarities end. On Carrer Rogent the main Ramble in Clot there are only five chain stores. There’s a coffee shop called Caracas, a Ham place called Enrique Tomas, Monopa the baker and a kind of pre packed take away meal store called Nostrum. One international store has a pitch: on the corner there is an Orange store. This is of course a striking difference to a UK high street. Twenty of the stores are owned by the people who run them meaning that the money spent in these shops stays in Catalunya.

Many of the stores highlight the importance and position of local produce. After browsing a wine store and seeing nothing but wines from the tempranillo grape I asked the wine store owner “Is all the wine from Spain?”, “NO. It’s all from Catalunya”: now that is localisation in action. Stores in Catalunya are different from stores in the rest of Spain. In this sense I wonder how Scotland truly differentiates itself from the rest of the UK? Because it should. And it can.

An independent card and art store.
An independent card and art store.

In the UK a staggering 97% of groceries are purchased from a supermarket. In Catalunya my guess would be that figure would be less than 30%. There are no major players anywhere near the size of the big four in the UK and the majority of streets are supermarket free – and it’s bliss!

In their place local markets appear weekly and are a genuine source of affordable produce rather than simply a site for tourists or the domain of the middle class. The markets are super markets in the sense that they are real markets that are super. A fresh source of fish, meat, fruit, nuts, beans and all manor of things is supplied by scores of owners instead of one. And the food is cheap.

Honey from the local market that occasionally pops up at the end of the street.
Honey from the local market that occasionally pops up at the end of the street.

Supermarkets are the most visible of conglomerates as they are on, literally, every high street. They operate solely for profit, paying little attention to their impact in the community. They have to deliver shareholder value and that comes at the expense of suppliers and staff. Sure they have low prices but they are shy on quality and variety. Money from the community flows in to these shops because their aggressive practices have made high street shopping unaffordable. And it has all been backed by complicit Governments in Westminster and Holyrood. Money flows out of communities to shareholders. Stores close. Decent paying jobs in small stores are exchanged for low paying zero hour contracts in supermarkets. Everyone loses. Apart from senior executives and shareholders obviously.

Many within the Yes campaign in Scotland had a focus on a localised approach to commerce as a way to increase inward investment and boost the local job market. An anti-establishment mantra has to include suspicion and disdain of corporations of all sizes – and supermarkets are front and centre – from their little Corner Metro Stores to their out of town Hyper Markets.

One of the themes in this blog is how we can get active despite a no vote. One way to do that is to support local suppliers and stores. Avoid Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s if you can! Buy local produce. Buy Scottish. The power for change lies at the front door and in the wallet of every single person. It’s the decision to walk past the supermarket and go local. Exercising that power, like the Catalans do, by pushing for a localised agenda can have a positive impact in your community that maybe even a Yes vote couldn’t have delivered.