Category Archives: Catalunya

Catalan Independent Republic Referendum FIVE days to go

It’s only six days until the date set for the Catalan independent republic referendum. It allows a moment for reflection on the campaign so far. As a Scot who witnessed the campaign in Scotland the difference is striking. Where are the hoards of people saying Catalonia will be a financial basket case?

Over the last few months the coverage of the referendum in Spain has had two distinct phases. Since a coalition of YES supporting parties won a majority of seats in the Catalan parliament in late 2015, the vast majority of coverage around this referendum has been its legality. Since the La Diada celebrations on the 11th September, the narrative has been around Spain’s actions to enforce the law, and Catalonia’s desire to place democracy above the law.

The debate has of course touched on many other issues but the legality and the right to vote have been the most prominent. The recent Observer editorial covered a lack of debate around the financial implications of becoming an independent nation as “Brexit” like / light. Suggesting that a simple blood and soil “SÍ” was enough to start or end any serious conversation. (The whole Observer piece was beautifully and forensically debunked by Alistair Spearing) The truth is completely different. The simple fact is that holding the view that Catalonia wouldn’t continue to thrive outside of the Spanish state is insulting, not only to the intelligence of Catalans but to the Catalans themselves. Catalans are immune to this nonsense, initially despite Madrid’s actions and now because of them.

Voting forms printed out and posted along the Rambla Poblenou

Project fear

The Madrid supporting press and the Spanish Government have been peddling the cliff edge financial disaster over the last few weeks. It’s clearly a Spanish version of “Project Fear” as experienced by Scotland in 2014. However it has three large differences.

The role of the media

The power of Madrid’s media is nowhere near as strong as the voice of London in Scotland. As James Kelly noted in an excellent piece, Catalonia is served by a truly national TV broadcaster which is, understandably, sympathetic to a majority who wish to hold a referendum. Radio and print media has strong independent supporters too. Back in Scotland, turn on the radio or tv or pick up a newspaper and you are almost guaranteed to hear London’s voice; perhaps with a Scottish accent. The Scottish titles are all still owned by London based media conglomerates; not so here in Catalonia. And of course the failings of BBC Scotland and STV are now becoming clear for all to see.

Catalonia’s National Broadcaster providing truly balanced coverage of Catalan politics.

El Periódico (a Catalan newspaper with strong ties to Madrid, which was initially financed by Silvio Berlusconi ) has been embroiled in a smear campaign against the Mosses d’Esquadra the Catalan police force, after the publication of  a false memo, supposedly, from CIA warning of an attack on Las Ramblas. Madrid based titles such as El País have been dishing out the classic fear tactics for weeks: “The myths and lies of the Catalan independence movement” is a headline in today’s edition and is copy book Scotland Circa 2014.

The Madrid based media speaks from and for Madrid. They are camouflaged government messages sent north to undermine the belief of a nation in waiting. Confidence and self believe allows Catalans to see the half truths and thin promises.

The lack of respect felt for the Government in Madrid

Catalonia looks at the weak minority Government of Rajoy in Madrid with scorn, distaste and an increasing discomfort as it tramples on civil liberties and democratic institutions. Dialogue on a referendum has never been possible and the intransigence of the PP led Government is still the best PR vehicle and recruiter for the movement in Catalonia.

This was of course very different in Scotland in 2014. The SNP faced a strong majority government in London and its strength and relative unity gave it credence in Scotland. Its desire to see Scotland remain in the union was for many, heart felt and honest. Scotland had been respected and the Edinburgh Agreement was a work of two nations. No one in Catalonia thinks Madrid looks north with any love and affection.

The third and perhaps the most important difference is that there are very, very few native doubters. Catalonia is not ladened down with home grown nae sayers that seem to dominate the media and the airwaves in Scotland.  Many Scots still bemusingly wonder exactly how could one of the 10 richest nations on earth look after it’s own affairs?

The “too wee, too poor” argument that circled above the YES movement in 2014 should easily be blown out of the water. And we should look to Catalonia for that strength. Catalan politicians, its media and its citizens would not pore over something like GERS – with every mention giving its spurious claims more coverage – they would simply dismiss it and move on. Scots must do the same. 

There are of course many Catalans who have serious concerns and issues with independence, however even the most ardent unionist would not consider Catalonia to be “too wee or too poor”. To proffer this view in a “wealthy region in the north” as BBC World recently chose to describe Catalonia, would be to insult yourself, as well as your neighbours. In Scotland this attitude just guarantees you column inches.

These three major differences come together to totally undermine “project fear”. Last week, for example, using the Madrid based media, the Spanish Finance Minister warned of 30% fall in Catalan GDP if Catalonia sat outside Spain. The message fell flat. It’s clear that Spanish politicians can’t be trusted, or as they say in Castilian: “este tío no es trigo limpio”

The Spanish relationship

For many in Catalonia, Spain has been seen to constrict the development of Catalonia not to further it. Infrastructure spending in Madrid and its surroundings dwarf the Catalan capital. Billions of Euros flow south every year never to return. Political corruption is much more prevalent in the south of Spain compared to Catalonia, and only this July, Rajoy become the first sitting PM to testify during a criminal trial, where he denied any knowledge of the massive corruption scandal that has stained his PP party’s already blotted copy book.

Every Catalan knows that Madrid stifles the language and the culture of Catalonia. During an interview with the Catalan National Assembly, I was struck by the outsider position that Catalans play in a “united” Spain. “Unlike Scots, Catalans have never embedded into the establishment. There are two Catalan Ambassadors in the whole of the Spanish diplomacy. The same with the Judiciary” said the ANC head of press.

Is Westminster ready to play the same hand?

As we look ahead to the Catalan referendum on the 1st October we will of course be thinking about the next Scottish referendum. We have to be skeptical that the YES movement will be able to reduce the power of the London media in Scotland; but we must try.

We are also unlikely to shake the Scottish doom mungers; but we must try.

However, we have to be confident that the May led Westminster Government will continue to deal from the same pack of cards as Rajoy.

As May pushes ahead with Brexit, the power grab and dismisses democratically elected Scottish institutions, Westminster is mirroring all of the mistakes made by Madrid over the last few years. It would of course be much better for every side if another Edinburgh Agreement could be signed, however, it this proves impossible, May and whoever replaces her, will push many soft No’s to the cause, as has undoubtedly happened in Catalonia.

With every passing week the Westminster Government and the mess of an opposition party in Labour, continue to undermine the “good will” that underpinned both the Edinburgh Agreement and gave credence to the messages we framed as Project Fear.

This week is monumental for Catalonia and it is a big one for Scotland too.

Catalunya and Spain in deadlock the last 48 hours

You have no doubt been struggling to keep up with what’s happening in the saga that is the Catalan referendum build up. So here’s what’s happened in just the last 48 hrs (Monday 5.14pm to 5.14pm Wednesday)

Monday 5.14pm

A million people demonstrate in favour of a referendum being held on the 1st October. The question on the ballot paper will ask Catalans and Spanish citizens resident in Catalunya, if they want Catalunya to be an independent republic. At 17:14 (which is chosen to commemorate the fall of Barcelona to troops loyal to Madrid over 300 years ago) demonstrators reveal their Day of Yes, luminous yellow t-shirts. The city streets explode in colour.

Around one million people joined the La Diada celebrations

Tuesday morning

–  To coincide and to distract from the national and international coverage of the mass demonstrations, the Spanish Constitutional Court suspends a Catalan law that drafted a legal framework for an independent state. The Spanish establishment moves up a notch in its attack on democracy.

– Julian Assange tweets:

“This Catalan government ad is now banned in Spain as the war against Catalonia’s independence referendum heats up”

Banned. Anything that promotes the “illegal” referendum

– The President of the Government of Catalunya reiterates his desire to negotiate with the Spanish Prime Minster. “There is time for dialogue until the last moment” says Carles Puigdemont.

– Madrid based, New York Times correspondent, tweets that a Spanish judge suspends s a meeting for Catalan independence set to take place on Sunday. Raphael Minder asks is this now becoming a “freedom of expression” issue. Spain’s Government is being seen, both nationally and internationally, to be acting in an ever more dictatorial fashion.

Tuesday afternoon

– Prosecutors in Catalonia order police to seize ballot boxes, election flyers and any specific item (like printers, envelopes, stamps, paper clips, etc.) that could be used in support of an independence referendum.

Only a few weeks after the attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils and with a raised terrorist level across Europe, the Spanish Government has ordered Police to chase stationary, rather than terrorists.

Wednesday morning

– The Prosecutors are busy. They order an investigation of the 712 Catalan mayors who have officially supported the Catalan referendum.  It’s now only 19 days before the referendum: is that long enough for a fair and balanced investigation?

Wednesday afternoon

– Catalan News report that “Sources from the National Police corps” say that there will be an increase in the number of Guardia Civil officers in Catalunya in the lead up to the planned vote.

– Reacting to the news of a cancelled pro independence event: “We can’t debate, we can’t vote, we can’t inform, and now we can’t hold a public event. What’s next?” Asks Carme Forcadell, Catalan Parliament President.

– Spanish PM warns anyone helping out at a polling station that they will be acting illegally and will be arrested.

Where will it end? Will everyone who votes face being behind bars?

It’s early evening now. Who knows what will happen in the next 48 hours?

It’s getting more tense by the day in Catalunya. 19 days and counting. But counting down to what is anyone’s guess.

La Diada 2017

It was sunny yesterday. Baking hot, sweaty, sunshine. That kind of weather is far from ideal for standing in the streets without shade for a few hours, however the million people who did so yesterday didn’t seem to bother. In fact the bright sunshine reflected the mood of La Diada 2017.

The official Catalan National Assembly led La Diada celebrations are now in their sixth year. Since 2012 a million or more people have celebrated the day by calling for the independence of Catalunya. With hundred of thousands of yellow and red Catalan flags, most with the addition of the white star on a blue background – favoured by those seeking Catalan independence, it is always an exceptionally colourful event. This year the event went luminous as every person who had packed the streets revealed a shocking yellow t-shirt as the count down to the “reveal” approached.

Around one million people joined the La Diada celebrations

At 17:14 the t-shirts came on and the banners floated above the crowd. This was the day of YES. The Catalan national anthem rang out; there were cheers as every new image appeared on the giant screens. People cried as a human tower was “topped” by a young girl raising her hand, and then producing a catalan flag. This will be the last La Diada demonstration. Next year it will be a celebration!

It’s the 12th September. It’s raining. The holiday is over. The headlines on the Madrid based media focus on the lower numbers of demonstrators than in a couple of previous years. There’s a realisation, a million people demonstrated, but a few million more need to vote YES for the referendum to lead to a new independent country. Perhaps the elation of yesterday was hope more than expectation?

Today will see Spain ramp up it’s efforts to delegitimise the referendum. Hot on the heals of the announcement of  the Spanish police to search and seize ballot papers and ballot boxes, many more moves will be played in this constitutional game of chess. Spain says this referendum, schedule to take place in less than three weeks, is illegal.

The Generalitat of Catalunya maintain that the referendum will be binding, and the Government has already put in place a law to supplant the Spanish constitution. It is an impossible impasse with an impossible timeframe. Today the weather reflects the mood of many independence supporters. But tomorrow, we know there will be sunshine.

Barcelona quickly comes to terms with the terror attacks

Barcelona has quickly returned to normality after the appalling terrorist attack on Las Ramblas. Anyone who knows this city and its people will not be surprised. 

August is the strangest of months in Barcelona. The Catalan capital is vacated by the locals for much of the month. Shops, bars and restaurants close for a couple of weeks, with the most popular ones shutting down for the full 31 days. Kids are only half way through their 12 week summer break, so schools and nurseries sit empty. During the sweltering August heat, streets that swell throughout June and July find some relief; as if  a pressure value has been released.

I am one of those residents that heads off to avoid the heat. And where better than Scotland for that? An increasing number of Spanish people are finding Scotland a rainy, mild, cultural heaven. Thousands of Spaniards flock to Edinburgh for the festival and the flights between Scotland and Barcelona seem especially packed during Edinburgh festival time.

Sat in a bar in during this years early August trip to Edinburgh I overheard a Scottish waitress apologising to a Spanish family. It was “raining again” and she was truly sorry – apologising as if it was her fault. I could tell that the waitress couldn’t quite work out why the family were all smiling as they looked out into the thin, grey, drizzle outside.  It’s 30 degrees in Barcelona today and most of central and southern Spain has seen 40+ degrees over the summer.  Spaniards visit, not despite the cold and the rain, but because of it.

I was only partly back in Scotland for the break from the heat, as I had a few meetings about our Homeless Hackathon. I happened to arrive in Edinburgh only a few hours before the attack on Las Ramblas and I saw the story unfold on the BBC news channel from the lobby of my hotel, and via social media.

During that evening, my phone pinged constantly with people asking about me and the family. Nice to know people care, but it did take me longer than usual to eat a curry in Mother India in Glasgow. A few friends knew we lived on a Rambla (there are several across the city, we live about two miles away from Las Rambals) and they seemed especially concerned. We hadn’t let anyone know we were OK because, really, why should we? We don’t contact people every week to say we haven’t been one of the 21 people who’ve been killed on a Spanish road. However, as we were still kind of travelling, we had a less controversial reason not to update family and friends.

It is a strange feeling to be away from home when an incident like this occurs. Your heart and stomach seem to merge and an uneasy dull pain takes hold. There’s relief at being far away during any incident, but a need to be close to others at a time of shared grief. Its surprising how long that awkward feeling persists.

Barcelona reacts

Less than 24hours after the attack Barcelona was, amazingly, able to organise a vigil on Plaça Catalunya, the square that sits at the top of Las Ramblas. It was a solemn and quiet affair. There were no political banners, placards or national flags. The only message: “No tinc por!” (I am not afraid – in Catalan). In the crowd of a few thousand, the Prime Minister of Spain, the President of the Generalitat of Catalunya and King Felipe VI stood, for once, united in silence and shared respect.

A few hundred yards from the square, towards the sea, Las Ramblas, that narrow, famous strip, was full of people – including those who rarely visit: most Catalans give the area a wide berth. However typically, the world over, locals show their strength and determination not to be bullied, by returning to the scene of an incident, even if they never normally go there.

Las Ramblas – Busy as usual

Barcelona quickly comes to terms with the terror attacks

During the days that followed other smaller vigils were held across Catalunya and Spain. Perhaps the most emotional took place in the town of Rubi, near Barcelona when the father of the youngest victim embraced an Imam.

On Saturday 26th August the largest demonstration took place in Barcelona, with an estimated 500,000 taking to the streets. Ostensively an anti terrorist demonstration, many Catalans took the opportunity to provide a wider context for the attacks. But you can look at it another way: here’s one view of the demonstration, as a takeover by separatists a theme echoed by other UK outlets. And in a similar vain, here’s an article from a Spanish based commentator in Politico which seemed to deliberately stir up Catalan emotions.

These simplistic views are a typical establishment response to the complex issues in Catalunya. They are devoid of context and seek unity on every issue, were in fact there are large divides. It’s a view that sees people as some kind of shallow cup, easily over filled by emotion, able to only concentrate on one thing at a time. Thankfully, Catalans are normal educated citizens of the world and are able to see the connection and highlight the link between supporting brutal regimes like Saudi Arabia and an act of sickening violence on the streets of Barcelona.

With the attack taking place only six weeks before the Catalan independence referendum, an incident like this was always going to be politicised. To think otherwise is to ignore the after affects of recent terror attacks throughout Europe.

In the immediate aftermath it was highlighted that Mossos d’Esquadrathe Catalan police force that dealt so effective and swiftly with the attacks, did not see free flowing, terrorist intelligence, as it had been denied access by the Spanish Government. Many supporters of independence see this as yet another example of the Spanish Government trying to stymia Catalunya’s attempts to play a fuller, more meaningful role on the world stage.

With a large contingent of Madrid based politicians (who are flatly refusing to recognise the referendum on the 1st October – a massive slight to the democratic process in Catalunya) taking part in the anti terror demonstration, there was always going to be a political reaction from those seeking Catalan independence.

The Monarchy was also a target. Considering the question which will be asked on the 1st October referendum paper is: “Do you want Catalunya to be an independent state in the form of a republic?”, the presence of the King was not going to be unnoticed.

Removing the floral tributes started 11 days after the attack.

Only eight days separated the attack on Las Ramblas and the massive demonstration in Barcelona. A week is not long enough for feelings to heal or the pain to disappear. However, in Catalan politics it is long enough for people to  see through the haze of emotion and pain, and start to piece together cause and affect.

Turismofobia in Barcelona

Most people in Spain aren’t surprised that “turismofobia” has had a shot in the arm in August. It’s hot and stuff. Many Spanish are on holiday. And there are millions of tourists currently holidaying in Spain. Turismofobia in Barcelona is growing. 

The tourism industry is booming, but at what cost?

Phrases such as “Tourism Kills Neighbourhoods” or “Tourists go home, you are not wanted” have been popping up all across Barcelona over the last few years. I’ve seen these, or similar phrases, scrawled on walls and printed on posters and flyers. There’s even a white bed sheet, with “Tourists Go Home” written in defiant red, that’s hung from the same balcony in the barrio of Barceloneta every summer. (link in Spanish)

As the third most popular city in Europe for tourists (behind London and Paris) the relatively small city of Barcelona clearly has issues dealing with this level of  tourists. I have covered the background to the issues in detail previously. In summary, the price of property is being pushed up by short term tourist lets; traditional shops are being replaced by Starbucks and whole areas are losing their cultural identity. The locals are noisily and quite understandably pushing back.

Turismofobia in Barcelona
They should have stuck with “Space Invaders” That  would have been a better heading.

Up until now, most of the obvious reaction to the level or tourism has been the street graffiti / artwork and low key demonstrations. Above is one of the arty and rather amusing posters from my barrio Poble Nou.

Turismofobia in Barcelona

There has been a palpable change in the last couple of weeks. The peak numbers of tourists this August, and the heat has obviously made some hot under the collar.  An anti-tourist phrase was spray painted onto a Tourist Bus – while it was full of tourists. The tires were also, allegedly, burst. You can see the “attack” for yourself here (25 seconds in).

The incident was, not unsurprisingly, recorded and splashed over social media: it was the coverage, rather than scaring the tourists, that was the point of the stunt. Similarly a city centre hotel was paint-bombed and filmed. But that’s not all. Tourist bikes have been vandalised in Barcelona and these little stickers (below) put on cars across Majorca too. It’s certainly unsavoury, but it’s very far from an extreme response considering the intimidation that many locals feel during the high tourist seasons.

Turismofobia en barcelona

A few groups with political affiliations appear to have spearheaded these campaigns and the coverage has been significant in the Spanish TV and press.

The UK media has happily picked up on this being a “young lefties” (this from the BBC) anti capitalist reaction of sorts. (UPDATE: I want to add this one from The Independent as it perfectly sums up my later point about “you continentals should be happy with what we give you”)

But on the ground it is obvious that similar views are much more widely held. Arran Jovent seem to be the busiest and the noisiest organisers but it would be an error to think that their views are simply extremist and can be ignored.

The headline grabbing actions have been condemned by local community groups and Barcelona’s Mayor,  however many locals share the concerns being voiced by political parties across Spain. But not every political party seems to understand the frustration. As you may expect from a Conservative Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy was blaming “radicals” for the actions, as he made a wholehearted, money first, defence of the tourism industry. Money talks, but so do the communities across Barcelona, Catalunya and Spain. And the talk is of resistance.

Many residents are vocal in their anger at the number of tourists (which rises year on year) and the type of tourism Barcelona attracts. Tourists impact the places they visit and a balance has to be found. The concerns I’ve heard do not come from Spain’s disenfranchised youth, but from middle aged and older city dwellers.  The genuine concern for the impact on the barrio culture crosses age and political affiliation.

Spain has a real and growing issue with finding a balance between tourism and the affect on local communities

It may be the young who are spearheading the dissension, but few disagree with the motivation driving them to act. And it’s not just the “Crazy Catalans” Other regions and cities in Spain have, or are planning to have, anti tourism rallies. And its not just Spain. CNN Travel recently ran a “Can Venice save itself from its own popularity” piece. Much of the continent is rallying to support its culture against a wave of commercialism.

An “anti-tourism” campaign puts further pressure on the Barcelona Mayor 

As soon aAda Colau was in office she quickly put the shackles on parts of the tourist industry by restricting where, and how many, new bedrooms could be added to the city’s stock. The Mayor is trying the most difficult of tasks in this reactionary and forthright city: balancing commerce against communities.  But she is clearly trying.

It’s not just Ada Colau and her administration that is attempting to slowdown the tourism industry in Barcelona. Smaller municipal areas are taking the lead too. The popular tourist mode of transport – the Segway – was banned from the sea front last year. It seems like a blanket ban is not far behind, as stymying the use continues throughout the city.

Like tourist buses, bikes and cars, the Segway is regarded as a wheeled enemy.

Another area bans the Segway.

Many of the city wide responses to rebalance tourism with local living have received cross part support. Recently a new tourist tax was agreed for “day trippers” to Barcelona. Day visitors had been slipping through the gaps but this new levy will see day visitors (link in Spanish) contributing to lessen the impact of their time in Barcelona.

The narrative back in the UK is of typical continentals; never happy with what they have, plus a good dose of umbrage at that lack of welcome for pissed up Brits.  However the picture, here on the ground, is of a city united – north and south of Diagonal, and de las montañas al mar, that is quite rightly standing its ground against, incessant wave after wave of tourists.

Scottish independence demonstrations and how to make them matter

Scottish Independence demonstrations can make a real difference. They just have to be bigger and better.

(article originally appeared, without links, on CommonSpace)

So what? Around 17,000 people (splitting the difference between police and organiser estimates) gave up part of a Saturday afternoon to demonstrate in favour of a second independence referendum. Let’s put that into some context. With an average of 750 people visiting a Starbucks each day, almost as many Glaswegians had a coffee in the twenty, tax dodging coffee shops across the city on Saturday.

Let’s deal with a sobering fact. In September 2014, 1,617,989 people voted for Scottish independence. Three years later, with less than a week to go, before an exceptionally important General Election – which has been centred around another Scottish independence referendum – our movement, moved 1% of that constituency on to the streets. Is this something to celebrate? Or does it give the Unionists ammunition, to further their call, via Ruth Davidson, that “There is NO support for another independence referendum” Maybe it does, because 1% is almost no support.

Well, it is not quite as simple as that. Like the rest of the UK, Scotland doesn’t boast a particularly well known street movement. So, in that context, around 17,000 people filling the streets is exceptional. This is especially so, when you consider the resources available to the organisers, and the minimal support from other independence organisations (for I am sure, a whole host of reasons, which I won’t go into here). Pulling this number on to the street was no mean feat. Lack of support and resources were not the only barriers. The Labour run City Council put them up too. All Under One Banner were asked to have a 1:10 ratio of stewards to demonstrators. Generally, police and local authorities work to 1:75.

When just making an event happen, seems like achieving the impossible, it becomes more difficult  to try to measure the actual impact. The rally on Saturday was Glasgow’s largest ever pro indy demonstration: larger in fact, than the ones held in the run up to the vote in 2014. However, for movements to matter, success has to be measured and evaluated on more than that mere fact. So, was it a success? Well, there’s a few ways to measure success.

The first is to know what the event organisers objectives were. Bill McKinnon, the main organiser, kindly spent some time talking to me about the demo and here are his objectives:

“1. To allow pro Independence patriots to show their demand and commitment to the cause to Scotland , Westminster and the world press.

2. The massive show of determination to achieve the second referendum will be universally recognised by the sheer numbers taking part in the March. We are hoping for 20,000.

3 . There has been a lull in open activity from the Indy movement over the past year. This March shows that our determination is stronger than ever.”

Even if you don’t agree with these objectives, or you question exactly how they can be measured, it is enlightening to know what they were. Using these objectives, the event was a massive success.

The primary way that I would judge the success of an event like this, is to learn of the events amplification. Perhaps “only” 17,000 took part, but a lot more people witnessed the march, as they set about their normal Saturday afternoon in Glasgow. 1000s of images of the march were retweeted, liked and shared across social media channels. The rally, including some of the speeches and performances from Glasgow Green, were live streamed by the ever vigilant Independence Live. Facebook proved an incredible platform with the Independence Live stream; shared over 2500 times; commented on thousand of times and had over 1200 views at any one time.

It is not just the quantity, but the type of images that are spread that reinforce the positive messages of a rally. Seeing images of Sikhs playing drums, of kids marching with parents, and of a whole section of Scottish society joining on a peaceful rally, were exceptionally powerful in portraying a positive image of civic nationalism. Juxtaposing it to the unionist “meeting” of a handful of flag wavers in George Square was priceless. Demonstrations matter: there is no better way for our movement to be so well framed.

The messages and the meaning of the rally were suitably boosted, for a sustained period after the event, by the attendees, their networks, alternative media (CommonSpace included) and unusually, the UK main stream media. Even the BBC covered the rally, because, with numbers approaching 20,000, it became impossible for media outlets to turn a blind eye. Numbers matter. It is well known in event circles that number of demonstrators correlate directly to column inches and media minutes.

The number of demonstrators that took part, and the huge amplification of the rally, should strengthen our belief in the demonstration as a powerful outlet for a political or social movement. It should also give us resolve, post GE2017, to make them bigger and better. As our elected politicians seem to be banging on a closed door, it is likely that we will need them more than ever.

During the General Election campaign Nicola Sturgeon said that “victory for the SNP will force a rethink on a second referendum”suggesting that Theresa May would change her mind (she does like a U-turn) and sanction a second vote in the next couple of years (should she still be in power of course). However, a hand-break turn on this issue should be placed in the exceptionally unlikely category. So what pressure can be put on Westminster? And who can turn the screw? Demonstrators that’s who. Thousands of them.

Election wins and manifesto pledges are seemingly easy for Westminster, and many Scottish politicians, to ignore. Even votes in the Scottish Parliament have little impact. Democracy is clearly being undermined and with that, the express will of the Scottish people. This alone should drive tens of thousands to the street.

The Westminster based parties, are in unison, ignoring the democratic will of the Scottish Parliament. Ignoring the request for a second referendum is a link in an undemocratic process that is already in chain. Post Brexit, with returning powers from Brussels likely to be swallowed up by Westminster, the devolution settlement will be further weakened.  Tory HQs charge towards an “internal UK market”, will weaken Holyrood’s power base in health, justice, transport, education and the environment, to name but a few.

Democracy is under threat in Scotland. However, Westminster politicians are building their case on exceptionally shaky ground, and they know it: but they can easily ignore, and fend off other politicians. They can bin newspapers and ignore partisan news reports. What they are unable to do, is to show the same intransigence in face of a seriously determined street movement. Just imagine 50,000 plus linking arms around Holyrood to “protect” democracy!

In most European nations, policy is directly affected by street politics much more regularly than in Scotland. However, Scotland is the scene of one of the world’s most successful ever demonstrations. Only twelve years ago, Edinburgh hosted the MAKEPOVERTYHISTORY rally, that led to the eventual cancellation of billions of dollars of debt from developing nations, under the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative. The Edinburgh demonstration was the corner stone of a year long campaign. The official post campaign report praised the demonstration, “The public mobilisation was felt to be the greatest achievement of the campaign” Scotland has an enviable position in terms of forcing change from the streets. In 2005, our voices echoed across the world.

In recent weeks we have all seen the Labour Party have success based on rallies and other well attended and widely covered events. Labour have put in place an exceptional live engagement strategy, and should they ultimately lose, expect this live element of the campaign to continue. We should, by now, be getting the hint at what is possible on the streets of the UK but we can look further afield for inspiration.

Scotland has many similarities with the Catalan independence movement and during a conversation with the Head of Press Relations at the Catalan National Assembly we discussed the differences between Scotland and Catalonia in the history of street politics.  We agreed on two main factors which help explain why our biggest independence rally attracted 17,000 and theirs’ drew 1,500,000.

The first is the role of the organisers of the rally. The ANC is a well funded, umbrella organisation, that employs several full time staff. To give you an idea, it spent €300,000 alone on advertising the 2016 demonstration, the same again on staging, AV, PA etc. Everything about the Catalan demonstrations smacks of professionalism. Its success is built upon the unifying role of the ANC and the professional make up of the lead organisation.

You can’t fault the passion and the determination of the All Under One Banner team, but as a non-revenue generating, voluntary organisation, their resources are exceptionally limited. With so many barriers to overcome they were, unfortunately, unable to end the rally in any kind of satisfactory manner for the demonstrators or, as importantly, for the cameras. With the march thinning out on Glasgow Green, the tiny stage and tinny PA, provided a destination that the marchers did not expect or deserve, accompanied by – it was June in Glasgow – near torrential rain.

How to end a rally without any resources

The Catalan and the Scottish rallies also differ in the subtlety of the message that is transmitted. It was #LoveDemocracy, that was initially at the heart of the Catalan movement, not independence per se. From the outset in 2012, members of the Catalan National Assembly knew that an organisation which called for the “respect of democracy”, had a wider appeal than one focusing on independence. Over the years, the message from the ANC has solidified, to almost exclusively call for independence. However, for many, it is the idea of those in Madrid telling Barcelona what to do, that is the driver for their support. Chat to a Catalan in the street and they are as likely to say “I want to decide, not Madrid”, as they are to say, “I will vote for independence” The ANC have been on a journey focussed on democracy, not independence.

Opinion polls have consistently shown that a larger proportion of Scots are in favour of “Westminster not having the right to block a plan for a referendum”, than they are in favour of independence. The democratic deficit coming our way will continue to increase the former above the latter.

In Scotland, until this general election, calls for a referendum from our elected officials seemed the most likely to bring about a choice to decide our constitutional future.  Perhaps now, with democracy under threat, the baton should be handed over to the people, and the message they should carry should not be one demanding independence, but democracy.

Democracy is “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people” Perhaps if our elected politicians and our democratic establishments are unable to put the pressure on the UK Government, it is time for “the people”, unified and determined, to do something. Fancy attending a rally that’s a bit bigger, and does something a bit different?

If you are interested in contributing to my work on a live engagement strategy for the YES movement please get in touch.

Behind the scenes at the Catalan National Assembly

The ANC is without doubt the heart of the Catalan independence movement. I believe we need a similar organisation in Scotland. A non political, well organised, funded, staffed and supported core organisation.

Cycling down past the Sagrada Familia, towards the coast line that skirts Barcelona, through the thinning late morning traffic, is a wonderful way to head home after a meeting. However, the trip was also slightly dangerous as my head buzzed with amazement at just how incredible successful the Assemblea Nacional Catalana had been in forcing (or at least facilitating) the push for Catalan Independence.

The ANC is a civic society that brings together people from all parts of Catalan society. The ANC has one aim: to win, peacefully and democratically, Catalan independence.

My hour long meeting with the ANC had been with the Head of Press on what was a beautiful April afternoon. Their office on Carrer Marina sits on the edge of one of the hills that guard Barcelona. My decision to take the bus, rather than jump on the BiCi (the city’s almost free bike hire scheme), seemed ever the wiser as we gradually snaked higher and higher into the hills.

Living in Barcelona you will find the ANC hard to miss, especially during the build up to their massive million people plus strong “La Diada de Cataluña” demonstrations, which take place every 11th September. Of course I’ve attended a few of them and I’d even bought a demo t-shirt or two.

the diada event 2013
Now is the time

As I put together a live engagement strategy for the Yes Campaign, I can clearly learn a lot from the ANC’s approach to events.  However, I also believe the entire Independence movement in Scotland has a lot to learn from, what is, a similar struggle here in Catalonia. The ANC is without doubt the heart of the Catalan independence movement. I believe we need a similar organisation in Scotland.

Behind the scenes at the Catalan National Assembly

The ANC is like a Yes Scotland that didn’t dissolve. Strikingly the ANC was formed in March 2012, just two months before Yes Scotland; one organisation grew to greatness and one disappeared.

In order to for the wider Yes movement to learn from the ANC, I’d like to initially compare it to the organisation set to lead the grass roots (non political party affiliated) independence movement in Scotland: the Scottish Independence Convention.

I hear that things are a foot with the SIC. This is great news, as for many within the movement, the SIC is a mysterious, celebrity led group, existing only (if you don’t scroll past page one on Google) on Facebook. However, the SIC does release the odd press release and organise the odd event like the “Build” conference.

I assume the revamp of SIC is on hold until after the June General Election and this will hopefully give those at SIC an opportunity to pause to reflect on the meaning of a “grass roots” movement and to learn from their daring Catalan brothers and sisters at the ANC.

The Catalan National Assembly inside the building

As the ANC has been in operation for almost five years it wouldn’t be fair to directly compare it to the SIC; to do that would be to place Queen of The South on the same field as Barcelona: the ANC and SIC are simply in different leagues. Hopefully after the revamp a comparison may look less awkward.

Behind the scenes at the Catalan National Assembly
The Press Room at ANC Head Quarters

The key facts on the ANC:

  • 584 local assemblies
  • 38 foreign assemblies
  • 52 social and professional interest-based assemblies
  • The national secretariat consists of 77 elected members who sit on various committees. Heads of committees meet weekly.
  • The group is “non political” and has no official relationship with any political party.
  • It is entirely funded by its members: 38,000 “full time” members and over 40,000 “associate members”
  • They have offices in Barcelona, with ten full time staff.

Impressive for an organisation less than five years old, and this shows the scope of what is possible for a grass roots movement pushing for Independence.

So what of Scotland and its grass roots organisation? Who should lead and what should that movement look like?

Well, as far as I can see no one is asking “the movement” who should lead. So I tried to start the ball rolling. Although hardly the biggest sample (Twitter poll below) it seems to me that our movement is saying only one thing clearly: we want / need a grass roots organisation. It is less clear which organisation should lead, or how that organisation should be structured.

#scotref events

From June onwards everyone within the movement, not just a select few, should be involved in helping to create and structure the organisation that will lead the #ScotRef movement. If that body is grass roots in name, it has to be grass roots in deed.

 

Barcelona sets limits on new hotel rooms

Since the moratorium on new hotels passed by the Ajuntament de Barcelona (The Barcelona City Council) in June last year, the local government headed by Ada Colau has been working on a plan to find a balance between the demands of the tourist and the demands of the local.

This was always going to be an impossible task. On one hand, you have a multi million euro industry – which contributes 12% of Catalan GDP – and on the other hand, some very, very noisy locals, and trust me, Catalans can be particularly noisy.

The results are out and the locals are reacting

Announced in March The Special Urban Plan for Tourist Accommodation (PEUAT) “promotes a sustainable urban model to make tourism compatible with residents’ basic rights” and it has without doubt curtailed the tourist sector in Barcelona, as the number of new beds allowed will fall way short of demand.

The headline figure from the PEUAT is that a maximum of 12,000 more hotel beds across the whole city will be allowed over the next six years. The 12,000 figure is still, of course, a substantial number of new beds in what is a relatively small major city, but overall the barrios, the local areas, will see the stymying of many planned hotels as a victory. However, for some, it is a small victory.

Twelve thousand new beds would still mean approximately 8% rise in the number of beds available in the city. And for many locals, the city already has too many tourists.

Does Barcelona have too many tourists?
I didn’t think they needed to change if from “Space Invaders”

As Barcelona sets limits on new hotel rooms, hotels struggle to keep on top of current demand

Following a detailed census, we now know that Barcelona currently has around 130,000 beds in hotels, apartments, hostels and pensions. Following bumper visitor figures for each month this year, we know that occasionally those beds just aren’t enough. This was clearly demonstrated by Mobile World Congress, which takes place in Barcelona each Febraury, with the event maxing out the hotels in Barcelona this year. That event is set to grow every year (it will be in Barcelona to at least 2023), so you have to wonder, will 12,000 new beds even just keep up with that event?

As well as demands from the “right kind of tourists” (the ones that attend Mobile World Congress, rather than the partying tourists) there is substantial pressure from the “wrong” type of  tourists.

The number of expected tourists is likely to pass the 8m mark in 2016, with demand continuing to grow year on year. Adding 12,000 new beds in Europe’s third most visited city will do little to match demand.

So if 12,000 new beds will do little to appease the tourism industry, how will this number affect those locals? Well, it depends where you are local to.

Where will the 12,000 new tourists go?

The regulations and restrictions laid out in the PEUAT are different for each area, with the tourist sector in the centre of Barcelona facing the greatest restrictions (detailed zone by zone can be found here). In summary, the legislation will be more relaxed the further away from the centre you go. Sectioning the plan into zones will push tourists further from the old parts of the city. However, those 12,000 beds need to go somewhere and certain barrios have the potential to go the way of Barceloneta – the once quaint fishing port now transformed into Barcelona’s very own little costa. 

Poble Nou, the barrio where I live, sits in the zone known as 22@ and will be greatly affected by the PEUAT. As you can see from the image at the top of the page, the locals are not happy, and quite rightly so.

As detailed by the citywide plan, over the next six years there could be 3,200 new hotel beds in 22@, with the majority in, or at least very close to the most popular barrio Poble Nou. On those numbers alone, you can take pity with the locals who think they are being “invaded”.

As Ada Colau was keen to stress the plan seeks “to preserve the rights of residents to housing, rest and privacy” but for those in and around 22@ the idea that 3,200 more tourists would preserve their rights seems as unlikely as they are to accept the plan in its current form.

Puigdemont and Salmond to meet in London in May

It happens with friendships. You don’t speak to each other for a while and despite your shared interests and similarities you drift apart. Time passes and the things that brought you together slowly disappear from the memory. But as we know, sometimes it just needs one thing to bring friends back together. For old buddies Scotland and Catalonia, SP16 was that moment.

For the first time both Scotland and Catalonia have a majority of pro independent members of parliament represented by more than one party. Now more than ever we have to share the successes and failures to date of our respective campaigns.

At the highest political level Catalonia and Scotland should be the best of friends. We should see MPs who support independence from both countries sharing platforms, arranging flying visits to their respective capitals and generally acting like best buds. But this isn’t happening.

During the run up to the Scottish elections (and with the date for Spanish elections having been recently agreed) I looked for Scottish MPs or MSPs speaking in Barcelona; it was like searching in the same city for Irn Bru: fruitless. So this week I was delighted to see that the new Catalan President Carles Puigdemont will meet Alex Salmond in London and I hope this starts a more formal dialouge. As demonstrated by Puigdemont’s visit, the Catalans seem very keen to build the relationship. And he’s not the only one. Last year Ramon Tremosa an MEP for Catalonia, said in an interview with CommonSpace:

“Catalonia and Scotland have much to learn from each other on the road to independence. Scotland has set the precedent for a binding referendum in Catalonia, which has contributed enormously to the democratic credibility and feasibility of independence there. Catalonia has shown an example, in Scotland in terms of popular organisation and mobilisation.” And he is right, the precedent set by the UK is a powerful one for Spain to ignore and Scotland has a lot to learn from the actions of civic Catalonia in forcing through the political agenda.

So how does Scotland view the importance of Catalonia?

Last week the Catalan News Agency interviewed Michael Keating, Director of the Edinburgh-based Centre on Constitutional Change stated that, “Catalans need Scotland more than Scotland needs Catalonia” His rationale was that because the Scots “have in recent years been doing much better than the Catalan independence people: they got a referendum, they got the right to self-determination and they got more powers” Now, considering Catalonia will welcome independence in 14 months or so (according to the Generalitat de Catalunya’s time table) he is speaking utter mince, and if this is the prevailing belief in Scotland our movement is in serious trouble.

Since the loss of the referendum we had spectacular SNP victories in both the UK and Scottish elections, however Scottish Independence is not a foregone conclusion. I would hate to see a movement shift from gallusness to arrogance: we have to learn what we can from the Catalan struggle. For the #Indyref2 movement, we must learn three things from the Catalan cause:

  • how to build a successful cross party support for independence
  • how to create a timetable for indepndence, that everyone signs up to and
  • how to move more people to openly demonstrate their passion for an independent nation

Sure, we have a lot to give but we also have a lot to gain. Let’s remember what friendships are for and build bridges and links at every level.

Mr Puigdemont and Mr Salmond are rekindling that relationship and collectively, our independence movements need to meet for a beer and remember why we grew so close in the first place. And that might be easier than you think, because believe it or not the Catalans actually like Tennent’s.

Tennent's In Poblenou.

Balancing Tourism in Barcelona

In Barcelona the walls very often come to life: “this community is not for sale” reads the statement painted on a new hostel development in Poblenou. The city’s citizens are hostile.

If you’d just been reading the business headlines you certainly wouldn’t think this was the case. The tourist industry in Barcelona would succinctly sum up by saying “we’ve never had it so good” That industry is of course made up of thousands of individual bars, hotels, nightclubs and restaurants. And within these establishments there are doormen, chefs, cleaners and managers, and every one of them would lift a glass in celebration: Salud! Las turistas!

The impact of a successful industry ripples prosperity across the community that supports it. For Spain, Catalunya, and Barcelona in particular, tourism is a super successful, money making enterprise.

The importance of tourism to Catalunya

The entire tourism industry generates 12% of Catalunya’s GDP (to give you some comparison, tourism is only 5% of Scottish GDP) Tourism is widely credited with cushioning Barcelona from the recent global financial crisis. Some 120,000 jobs in the Catalan capital are fuelled by tourists.

From a purely commercial perspective the strength of this sector is  regarded as an unmitigated success. That view would see Barcelona proudly placed in an enviable position, looking down on other tourist hungry cities. However, scratch the surface and you will find that many of the capital’s Catalans abhor the wider negative impact of tourism; for them, they have never had it so bad. And it is only set to get worse.

In 2016, with many tourists fearing terrorism, should they venture from continental Europe, Spain, Catalunya and Barcelona will welcome more tourists than ever. Actually, as I am finding out, walking the streets and talking to locals, “welcome” is definitely not the correct word.

So when did the love affair with tourists end?

Spain has always found it difficult to find a balance between welcoming tourist money and cowering from their habits. Under Franco in 1959 the greatest of all compromises came in the two cupped shape of the bikini. As the ultra Conservative government scrambled to find a solution to topless, sunbathing foreigners, a thin strip of material allowed seaside Spain to reap the rewards from Tourism, while the Spanish state maintained its decency.

Throughout the following years Barcelona locals have seen, at an increasing rate, areas of their city taken over by tourists and tourist hungry businesses. It started with Las Ramblas, one of the city’s most important historical centres. The street that had seen pitched battles between rival factions in the Spanish civil war has lost the battle with tourists.

Tourist traps gradually spread out across the Barrio Gótico and Ciutat Vella – the two oldest parts of the city – then increasingly touched areas further from the city centre, all but consuming the tiny ex fishing community of Barceloneta. All to the chargin of locals.

The idea that the “success” of Barcelona as a tourist destination was anything but a blessing appeared on the horizon for many foreigners for the first time in 2014. Coverage of the “anti tourist” documentary Bye, Bye Barcelona hinted at the negative impacts of this massive trade. In a rather one sided take of the complex issues at play Bye, Bye Barcelona was never going to be able to cover the difficult balance that the citizens and especially the city’s legislators now face.

A less than quiet revolution

Take a walk through any of the large barrios in Barcelona and within ten minutes or so you will more than likely come across something that more than hints at the local dislike and distrust of this increase in tourism. It may be a homemade banner in Barceloneta that reads, in English, “Tourists Go Home”, or a recent magazine article posted to a pillar in Poblenou. The noise is constant and growing.

Poblenou a worrying and major focus for low cost tourism
Poblenou is fast becoming a new major focus for low cost tourism. And its residents are not happy

To understand why the volume has been turned up to 11, you just need to look at the numbers. Barcelona (pop. 1,604,555) is now the third most visited city in Europe, behind London (pop. 8,539,000) and Paris (pop. 2,249,975). A record 8 million people are expected to visit Barcelona this year. With roughly 5 tourists for every 1 resident it is hard to argue that Barcelona may on several levels struggle.

It is not tourists per say, but the rate of the increase where the real issue lies. In the last twenty years the city has seen tourist numbers quadruple and many believe that the city and especially the locals can no longer cope. The complaints fall broadly into three categories:

  1. Barcelona is attracting the “wrong type” of tourists
  2. Accommodating tourists is pushing residents from their homes, and businesses from the high street and
  3. The identity and cultural heritage of the city (and the wider region) is disappearing

With these three areas in mind Ada Colau, the charismatic new Mayor, has a plan to re-balance the tourism sector’s interests more in line with local residents.

The wrong type of tourists

“Low cost” tourism is a particular pain to the Catalans. The Barcelona authorities are at pains to suggest that there is no “drunken tourism” in Barcelona and have for several years taken steps to ban pub crawls and booze cruises. However a short walk on any summer night through El Born, or down Passeig de Joan de Borbó, across Gràcia, El Raval or Eixample will bring to life the issues. Tourists are literally reveling in low cost accommodation, food and entertainment in Barcelona.

Poblenou during Carnaval
Poblenou during Carnaval

There are of course “desirable” tourists and even the left wing Mayor is keen to point that out, for example the 80,000 extra visitors heading to Barcelona at the end of February for Mobile World Congress are this town’s type of tourist.

The Mayor’s support for this event proves that she is trying to find a balance. Mobile World Congress provides a multi million euro injection every year into the Catalan economy and Barcelona’s new Mayor has offered to support the organisation in the city beyond the current agreement, with Barcelona continuing to host the event until at least 2023. Tourism is crucial to the success of this thriving city and it has the Mayor’s support. 

Accommodating the tourist market

Following on from her predecessor, Ada Colau’s administration took two brave steps to redress the balance in accommodating locals and tourists. One of her first decrees, introduced in July, was a one-year moratorium on new tourist accommodation. The move is “provisional and precautionary” said Colau in an interview with Catalunya Ràdio. “Tourism is an asset that the city needs to take care of and make more sustainable, because it created tensions”. As a former anti eviction campaigner Ada Colau knows all about dealing with tensions.

The decree affected eight of the eleven new luxury projects in Barcelona, stymying thirty hotels in total but it is not just hotel chains which are under the spotlight, those offering their homes (or in some cases – their rental investments) for short term rents are under the spotlight too. Airbnb has not had an easy ride in this city.

Airbnb and similar platforms pose a direct and measurable threat to affordable housing. In many popular areas rents are increasing quickly, pushed ever higher by speculative properly purchases.

In Catalunya all establishments used by tourists must be registered with the City Council or the Catalan Government and a tiny tourist tax of 0.65€ is due in Barcelona. The Generalitat has already taken direct measures to slow the flow of properties going online by imposing the first €60,000 fines on AirBnB in January. The Generalitat opted to fine the site, rather than the individual owners, for the unregistered short term lets appearing on rental sites.

The Barrio in which I have chosen to make my home Poblenou is particularly affected. Sitting in the larger district of Sant Martí, between 2012 and 2014 almost 900 homes with the official “Los apartamentos de uso turístico (HUT)” have been listed, however the actual number available and openly advertised is likely to stretch into the couple of thousand.

The identity and cultural heritage of the city is disappearing

Two of Barcelona’s most famous “attractions” have started to limit access to tourists. Groups of tourists are now strongly discouraged in La Boquería the largest market in Barcelona, with security guards expected to operate over the busier months this year. Parc Güell, which was originally built by Gaudí and opened as a public park in 1926, now sets a limit each day on the number of available tourist places to visit the park. The locals are making their move and they now have a very supportive Mayor and regional Government.

Spend any significant amount of time in Catalunya and you will find that Catalans are exceptionally proud of their heritage and culture. This cultural defense has spread from Barcelona. At the end of last year as part of the deal to invest a new Catalan President, the political party CUP called for the abandonment of BCN World, a huge 800 hectare project that would have seen a competitor to EuroDisney in Catalunya.

Millions of Euros would have been spent in the region and in fact the inflow of money was one of the reasons for a popular party not to support the development. The quiet decision to mothball BCN World was made with the knowledge that in Spain, when such large sums of money flow, corruption comes along for the ride.

The message is clear from local resident groups to the Generalitat. Las Ramblas can’t house more tourist tat. Poblenou can’t have any more hotels and Catalunya is not the home for a super casino and an extended theme park: enough is enough. There is a balance to be found, and many in Catalunya believe the scales have tipped too far in favour of the tourists. 2016 is still to redress the balance.