Category Archives: Catalunya

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.

A timetable for Catalan Independence

It is January 2016. By June 2017 Catalonia will be independent

The independence movement in Catalonia is back on track following, eventually, the investiture of a new Catalan President.  After months of negotiations Artur Mas stood aside to allow the consensus candidate and 130th Catalan President Carles Puigdemont to take the driving seat. Closely mirroring Nicola Sturgeon replacing Alex Salmond post referendum, a younger less controversial political figure will be tasked with ultimatley bringing the independence process to its conclusion.

A timetable for Catalan Independence

In Catalonia that conclusion is for many tantalisingly close. In what would no doubt make every #Indyref2 supporting Scottish nationalist drip with envy, in Barcelona there is a roadmap to independence. Within 18 months Catalonia will – assuming of course there are no major bumps or roadblocks – be ready to  declare itself to be independent.  The new President is already working to that timetable. There’s very little doubt in Catalonia or in Spain: the countdown has started.

For the Catalan nationalists this timetable is a rallying call. It is a call to arms with an end in sight. It is a clear and shared vision by supporters of the many political parties and civic groups that support Catalan independence. The Catalan independence movement is far from a united one but this timetable is holding this movement together. Conversely there is little doubt that a lack of a timetable in Scotland is currently splitting the pro indy campaigners. The First Minister’s  recent comment in the Scottish Parliament on winning a second referendum “In the next few years” has only really mudded the waters. The Scottish Ship’s Captain – when compared to the newly charged Catalan Captain – seems a tad lost at sea.

A similar journey until now

Up until now Scotland’s and Catalonia’s journeys have tacked roughly the same course as pro indy parties have risen to power only to hold referendums that ultimately won nothing but the status quo. The sea has been rougher for one and then the other. The gift of the referendum from Westminster to Scotland was in stark contrast to Madrid’s refusal to allow a Catalan plebiscite (which they just ignored and Madrid in return just ignored the result). However the September election victory by pro indy parties in Catalonia released a new lease of life into the movement in the north of Spain. In Scotland last years UK election deflated many nationalists despite the SNP routing the Unionist parties; it was a shallow victory, as a heartless London centric Tory Government remained in Westminster.

But it is a new year and a very big year for both Scotland and Catalonia. Both Parliaments are packed with pro independent representatives. However at the moment one Parliament speaks with a loud and united voice “18 months” and the other, talks of something, well, sometime in the future.

The Scottish independence campaign is stuck in the dry dock the Catalan Cruiser is off. Their destinations appear to be the same but the routes at the moment appear very different.

Political dissent Barcelona style

Political dissent lessons from the streets of Barcelona

We’ve all seen and heard the recent discussions around what “being British” means. These debates tend to take place to frame the idea that immigration is threatening these values. I’ve personally never found it easy to define Britishness probably because I don’t consider myself British. However there is a belief that various traits, traditions, beliefs and actions in a community of size can translate into a rough idea of that communities “values”. Say hello to the stereotype.

So by British I mean the often heard phrase of “mustn’t grumble.” Add to that our dislike of a strike or striking and our avoidance of a revolution and we have cultural evidence of this tendency to accept what’s given to us.

We may at times get a bit miffed. We may complain. We may write an angry letter or two and we may even join a demo. But these are the exceptional circumstances rather than the rules. Well, in Spain, and in Catalunya in particular it is quite the opposite. How can I put it? They tend to get well……..a little bit hotter under the collar.

So here’s my guide to political activism from the streets and kitchens of Barcelona and beyond.

1. Play the numbers game

While in Barcelona I witnessed street action against the proposed closing of a local nursery with twenty or so mums and dads marching under one banner. At the other extreme we had a million plus people linking arms across Catalunya. It’s in the blood to take your grievances to the street. And once on the street and with numbers this starts to be noticed as I discussed in a previous post.

Amassing numbers on the street is something for us Scots to consider as we seek to keep the momentum going post referendum. Numbers on the streets – once they reach a tipping point – lead to column inches and minutes on the mainstream TV news. We must start to embrace the street in a way that the Spanish have been doing for generations.

2. Burn bins not books

It was very interesting to see the reaction to the decision of three SNP councillors to set alight a copy of the Smith Commission (be warned this link is to the BBC – it’s included because it is a typical story that the BBC runs about the Smith Commission).

Scottish Labour’s interim leader, Anas Sarwar, said: “This is disgusting and disrespectful behaviour from three SNP councillors.” This is of course expected from a Labour man. However I was very surprised to see that the SNP suspended the councillors. What a shame. They just burned a document they didn’t agree with. In Barcelona when you are pissed off you burn a bin.

Street Confrontations part and parcel of Spanish political struggle
Street Confrontations part and parcel of Spanish political struggle

This escalation of the use of matches is pretty standard for any street bound demonstration in the Catalan capital. Now I’d have a problem with councillors doing this but seeing a bound document going up in flames in a nice controlled environment; not so much.

As we move towards a more enlivened and more motivated political environment we can’t all start to shift uncomfortably in our seats when someone burns a hastily put together westminster leaning report. Major political change is made when things happen. And let’s not shy away from making a strong political statement: let’s not be scared or sanctioned when we fan the flames.

3. Be bold and break the law

Sánchez Gordillo the elected Major of the small town of Marinaleda led raids on local supermarkets during the height of the recession in Andalusia “They marched into supermarkets and took bread, rice, olive oil and other basic supplies, and donated them to food banks for Andalusians who could not feed themselves.” This is taken from a fantastic book “The Village Against the World” by Dan Hancox which I would thoroughly recommend (buying the book not raiding Tesco)

And check out Enric Duran an infamous young Catalan (he simply had to be Catalan!) who “borrowed” €492,000 from thirty-nine different financial institutions. He had no intention of ever paying any of it back. Instead he distributed it among a variety of different co-operatives and revolutionary projects. Now this is activism. And my hat is tipped!

4. An attack on culture is still an attack

One of the biggest protests that took place while I was in Barcelona was against the closing of a previously disused building called “Can Vias.” Social Activists had turned the building into a hub for social and cultural activity. Until the price of land bounced back of course. The Can Vias link from the blog “It’s a Funny Old World” gives some insight into the universal problem of police brutality as an interesting aside.

For over four centuries Catalunya has viewed an attack on its culture as an attack on the region and on Catalans themselves. Many of their political demonstrations are to save cultural resources. It’s not all about money, poverty, corruption or police brutality; the defence of Cultural Catalunya has equal weight. I wonder if in Scotland we place our culture in such high regard?

Here’s pictures of a packed square and a plaque from outside my first flat in Barcelona. Every year a few score of Catalans would sing, dance the Sardana and place some flowers to mark the commitment to heroes of the Catalan cultural resistance who during the 1800s continued to dance the Sardana despite bans from Madrid.

Actually closer to a few hundred ready to celebrate past heroes
Actually closer to a few hundred ready to celebrate past heroes

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5. Protest with everything including the kitchen sink

On the Monday before the Catalan referendum a cacophony from outside our window spurred me to jump onto Twitter. I’ve just realised that the natural reaction should have been to just look out the window to find out what was going on, but there you go, that’s the world we live in. Pots and pans were the weapon of choice as thousands of Catalans protested about the Spanish government action in declaring the vote illegal. And what a racket. That continued on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

The beauty of this is in its simplicity. It’s easy. And once you’ve taken this little step to activism you could get on a role. It can be done from your home (and owing to the proximity of said pots and pans) this actually helps. And it can be LOUD.

I would love for everyone in Scotland to pick up a pot and with a ladle (my weapon of choice that week in Barcelona) give it a good malky in protest against the increase in Westminster led austerity. Every night for a week, everyone could be active. Every household-  even those ones that Tory Peers think “can’t cook”! – can open their windows and can demonstrate to everyone in their neighbourhood and beyond that sometimes what the establishment thinks is enough is actually not enough.

Stories from Barcelona tell me that political statements don’t need to be about burning, stealing or redistributing anything. It’s just about making a noise and being seen.

Scotland make some noise. And fan the flames.

No State or 51st State – Catalunya or UK?

It was with heavy hearts and heavier suitcases that my girlfriend and I left Barcelona at the end of November.  Almost all of our possessions had been picked up weeks before but with the sheer amount of Jamón, Padrons and Manchego we were carrying the seams of our bags were straining.

Hasta luego Barcelona. In the last week we said our goodbyes to the things we will miss the most. To the beach calmly emptying the final tourists during the dying days of autumn. To strong coffee in small cups. To Tapas. To Vermut. To the sound of agreement being echoed again, and again, and again as Catalan Gentleman nod and say “vale, vale, vale, vale, vale, vale” almost endlessly. Barcelona is a wonderful city full or wonderful people.

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Moving back to Northern Britain – the 51st State

We returned to Edinburgh a day after that recent US import Black Friday. Celebrating with a consumerist splurge the end of a celebration (Thanks Giving) that you don’t actually celebrate has to be one of the strangest diseases that the UK has caught in a while. America has been sneezing at this time of year since the 1960s but only now, powered by the internet and our avariciousness, have we contracted the bug. To witness it – thankfully just on TV – was ghastly. Here’s Buzzfeed’s summary.

We spent “Black Friday” (actually is was just a bit grey) in Barcelona walking round the local market. This is what Black Friday meant to us and it would seem hundreds of others who did their shopping that day.

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Black Friday Catalunya

Every year in the lead up to Christmas food collections spring up next to every single type of food shop. Market stalls, smaller independent stores and the larger super markets all get involved. Large boxes on creates are placed next to or inside stores and quickly fill with beans, pasta, rice, UHT, biscuits and tins of seafood. We decided to donate a few bags of food; pondering over the best items as we weighed up longevity with variety.

During the 20mins or so of our deliberations I’d say that 90% of shoppers donated at least one item. But that’s no surprise as I’ve come to learn the Catalans are a very socially engaged and spirited lot. This food collection tradition is much older than the Black Friday Sales.

So you can imagine what it felt like to return to the UK and witness how Black Friday had been spent here. “The American state across the pond” is a soubriquet that I simply detest to see my country – Scotland – living up to. One of my great hopes for an independent Scotland is that we would cast off two sets of cultural shackles as we split from Westminster’s cultural direction and the UK’s desire to live the life of Americans. No thanks man! Is what I say.

One of the glories of Catalunya and of Barcelona is that the region has this heart shaped by local communities and a local agenda that pumps with pride. It starts in the family, through the barrios, cities and finally at the borders of the region. It may not be a “State” but at least it is not the 51st State.

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.