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


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.


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.

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!


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.

The time is now Scotland

It’s a typical early Sunday afternoon. My girlfriend and I are sat on our Rambla taking a coffee and passively taking in the smoke from fellow patrons. A colourful procession of locals are taking a stroll and enjoying the sun. Today is like any other Autumnal day in Barcelona but one thing is different: the noise. The normal buzz of urban life on a Spanish street is punctured by the tooting of horns and shouts of support as a river of motorbikes pass along Carrer Aragó heading to a mass demonstration in plaça Catalunya.

I finish my coffee and dodging the Catalans on the Rambla I cycle down in my red and yellow “Ara És L’hora” – “The Time Is Now” t-shirt. I clasp myself onto the motor led procession and head west to the centre of the city.


It’s a three mile ride and I join a throng of at least three thousand motorbikes surely snaking back all the way from the plaça. Almost every motorbike is flying the Catalan bandana and as the only pedal powered form of transport in this procession I settle on flying the flag for cyclists.

“Movements” become more than just the word and more than just words when by their sheer numbers, they start to stop traffic, stymie conversations and suck in bystanders. Over 110,000 say the police (link in Catalan) have gathered at plaça Catalunya, which now resembles one massive Catalan flag with almost every person in red or yellow. It’s not just people. It’s dogs. It’s cars. It’s the two colours from the stage, from the metro stations and from the roof tops. It’s two thirds of the traffic lights.


I watch the big screen from a far, taking pictures, occasionally clapping and less occasional picking out words in Catalan, all the while trying to avoid skelping people with the pedals of my bike.  Despite my poor grasp of the language and my bike I feel part of this movement.

The subtleties will always be lost on a non native but as a Scot still feeling the stab of sorrow a month after the no vote in Scotland I connect with this struggle more than most.

It’s easy to get carried away and carried along, to clap and to raise your hand with the pronounced shape of the “V” for victory as you merge into a gallimaufry of people doing the same.  This is what real movements do they compel and command involvement and those calls are answered by those bystanders and supporters from a distance.

If taking part in this demonstration shows me one thing it is that Catalunya moves to a different beat than Scotland. With over 100,000 gathering in a main square it beats at least ten times the frequency.

Scotland you’ve got to catch up: remember movement can be both forwards and backwards, so let’s make sure we go in the right direction. Let’s do it with a force that only numbers can amass. Scotland get active. With a Westminster election next year the Catalans tell us: “Ara És L’hora”


The Ghost Catalan Referendum

Catalunya is proud of its reputation as an innovative region. It likes to see itself at the cutting edge of fashion, food and football – to name but three – however with the decision to hold a referendum on Survey Monkey they have taken politics to the edgy edge and beyond. Well I jest, the vote won’t actually be an online poll but it may as well be considering the lack of weight the result will carry. The pro independence parties have dug, and dug and the hole just gets bigger.

So here is where we are at the moment: the ghost catalan referendum. A vote across Catalunya will still take place on the 9th November with the same two questions appearing on the ballot paper. But the result won’t be worth the ballot papers the crosses will be marked on. On the 9th Catalans will saunter off to vote heading up and down the ramblas in their hundreds of thousands towards Government offices. Lines of voters will form and grow throughout the day no doubt in places circling buildings many times. It will make for wonderful pictures; the types of images we have come to expect as millions of Catalans actively engage and protest.

Inside there will be ballot boxes and polling booths and most of the other things you normally have in proper referendums. It’s unlikely they will have the extra ingredient that Scotland had like the establishment parties checking over the postal votes but everything else will be there; except of course any meaningful outcome. A lot of time, effort, money and resources will be used and for what I am not too sure. How can a vote with so little scrutiny and authority really validate anything?

The “new vote” isn’t even universally supported by the pro independence parties and Artur Mas is scrambling on his “what next” strategy and what a predicament he has. It’s exceptionally unlikely that a constitutional kangaroo court would ever legally allow a vote so he must be thinking why hold off? But can an elected politician really lead a region in breaking the law?

With two diabolical options like this the Generalitat is properly hamstrung and what of the average disenfranchised Catalan? A region 20% larger in population than Scotland is being denied the right to vote on self determination by the establishment and how do you really rail against the establishment? The Generalitat has played by the establishment rules and lost spectacularly. Play with politics and engage in legal wrangling with a “real and powerful adversary” and you will lose: a lesson for the present and for the future that Scotland learned last month.

Whatever Catalunya does next it has to be innovate and creative and involve and it must be led by the masses and if anywhere is set up for that it is Catalunya. We Scots can continue to support their movement for real and true democracy. The next few years for their independent movement will be as complicated as ours. So let’s keep in touch and keep learning from both our struggles.

Catalan referendum effect on Scotland

Scotland is already fighting its next independence referendum. The warriors this time aren’t the 45% breaking the veneer of fear in pubs, cafes and church halls across Scotland no, they are the millions of Catalans facing off and up to the Spanish Government.

Make no mistake about it, what happens in Barcelona will not stay in Barcelona: if the Spanish establishment successfully shouts down a planned democratic plebiscite in Catalunya, Scotland’s next grass-route uprising may falter before the minutes are drawn up from so many recently swelled SNP meetings.

Within many quarters in Scotland independence is “when” not “if” Coming so close has wetted the appetite for a million and a half. The reneging of promises, the march to war and the continued malaise of Westminster politicians to the plight of everyone below the top tax band has stoked the fire in thousands more – evidenced alone in the current rocketing membership figures for the Scottish National Party. 

The spring in the step is not just at the town and village level SNP meetings. You can detect the swagger right through the whole “yes” camp. It can most clearly be seen in the SNP’s demand (because that’s what people with a swagger do, they demand, they don’t ask) for “near federalism” and “home rule” as they start to engage with the Smith Commission. Their collective confidence galvanised by the 45%! A steely determination born from a feeling that they lost, but in an away from home defeat in the first leg kind of way. Just you wait for the return tie Westminster!

The thing is that the second leg might never come. The warning from Spain must be heeded: wanting a referendum doesn’t always mean you get one. The Edinburgh Agreement might be news in 2014 but chip wrapper in the years to come.

You see the Spanish they know how to deal with the pesky upstart called democracy. In Spain they sidestepped the whole messy affair of a clear and decisive vote on independence in Catalunya by ensuring a kangaroo constitutional court would rule in favour of the State: your referendum is illegal and therefore meaningless. 

What will Spain leave on the menu for Scotland?
What will Spain leave on the menu for Scotland?

This precedent having already been set is at the heart of the concern for those biding their time for the return match in Scotland. I am here in Catalunya and I can see the similarities with the Scottish vote as clear as the blood red stripes on the yellow Catlalan flag. During the consultation with the Smith Commission we must guarantee the future right for Scotland to unilaterally vote on independence. 

The magnitude of this issue is brought home when you consider that the UK doesn’t have a constitution, so it’s down to politicians in Westminster to decide what that constitution allows or doesn’t allow – like for example parts of the country having a mandate on independence.

The Spanish PM Rajoy is sticking to his position that a unilateral vote in Catalunya is illegal because it deprives all Spaniards of their constitutional right to vote on matters that affect the entire nation. The UK has a powerful European precedent that there is no constitutional right for one region alone to alter the fate of the nation. Next time round the 60 million in the UK could decide if Scotland gets independence. How does that sound?

If this seems incredible and incredulous considering the process that led to the Edinburgh Agreement then consider that in years to come the backdrop to another vote may be very, very different.

From the moment of the referendum announcement almost two years ago, Pollsters and the media were predicting a whopping victory for the Union. Just cast your mind back. The UK was deep in recession. Terrorism and the furthering opening up of our boarders led to fear gripping much of the nation (or so we were and are conditioned to believe) There was no palpable demand for separation in Scotland. Everything that would impact the decision of the Scots was on the side of Westminster, from the media to big business. So strong was the position that the Westminster parties didn’t need a half way option: all or nothing Scotland: stay and win or leave and lose.

But just imagine how different things might be in a few years with a prevailing wind for the nationalists. After the 2015 UK election swollen by a score or more seats at Westminster and another Holyrood majority; come 2020 the foundations will be stronger and the ground of independence much more fallow. But all this to no avail as Westminster changes the constitution goal post. In fact it pulls up the goal posts. Grabs the ball, jumps on the bus, and with a final cry it declares “The 2014 result stands. UK 1. Scotland 0.”

But lets come back from 2020 to the 9th of November 2014, which is still the planned date for the Catalan referendum. That’s a month today. It’s a month that will see as many twists and turns as a Barcelona number 10 and more in’s and out’s that a Spanish political sex scandal. Every move pulled apart by millions of Spaniards and Catalans under a still warm sun.

Considering that Catlaunya is the birth place of Gaudí, Miró and Dalí, it is fitting that it is here that the canvas is already being stretched across the easel that is the next Scottish referendum.


Catalunya is not Scotland – and that’s a shame

Two weeks is a long time when deciding the destiny of nations. In Scotland we’ve seen twists and turns from those signatories to the “Vow” – like school kids ducking under your grasp just when you think you are about to catch them! There they go again, slipping and a sliding out of reach, nipping off to Manchester and Birmingham and avoiding the question. A 30min debate in the House of Commons on the 16th October will hardly allow time for many answers.

In this ‘blink of a political eye’, we’ve seen the Tory’s shoehorn in a link between Scottish devolution and more power for English MPs. Tory Ministers have rounded on the idea of a reduction in the money “given” (I say returned – minus several billion) to the block grant to Scotland. We’ve also seen the exceptionally bizarre situation of the man – Bumbling Mr Brown – who made the binding promise  to sign a petition to put pressure on people to actually deliver his binding promise! You really couldn’t make it up and you really wouldn’t want to.

Add to that the news that Sir Ian Wood has fracking interests – he of the outspoken, Westminster puppet oil-mouthpiece, and news from the Government (we could have seen the back of them people!!!!) that, should they be elected to power they will slash benefits by a further three billion pounds in 2015.

And let’s not forget of course the cross Westminster party decision to take the country to war again. You would be excused for thinking ‘wha’s like us’, who has a fortnight like that? Well, my Scottish Brothers look across to Catalunya for some real shakeups. The Catalan referendum and the Scottish referendum aren’t cut from the same cloth.

Catalan Flag

The on, off, on referendum

In the last week the Spanish region of Catalunya has declared that it will go against the wishes and threats of the Spanish Government in Madrid and hold a referendum. The date for the referendum is the 18th November. This referendum is widely supported: some 1.8M activists packed Barcelona to demonstrate in September. However a few days after formally announcing the referendum the Constitutional Court upheld Madrid’s appeal: the referendum is illegal it declared: boom, fuck you democracy. Yesterday the head of the Generalitat Artur Mas says he will disobey (this is very true to the Catalan nature) and fight on: the referendum will go ahead, like Scotland they WILL have a vote.

The Catalans look on enviously at the international recognition of Scotland as a separate state. They wish for a seat even near the top table and to be regarded as a definable state. When they saw Scotland’s First Minister sit down with our Westminster masters and sign the Edinburgh agreement they looked on in awe. They talk about Scotland and the Westminster Government as being grown ups. While in Spain the Government in Madrid have grabbed their ball and refuse to even play.

Living in Barcelona the Catalan capital (as I will do for two more months) I often hear the phrase “Catalunya is like Scotland but Spain is not like the UK” There are certainly some cultural similarities between the two northern states and indeed Scottish flags were seen flying during the marches in September and many a Catalan bandera was seen in Scotland in the lead up to the referendum.


But the love of fried food and flag swopping aside what the Catalans mean by this is that unlike the UK Spain devolves very little power to the regions. Catalan institutions kind of operate much like a local authority would in the UK, the only difference being that at its heart there is a big talking shop parliament run by the Generalitat. But recently that parliament has started to strain at the leash – to stop talking and start acting: think Scotland circa 1979.

Many of the Catalans I’ve spoken to since returning to Barcelona mention their shock and open disappointment that Scotland voted no. Their genuine disbelieve. But at least we had a chance to vote they say; a chance at democracy; a chance to decide. They ogle that enviously. But there are many things that we should be jealous of in Catalunya not just the weather and the cheap beer.

Catalunya has a staunchly Catalan press. Ironically I took this from the BBC: “Spain’s leading newspapers are predominantly located in the capital, Madrid, though powerful regional sentiments – particularly in Catalonia and the Basque Country – mean major newspapers in those areas can can have an important influence in local and national life”. Many of the regional papers are in the Catalan language which is little understood in Madrid. This leads to fear in Madrid. Fear that the truth may out, that the press can not be controlled from the centre and that a true debate will rage; Catalunya is not like Scotland.

Catalunya is Spain’s wealthiest region; significantly more wealthy than the Spanish average and it doesn’t rely on something as “fickle” as oil. The Catalans see a future much like the present where tourism, manufacturing, food and services are a broad base to support an independent region. Of course there is a similarity with Scotland (oil in the Scottish budget only makes up approx. 15%) but this was one of the aspects of the debate that the majority of Scots chose to ignore believing the curse of wealth.

Where there is a significant difference though is the heart of the issue, the core of the values of the Catalans: a proclivity not to be taken for fools. At the start of 2014 the price of 10 trips on the metro went up 30c to €10.10 hardly inflation busting but you would have thought that people’s doors had been ripped off and children snatched in the night. Graffiti covered trains and stations. Glass lay broken on the inside of trams. Hundreds traveled together refusing to pay the increase. Megaphones blasted. Banners unfurled. Proclamations and protestations filled bars, carriages, cafes and street corners. This is Catalunya in a microcosm. An active engagement in politics seems to be inbuilt and it is certainly instilled and encouraged through the generations. Scarcely a week goes by when our street corner isn’t host to a stall from some community action group or a march doesn’t pass down our rambla. This obvious, beautiful, passionate and active engagement in street politics scares the establishment. Westminster know we were never going to get active. They were never really scared in this visceral powerful way that crowds with a purpose leave those who see them.

Pup up

Perhaps the major difference between Catalunya and Scotland is how recent the imperial past feels. Only since the death of Franco has Catalan culture been able to flourish and to see the end of cultural subjugation and a Madrid dominated culture. Many of those who saw a right wing dictator cut the wings of their land are still alive. This gives their independence calls a real fervour that was missing in Scotland. You are bound to feel more nationalistic when your grandparents talk of rising up against Madrid. The banning of kilts and claymores is ancient history and for a couple of hundred years the majority of Scots have been consumed by a British culture that doesn’t seem foreign. The confidence in the No camp was built on this fog of the past. Being shat on from a great height with the Poll Tax and the corruption and big business closeness of Westminster – shameless though it is – isn’t quite the same as being arrested without trial for dancing the Sandana!

These reasons alone mean that Madrid’s gamble would be riskier than the UKs. Catalans are not Scots, Catalunya is not Scotland. If we had the supportive press, not tied to establishment coat tales, maybe more of a debate could have taken place. With the realisation that we didn’t rely on one sector of our economy matched with true activism – not just campaign activism – we could have filled the streets and we might have made a dent on the No campaign. If we could have seen the subjugation of what makes those in Scotland different we might have turned a no in to a yes.

But unlike Catalunya at least we had a chance to vote. If this wonderful region does manage to secure a vote I hope they don’t waste it. Being in one country where that has already happened is more than enough.

Over the coming weeks I will try and keep you up to date on the Catalan struggle with a Scottish perspective @williamgallus

Where does the power lie?

So there we are being all powerful again. There we go showing the world that the UK is an almighty important country. War. That’s what power means to people. The decision to bomb other countries and to kill foreigners has been passed in the UK parliament. Not in my name.

Our standing as part of the UK – devalued and discoloured

One of the main tenants of the No Campaign was this idea that the UK would lose its international standing if Scotland left the union. This was to presume of course that our “standing” in the world was something worth keeping: surely it depends what you stand for rather than how high you stand?

The westminster parties, through the fog of war and the mist of time, see that the UK is somehow worthy of this status as a world power. This belief has come to the fore again with the UK parliament backing the UK’s involvement in the conflict in Iraq. At the moment, at least some small saving grace, is that Syria is a step too far.

This lust and desire for power is what lies at the heart of every modern day decision to send troops to war.  Make no bones about it. The UK establishment is still power hungry, searching for it at every turn. To stand “shoulder to shoulder” with great powers must mean they are powerful too.

The Scottish nuclear question

This need for power goes a long way to explaining the blind westminster panic at the idea of losing a base for their weapons of mass destruction in Scotland.

A friend and fine journalist wrote an article in El Pias in which my opposition to nuclear weapons was mentioned. I stand by it and with every decision to go to war it is strengthened. The decision to rid Scotland of Europe’s largest nuclear arsenal was reason enough for me to support the yes campaign.

Power is defined by military might. 21st century power is linked to the ownership of nuclear weapons.  It’s the power of fear. It’s the skinny kid in the play ground who has the big beefy brothers.

The decision to go to war is I believe for most, including even politicians, a moral one. Everyone should be entitled to their view. Reasons will be explained why “we have to go to war” but I don’t buy any of them. We can take  a purely humanitarian role. We can use the diplomatic corridors. We can do all we can not to compound the problems with force.

I.S, ISIS, Islamic State or ISIL appear to be the most brutal of regimes.  But a real, substantial, direct and sizeable threat for the UK? I really can’t see it. How many more OAPs will die of hypothermia in Scotland this winter than those UK citiznes directly or indirectly linked to ISIS? We have clear and present dangers affecting this land, ones that we can address, ones that we can solve. How about directing some of the spoils of power to target those ills?

The yes coalition parties in westminster voted against force.

“MPs voted by 524 to 43 to sanction the UK air strikes, limited to Iraq, with 69 MPs not voting. A total of 23 Labour MPs, five Tories and two Lib Dem MPs voted against UK action along with the SNP MPs and the Green MP Caroline Lucas” – The Guardian