After spending the last few weeks observing the slow-moving collapse of the Spanish state, the time has come to put down my unpublishable thoughts on the idea of Catalan independence. Like in any debate on nationalism, these thoughts are part rational, part emotional, and like in any debate relating to identities, someone will probably be offended (for this reason I never blog on the Middle East). So here goes.
The first point is that there is something vaguely insane about using the term 'independence' to describe the putative creation of a Catalan state. As a small European economy, Catalonia would be totally dependent on its neighbours for trade, and assuming it is allowed to seamlessly remain in the European Union, it will have little to no real decision-making power over the issues of the future of the Eurozone and the European integration process in general. Even more than that, nearly four centuries of political integration into the rest of Spain has meant that the Catalan economy is deeply interconnected with the rest of Iberia. Again, decisions made outside Catalonia - potentially by a bitter Spanish electorate sour at the 'divorce' - will have a major effect on its future.
That of course doesn't mean Catalonia can't be a successful state in economic terms. Given the Catalans' famed parsimony, it was predictable that the debate on 'independence' has actually revolved around the economic consequences of the split with Spain. As one of the richer regions in Spain, located closer to the main European markets than other regions, there is every chance the Catalan economy will do just as well if not better outside of Spain. But here's the rub - Spain is in colossal economic trouble, and Catalonia, notwithstanding the supposed 'fiscal dividend' it would gain from no longer subsidizing poorer Spanish regions, is not significantly less exposed to the problems facing the Southern eurozone. Like the rest of Spain, it had a housing boom and bust, its government has racked up huge deficits since the crisis, and its wage costs are uncompetitive. However well the secession negotiations could go, the new Catalan state will remain in the group of troubled Eurozone economies, and all the signs are that these economies will take a very long time to return to growth. NB, no Catalan nationalists are advocating leaving the euro or defaulting on their share of the debt.
The economic crisis has clearly acted as a trigger for the calls for independence, but of course Catalan nationalism has long been about much more than economics. The centrality of the Catalan language and hostility to the reactionary nationalism of the Spanish right have been if anything more important in the period since Franco's death, in which Catalonia, like other 'historic nationalities' in Spain, has acquired significant powers of self-government. The autonomy enjoyed by the Catalan government, the Generalitat, has allowed it to push hard on linguistic policy, ensuring that recent generations of Catalans have been educated in the Catalan language (as well as learning a Catalan-centric version of Spanish history). Until recently, most Catalans were quite happy with their status as a decentralized region within Spain, which correponded to the largely dual national identity of the population (with the plurality of Catalans regarding themselves as both Catalan and Spanish in some measure). The push to independence marks a significant radicalization of Catalan national claims, and although it has clearly been building as a strand of Catalan identity over the past couple of decades, the shift towards independence of the centre-right CiU party led by Artur Mas is a major departure.
So the elections will be worth watching for signs of hesitation amongst the electorate. It is true now that a sizable majority of parties currently present in the Catalan Parlament are advocating independence, but these parties represent a percentage of the electorate which is clearly superior to the numbers expressing support for independence in the opinion surveys we have available. So the question is, will CiU be able to drag its more conservative electorate to the pro-independence camp? The weakness of the two main anti-independence parties - the Spanish Popular Party and the Catalan affiliate of the Socialist Party - makes them unlikely beneficiaries of any hesitance in the Catalan nationalist electorate. But it will be worth taking a close look at turnout. The Catalan population is actually fairly divided between a majority of Catalan speakers and a large minority of Castillian speakers, many of whom are now migrants from Latin America, rather than from Southern Spain as in the past. Will Spanish-speaking or Spanish-identifying Catalan citizens really want to go for an independent state? Will the older generation of Andalusian-born immigrants who have historically supported the Spanish national level parties really accept independence? It is true that Catalan nationalism is more civic and inclusive than, say, Basque nationalism, but how would non-Catalan speakers feel about the official status of Castillian in a new independent state?
The debate so far has barely registered these themes. In fact one of the oddest features of the campaign has been the intervention of overseas-based academics, most notably the economist Xavier Sala-i-Martin, becoming vocal and emotive advocates of Catalan 'patriotism', revealing an uncharacteristic lack of seny (Catalan for a kind of pragmatic common sense). Nationalism is ultimately an emotive construct which fits ill with rational debate. For this reason, debate around identities is rarely conducive to sensible decision-making, as the history of the last couple of centuries has clearly established. Catalonia does not have to fall into the kind of disastrous traps of other secession processes, but the insouciance with which such a major change is being contemplated suggests a lack of awareness or a short historical memory.