Comment: Homage to Catalonia?

Comment: Homage to Catalonia?

Where now for Spain, asks Ian Taylor

I am as astonished as anyone at events in Spain and Catalonia – at the referendum last Sunday, at the paramilitary police batoning people in occupied schools, at the vote for separation, at the imminent prospect of an independence declaration and of Madrid seizing powers last wielded under Franco.

How on earth has this happened and where might it end? Recall how heated the independence referendum in Scotland became in 2014, with nothing like the history of twentieth century Spain behind it.

The history matters. Franco led the overthrow of an elected government in 1936. The civil war that followed killed an estimated 500,000. Falange (fascist) death squads operated throughout Spain. Tens of thousands were executed after Franco won with the backing of Hitler’s Luftwaffe.

The Spanish Civil War historian Paul Preston refers to ‘The Spanish Holocaust’ in documenting the events.

Barcelona was a centre of resistance. George Orwell’s account of his time in Spain during the Civil War is not called Homage to Catalonia for nothing.

The dictatorship lasted until Franco’s death in November 1975 – 49 years after his overthrow of the government and not quite 42 years from today.

A banner on one of the demonstrations this week recalled this, declaring “We are the sons and daughters of the Republicans you didn’t kill.”

The enmity between football clubs Barcelona and Real Madrid – the club of Franco – is a small example of the legacy.

The party now in government in Madrid, led by prime minister Mariano Rajoy, is the party of Franco, reconstituted as the PP (people’s party) in the aftermath of the dictator’s death.

The Spanish constitution which Rajoy cites in defence of sending in the police is a constitution imposed or brokered, depending on your view, during the transition from dictatorship.

The baton-wielding police resembled, to many in Catalonia and elsewhere in Spain, the police of the Franco regime.

Tellingly, the 17,000-strong Catalonia regional police refused to take part, recalling events in the 1930s when police in parts of Spain often resisted Franco’s forces.

If you think ‘this was all in the 1930s’, consider how pervasive the Second World War remains in British culture – the films, the jokes, the songs at England football games, The Dambusters theme and so on.

The success of the film Dunkirk this year, based on events in 1940, is merely one reflection of this. The idea of a popular film of events in 1939 in Spain is unthinkable.

What has any of this to do with travel?

Well, the industry does not exist in a vacuum. Travel takes place in a world of politics and conflict, as we know only too well – sometimes in a world of inexplicable violence as in Las Vegas this week, but more often in one where a degree of understanding is possible.

Mass tourism from Britain to Spain largely began under Franco. The worst of the developments, in Magaluf or Torremolinos, were in large part a result of the lack of regulation under the dictatorship.

I’ve heard Martin Brackenbury, former head of the Federation of Tour Operators, recall how a holidaymaker could punch a hole through the wall of a hotel in Magaluf in the early 1970s.

This year, Barcelona has been at the centre of protests against ‘over tourism’ by local people unhappy at their city being overwhelmed by visitors.

These things can’t be ignored.

The Spanish government has suggested ‘no referendum took place’. The Spanish King has accused Catalan voters and protestors of “unacceptable disloyalty”. Catalan leaders have appealed for international mediation, hoping the EU will intervene. The EU has declared it “an internal matter”.

Yet the EU has had no problem siding with secession in the former Eastern Bloc – think of Slovenia, Croatia and Kosovo in the former state of Yugoslavia. The refusal to mediate is pure hypocrisy.

Spain’s king Felipe VI may be head of state, but he was appointed by his father Juan Carlos I when the latter abdicated in 2014 and it was Franco who designated Juan Carlos as his successor.

The referendum saw 2.26 million voters out of 5.3 million eligible choose independence, or 90% on a turnout of 42.6%.

Rubbish that as you will, Donald Trump was elected president with 46.1% of a 55% turnout. In Catalonia, those figures would have given him 1.34 million votes.

My Catalan friends now talk about “The revolution in Catalonia”. They are apprehensive but also excited. I share the apprehension.

A non-Catalan friend reports people with Spanish flags joining demonstrations against the police and in support of the Catalan protests. He also reports fascist (Falange) gangs attacking demonstrators.

I would not expect other regions of Spain to remain in equilibrium if things escalate.

Spain is the leading destination from the UK, and bigger this year and last than ever. The UK industry probably has closer relations with Spain and Catalonia than anywhere else.

The alternatives to Spain – for so long a beacon of stability – are limited.

The industry will be caught up with the fall-out from these events – which at the very least look likely to involve protests and repression on a scale impossible to predict.

The Catalan parliament threatens to declare independence. Madrid threatens to seize control. Spain’s highest court has sanctioned the arrest of MPs and officials. The police have already broken heads. What do they do next? Shoot people? The stakes are that high.


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