Homage to Catalonia

Catalonia Independence Referendum. Wow, what a mess. But entirely predictable. Spain’s government is and has always been an exercise in fragmentation.

When this came down this past weekend I happened to be reading Orwell’s account of his fighting for the government in the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia.  This past Sunday’s images from Barcelona I am afraid are as expected as disturbing.

From as far back as Ferdinand and Isabella the country has not really believed they needed a central federated government, and had to be forced to hold together. Suffering under an imposed monarch during the Napoleonic incursion, a constitution was adopted in Cadiz in 1812, but the monarch was retained. This is where the concept of autonomy was hatched; a means to grant some independence, but hold Spain together as a country.

Since then constitutions from there have come and gone. The last monarch before Juan Carlos I ( following the dictatorship of Franco ) was Alphonsus XIII, who abdicated in 1931 to allow republican government. As usual the provinces wanted more independence than Madrid was willing to give then or now. According to Orwell, Barcelona was the center of the Anarchist movement during their civil war, 1936-39.

While Orwell left England in 1936 to fight for Democracy and against Fascism, as the popularly elected government was being threatened by the authoritarian model of government, he soon found that party he had aligned with, the Popular Front, stood in a line of soldiers from other political persuasions. Both groups were opposing the Fascists. But if the Fascists suddenly disappeared, their present allies would turn their weapons on their comrades. On either side existed of Orwell’s group stood other political parties, each with its own idea and willing to kill for it.

In effect, Orwell had volunteered to take sides a local political fight, drawn there however by higher ideals, like so many of the “International Brigades” which appeared, including 8 men from the University of Washington.  They lost to the Fascists,  then lead by Francisco Franco who became dictator for life, not just for the duration of the Second World War.

Carlos was hand picked by Franco as his successor, and when assuming power following the dictators death he declared a constitutional monarchy. This constitution allowed for each province to allow a vote for greater autonomy from Madrid, some on a fast track, others on a slow boat; each was a necessary compromise to get the thing passed.

Right out of the gate plebiscites sprang up all over the country and adopted the autonomy rule, some unexpected places like Andalusia managing the fast track course. That was 1981.

Unaware of this history I found myself in Jerez de la Frontera in 2010 on the anniversary of the day of  Andalusian autonomy from Madrid. It was like being on Main Street USA on the 4th of July.  I nearly starved, nothing was open. The television was awash in documentaries about how happy the people were to have broken away.

So the constitution allows for autonomy, but not outright independence. Hence, the referendum held in Catalonia Sunday was illegal, ruled as unconstitutional by their Supreme Court.

But that doesn’t stop the pictures of young women complaining to the camera we just want to vote, which is read in the United States as something sacred being trampled, ignoring the reality it is our highly developed sense of constitutional cohesiveness and respect for the Rule of Law, rather than monarchs or plebiscites, that holds us together.

Here in a similar move, had the US Supreme Court ruled the vote unconstitutional that would have been the end of it. See White vs. Texas (1869) or more generally, the American Civil War, 1861-1865.

And of course the televised images had to include the Guardia Civil, a little bit of Fascism left over from Franco, beating people lining up to vote. People stop thinking about the constitution and the rule of law at such a sight.

What entered my mind about what we saw on the BBC last night was the firing on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, 1861.

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