Football will help ensure that Catalans stick with Spain

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Not so long ago all eyes were on Scotland.

It was not so long ago all eyes were on Scotland.

Last year’s referendum was widely seen as an indication as to whether independence movements across Europe had gained enough traction to make a successful break for freedom. Scotland decided to stay British, but by a narrow enough margin to give others hope.

Now the focus is on the Spanish region of Catalunya, where a coalition of independence supporting parties has won a majority in the regional elections.

Of all the European regions in which there is agitation for independence, Catalunya probably makes the best case. With a population of 7.5 million, an independent Catalunya would be larger than Denmark, Ireland or Bulgaria.

Historically and culturally Catalunya is distinct from the rest of Spain. Catalunya is also the industrial powerhouse of Spain which, coupled with its booming tourist trade, agriculture, international connections, state-of-the-art research facilities and excellent universities, indicates that it would probably be economically better off in the long run if it severed ties with Madrid.

The historical grievances between Catalunya and the rest of Spain go back centuries but, as we know in the UK, there is nothing unique in that; however what is exceptional is the appalling way that it has been treated by the national government in modern times. The Franco dictatorship abused the region for decades, suppressing its culture and plundering its earnings. Even after the dictator’s death in 1975 Madrid has continued to extract much more from the region than it ever puts back, leaving the Catalans to address the legacy of underinvestment out of their own pockets. Not only do the Catalans subsidise the rest of Spain, they have to pay more simply to fund the same level of investment that has been lavished on the rest of the country.

As the independence campaign has gathered momentum, the Spanish have responded in extraordinary ways, boycotting Catalan produce, particularly Cava wine, and even threatening to roll the tanks down Passeig de Gràcia.

Yet it remains highly unlikely that Catalunya will actually break away.

In much the same way that Scotland voted the SNP into power in Holyrood, but voted against the big step of independence, many Catalans feel that local, nationalist, parties will represent their immediate interests best, but they are reluctant to take the final step and face the uncertainties of independence. Though most passionately believe that at the very least they deserve a better deal from Madrid.

The numbers do not really stack up for independence. There was a local referendum held last year, which suggested overwhelming support for independence, but that was more of a stunt than a genuine plebiscite. It was organised by pro-independence parties and for the most part only their own supporters voted in it.

The pro- independence activists are masters of the art of political theatre, staging impressive mass rallies and ensuring that the region is permanently bedecked in the yellow and red ‘Senyera’ flags. However this also gives a misleading impression as Spanish unionists tend not to display their allegiances in public.

The population roughly breaks down three ways, between those of Catalan ancestry who overwhelming favour independence or greater autonomy; those from other regions of Spain who are generally unionist; and a large migrant population, including many educated professionals, who enjoy the theatre of it all, but, on balance, would probably prefer not to experience the turmoil of secession.

Catalan independence tends not to attract international support. Traditional Catalans tend to be conservative and somewhat insular in nature and have had little truck with the revolutionary theology that underpins other independence movements. A small Catalan Marxist Nationalist terrorist group called Terra Lliure did make a nuisance of itself for a while but it never attracted significant support,

The socialist and International Brigades soldiers of the Spanish Civil war were not fighting for an independent state, but for a socialist Spain, and they were bitterly divided amongst themselves, as powerfully described in George Orwell’s wonderful book, ‘Homage to Catalonia’. Even since the fall of the dictatorship the Catalan left wing has remained divided between unionist and separatist movements, though that has been changing over the last five years as the economic downturn has ravished the industrial cities of the hinterland.

After years of spending, successive national governments have been obliged to follow an austere economic policy, which has stimulated the development of a strident left wing anti-Madrid protest movement. It is this new block that now tips the scales in favour of independence, though the right wing and left wing parties of the pro-independence coalition detest each other and are unlikely to maintain a joint campaign. As austerity gives way to economic recovery it is probable that the protest movement will wither.

There is another factor that is bigger than history, culture, economics and politics, which will ensure that Catalunya remains Spanish, football.

Whenever you point out that in an independent state Barcelona FC would no longer be in La Liga, and would have to play the Sitges Bears rather than Real Madrid, even the most ardent of independence supporters goes strangely quiet and starts mumbling about a “new Spanish federation”.

That Barcelona FC, often seen as the figurehead of Catalan nationalism, should turn out to be Spanish unionism’s greatest asset is a glorious absurdity worth of Dali or Gaudi.