We have to talk about nationalists, AKA Bigger Than Brexit

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On Tibidabo, gazing down on the chaos..

As someone with an intimate knowledge of secessionist lunatics and the trouble they cause – with complete indifference to its effects and an utter disregard of those who might demur from their obsessive worldview – I have watched the Catalonia situation with a mix of deja vu and disgust.

In retrospect, lancing the SNP boil by giving them their referendum might have been David Cameron’s signature achievement. Scotland, despite the SNP hype, is not ruefully regretting the majority rejection of the SNP raison d’etre.

And also, as someone with a pretty good knowledge of Spain, including Catalonia, over many years, I can observe that Puigdemont’s mob, in common with the SNP, don’t really have anything tangible in the way of active grievances. Their gripes are historical, though in Spain I would concede, some of the bad stuff still lies within living memory. Not so Scotland, I would suggest.

Other things they have in common are a failure of serious planning – currency, defence, capital flight, all that stuff – and the thinnest of veneers when it comes to respecting democracy. It was almost inevitable that the floppy haired egomaniac Puigdemont would turn out to be an unelected demagogue, in that no Catalan actually voted for him to become president. That would be too risky. Here’s Wikipedia:

On 10 January 2016, he was invested as the 130th President of the Generalitat of Catalonia by the Parliament of Catalonia. This followed an agreement carried out the day before between Together for Yes and the CUP, in which it was announced that he would replace Artur Mas as president of the Generalitat in exchange for a guarantee of parliamentary stability for his Government

Nice deal guys

However, enjoyable sneering aside (the SNP similarities keep coming), there is a very serious aspect to all this, or aspects. Spain’s tumultuous history comes to the fore, from the epic of Covadonga in 722, through the Reconquista of 1492 to the civil war of the 1930’s. For the last 5 years and more there have been clear signs that Catalonian separatism was encouraging an Islamist enclave to form, in part as a further divide with the rest of Spain. The recent horrific terrorist attacks, conveniently airbrushed now, combined with any casual observation in Barcelona and environs, will tell you that it has changed immensely. This is in part hardcore Salafist Islam, a problem for everyone, including the vain and solipsistic Puigdemont.

By contrast, the beleaguered Mariano Rajoy has shown a decisiveness and maturity so far, that it provides a little ray of hope.

The best summary of all this right now, with hard hitting criticism of all parties,  is  from Iain Martin, a man who knows a mad secessionist when he sees one, over at Reaction (which is worth its tiny subscription fee). I feel compelled to quote it at length:

One of the more obscure aspects of the latest, tragic events in Catalonia is the way in which the constitutional emergency has brought together under one banner some unlikely allies in Britain. Not only are the separatists in Barcelona being cheered on by activists from the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland nationalist parties, as should be expected.

They all support the potential break up of Spain for the obvious reason that separatists love separatism, and, because they want to break up countries on principle, they enjoy the spectacle of it happening elsewhere, probably because they expect the impulse to spread beyond the borders of Spain.

But alongside the SNP et al, the Catalans also have the support of the Faragists, that collection of tin-pot populists clustered around the former leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage. In that faction, judging by their comments today, the delight at the declaration by the Catalan parliament of independence from Spain is rooted instead in the potential for the Catalan business to damage the European Union, which they despise and want to fall apart. In this way the Catalans are cast as the latest exponents of the Trumpian impulse – breaking norms, smashing up the system, as though it is all a great laugh, Carry on Up the Sagrada Familia.

According to the twisted populist reading, the EU is trampling on the will of the Catalan people. That is nonsense. It is not clear there is anything like a majority for a split from Spain. Unlike the Brexit referendum in the UK in 2016, held legally in a nation state, the recent Catalan referendum was illegal, and the EU’s refusal to recognise the unilateral split is perfectly fair and sensible. National governments elsewhere across Europe are taking the same position, not because the EU told them to, but for the perfectly understandable reason that it is rooted in truth and respect for law. In the fantasy ultra-Brexiteer version of diplomacy, this is supposed to be cast aside, sanctioning the end of Spain when there is simply no majority for it.

There has always been a brainless, reckless strand at the Faragist end of the Brexit side of the argument, which operates on the assumption that anything bad for the EU, or Europe more broadly, is good fun and good for Brexit, as though this is a zero sum game and as though we are not all living in the same continent, in the shared space that is Europe. The temptation to mix the two up – Europe and the EU – must always be resisted. Europe is an old civilisation and an enduring concept. The EU is a relatively new political experiment.

In that context, what is happening in Spain is not a cause for celebration. It is a European catastrophe. After a difficult 20th century – and a return to democracy in the mid-1970s following the death of Franco in 1975 – Spain has re-emerged as a confident country with distinct economic strengths (in finance in particular) and restored pride. Catalonia is a disproportionately productive part of that success story. With only 16% of Spain’s population it nonetheless generates 20% of Spanish GDP and a quarter of national exports. It is, for now, a magnet for foreign inward investment.

Catalonia is, or was, doing well, and Spain is, or was, recovering strongly – with growth running just above 3%. The considerable difficulties that Spain encountered stemmed from joining the euro. They are being overcome after a robust programme of reforms.

Now, this weekend, the unity and economic health of that major European democracy is in peril. Direct rule will be imposed. Civil unrest seems certain and violence highly likely. In simple human terms, once the celebrations in Barcelona are matched by counter-demonstrations, a lot of people are at risk of being hurt.

There is another important and overlooked reason for non-Spaniards to fear the break up of Spain. It is on the European front-line against the Islamist war on Western civilisation. Islamic State talks of retaking the Iberian peninsula, and it was from radicalised communities in the Pyrenees that the cells emerged to perpetrate recent attacks. Spain falling apart in the face of such violence would signal to the enemies of European civilisation that great countries are disintegrating and the West is weakening.

Some things, you see, are bigger than Brexit. All Europeans – in or out of the EU – should be extremely concerned by the crisis in Catalonia and should hope for some statesmanship and compromise.

It is indeed a catastrophe, and no-one knows how it will end.

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Great Landscapes: Turner

From a long but rewarding read by Daniel Johnson in the always interesting Standpoint magazine, considering the theme of Europe v the EU, through the lens of the life of Spanish intellectual  Jose Ortega y Gasset:

Ortega died in Venice, the maritime republic that had once embraced Orient and Occident, and I cannot help wondering if this was a coincidence. Venice was the bulwark of Catholic Europe in defeating the Ottomans at Lepanto, together with the Papacy and the Habsburg Empire. La Serenissima symbolises grandeur and decadence, the metaphysical city suspended between land, sea and sky. Venice is the antithesis of Brussels, the Europe on which Ortega had turned his back.

Venice as the antithesis of Brussels is a great concept, and entirely in keeping with the flavour of those cities. Venice is the one you want to revisit, for sure.

Many painters have tackled Venice of course, Brussels not so much (though this, from the greatest Belgian of them all, is stupendous). Turner, the most brilliant of all British artists, did many, many such scenes, and the one I’ve chosen is not a favourite as such, just a good example of  the prolific Turner’s stunning technical and creative facility. And it is indeed a metaphysical city suspended between land, sea and sky.

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Venice, Seen from the Guidecca Canal. JMW Turner, 1840. Victoria & Albert Museum

Great landscapes: Modest Urgell

Considering what a unique, populous and proud city Barcelona is, and by extension the rest of Catalunya/Catalonia, it’s a bit odd that its artistic heritage is primarily in its buildings, a bit in its literature, and very little really of fame in the visual arts. It’s not like Paris, Rome, Berlin or any of the other competition. It doesn’t come close to Madrid in that respect, as the obvious rival conurbation.

Rumbustious Aussie art critic Robert Hughes‘ excellent homage to Barcelona – 500+ pages of discursive history and opinion – makes this point well (Hughes’ own potted history of the place is here). Relatively few tourists flock to the externally impressive Palau Nacional  for its contents, which are “the country’s (but mainly Catalunya’s) art history from early medieval times to the mid-20th century”, which sounds great but there’s an emphasis on ‘specialist’ stuff such as early Spanish Romanesque. That sounds harsh on the Catalans, but it’s not the mighty Prado.

Hughes however specifies a few works, and one caught my eye. Here’s his description of Modest Urgell’s El toc d’oracio:

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Which may sound a bit sentimental or cheesy, but I think it’s superb. Including the bat.

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Modest Urgell: El toc d’oració, 1876. Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (click on the pic)

Spain, cultura and me

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If you want to read wondrous, effortlessly descriptive prose, then try Laurie Lee. School children often get Cider With Rosie as a set text (and enjoy it). I’ve just read, for the first time, the magical As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, and in terms of evocative writing it is sensationally good. The subject is Spain, and if there is a country that lends itself to vivid writing, this is it. That in itself probably made Lee’s task a little easier. It’s entirely understandable that he wrote it more than 30 years after the events in the book – a walk through Spain from Vigo to Andalucia, in 1934. Spain stays locked in your head.

The Knife spent 4 weeks in Andalucia in the summer of 1982, teaching English in a school on a mountain top in the Sierra Blanca. The best World Cup of them all (1,2) had just finished, with tattered posters for the Mundial everywhere. The next year I spent another 4 weeks on the train around the Iberian peninsula. 3rd class carriages with no windows and wooden bench seats, remote spaghetti western towns, terrible sanitation if you could actually find los lavabos (I once had to go under a tree on a roundabout in Granada), but still wonderful. I’ve been back lots of times since then. If anyone’s interested, the best meal I’ve ever had was in the Asador Donostiarra in Madrid, and the best breakfast in the charming Venta el Buscon, also Madrid.

1983 was the year I was ‘rescued’ in Algeciras, a grubby town which judging by Laurie Lee’s affectionate description, had suffered a bit in the interim 50 years. In the early 80’s Franco (died in 1975) still cast a long shadow in Spain. Despite what you will be told these days, rightly or wrongly, plenty of people mourned his departure. That whole secular/Catholic, left/right wing, Spaniards/separatists  set of dichotomies is still a key part of understanding this country. Beevor’s book on the civil war is pretty balanced, in the way that many of them are not. If you want to really understand the unique nature of that conflict and its aftermath, Javier Cercas’ mesmerising novel  Soldiers of Salamis is a nuanced and compelling tale. The fact that the Valle de los Caidos is still there (12 a fascinating piece), still getting many, many visitors gives a  clue as to how schizophrenic Spain remains on this topic**.

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…in Valencia

That said there are plenty of standard travelogues about, but quite a few tend to fall short in some way. The highly regarded Jan Morris’ Spain is chock full of adjectives but in the end, it’s a bit dull. Older writers like the admirable and prescient Halliday Sutherland (here) and the…er…controversial  HV Morton (here) do a better job in summoning up the uniqueness of the place. In the modern age Christopher Howse (1,2) with an enthusiasm for remote monasteries, back roads and railways does the best job. He completely gets the enduring religiosity which you can still see in places like Valencia’s cathedral, where pregnant women (who often seem to be with their mothers) do 9 circuits before praying at the statue of the Virgen del Buen Parto.

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Roy’s autograph from 1930

Which emphasises just how key the whole Spanish Catholic intensity is in understanding the place and the people. That holds today, where the counterpoint of this intensity is a suffocating and aggressive secularism. The civil war all over again.  So you need to experience Zurbaran, St John of the Cross, and St Teresa of Avila (a proto-feminist, believe it or not). If you sample the origins of the much maligned Opus Dei you’ll get an idea of the rooted nature of Spanish Catholicism. In fact, if you seek the best translation of the poems of St John of the Cross, by that remarkable man of action Roy Campbell, you will be back in Laurie Lee territory, as the young writer stayed with the older man in Toledo, as the civil war was beginning to rumble, in which Campbell played a valorous role.

There are lots more: Goya, Don Quixote of course (it’s not boring), George Orwell, even the tiresome Hemingway. The latter claimed that “For one person who likes Spain there are a dozen who prefer books on her”. If he’s right, then I hope this post gives some pointers. A better quote is from the tragic Lorca, which captures that uneasy feeling you get as you descend  the stairway  to the royal tombs  and el pudridero in the mighty Escorial:

In Spain, the dead are more alive than the dead of any other country in the world.

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**when I first wrote this, I neglected to mention the great  Stanley Payne, a true historian of Spain in every era, and an expert on the whole Franco/Civil War thing (1,2)