Friday, 3 November 2017

Why are the rich revolting, in Catalonia and elsewhere?

Revolutions are carried out by the poor against wealthy elites, right?

The Russian Revolution? The workers were definitely poor and downtrodden, well to begin with, anyway. The aristocrats and monarchy were, well, 'rich'.

The French Revolution? Not only were the French revolutionaries poorer than the aristocrats, but they were sans culottes.

Of the Peasants' Revolt in England, I remember little except for the slogan: 'When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?' Still, definitely poor versus rich.

The Mexican Revolution was largely about who owned the land - and it wasn't the poor.

Okay, simplistic, but point, I hope, made.

Admittedly, mixed up in such rebellions may be issues of language, race and culture. Sections of the population may revolt against particular ethnic or regional groups whom they see as dominating access to, or indeed pillaging, the country's resources: black Rhodesians chaffing under white rule; Palestinians denied their land and livelihoods by Jewish settlers; or the Mau Mau attempting to reclaim Kikuyu land from white colonial farmers. The common theme is still, however, that of the poorer objecting to rule by those who dominate the resources. The national pie has not been shared equitably and the excluded and relatively powerless want larger slices.

It doesn't seem to be quite so straightforward these days, however.

One of the interesting features of the current crisis in Catalonia, is that while economic issues certainly dominate, it is not in the ways we are used to. This is not a rebellion by the poor against the rich. Catalonia has been part of Spain since 1469. It is relatively prosperous and enjoys more self-government than almost any other region in Europe. It contributes 19% to the Spanish economy, a fifth of its GDP. Independence for Catalonia would be quite likely to trigger economic collapse in the rest of Spain. However, supporters of independence object to the extent to which Catalonia subsidises the rest of the country. As a woman interviewed on Channel 4 News said, 'We work...we do not want to pay for people in other parts of Spain who do not work'.

Who 'do not work'? Five of the worst unemployment black spots in Europe are in Spain. Eurostat data for 2017 show the jobless rate in Andalusia at 28.9%, in Extremadura 27.5%, followed by the Canary Islands (26.1%) and Ceuta, at 24.9%. The unemployment rate in Catalonia is currently 14%, although it was as high as 40% a few years ago, when employment elsewhere in Spain was even higher. This year, 2017, the youth unemployment rate in Spain fell to 37.40% from 55% in 2014. Youth unemployment in Catalonia stands at 13%. 

Spain, like Greece and other European countries has suffered badly from austerity. The Catalans blame the Spanish government for this. Prosperous nationalists object to supporting the poor and unemployed elsewhere. How long Catalonia's prosperity will last is anyone's guess. Banks and businesses are already moving their headquarters out of Barcelona: 1800 of them to date, including all the big ones. Bank stocks have fallen by 10,000 points. It is also not clear what proportion of Spain's debt an independent Catalonia would inherit.

According to Kiko Llaneras of El Pais, only about a third of Catalans earning below $900 per month want independence, compared with 53% of those earning $4,000 or more. Many of the poorer residents in Catalonia have come to the region for work. Llaneras' article contains some interesting data on views on independence by social class and income, taken from the Political Opinion Barometer for 2017Television footage has shown some of the most prosperous demonstrators I have ever seen: revolution by the well heeled.

As the leader in yesterday's New Statesman put it: "In Britain and elsewhere, many on the left have instinctively sided with the Catalans. Yet the situation is complicated. For some Catalans, secession is a self-interested quest to free Spain’s richest region from subsidising the rest of the country." 

Unusually, language and cultural issues appear to be less important factors these days in the agitation for independence. Education is exclusively carried out in Catalan, with Spanish (Castilian) allocated only 2-3 hours per week. This policy is a direct reaction to Franco's language policy. Currently 75% of the Catalan population speak the language either as their first or second language. Surprisingly, children have no access to mother tongue or bilingual education in a population in which, according to the Government of Catalonia’s most recent Survey on Language Uses (2008), 55% of the population of Catalonia have Spanish as their mother tongue; 31.6% have Catalan and 3.8% both languages, while other languages make up the remaining 9.6%. Anyway, the Catalan language is not threatened these days.  Boxing it in with a border is hardly likely to increase the number of those speaking it.

The Catalan language is in fact doing very well. It is not only used in schools, but also in the media, in administration, and for government purposes. Not only has the language gained prestige, but fluency and literacy in Catalan have an impact on access to education, employment, and social services. If businesses use only Spanish in official communications, they are fined. The accusers who report them are usually anonymous. Spanish speakers, despite their numbers, could be seen, therefore, as relatively marginalised in Catalonia. Catalan speakers are the elite.

Catalonia prides itself on achieving higher educational standards than the rest of Spain, as measured by the OECD. PISA tests are sat in Catalan. Elsewhere in Spain they are sat in Spanish. In Catalonia, any student who is not sufficiently literate in Catalan is excluded from the tests, so it is difficult to make direct comparisons. Despite its apparently high performance in PISA, Catalonia has the highest rate in Spain of secondary school drop out and the lowest rates of post-school education. Spanish-speaking students in Catalonia perform particularly poorly. There are claims that educational performance in Catalonia is more dependent on socio-economic factors than elsewhere in Spain. A complex social and educational situation, therefore....... Catalonia is certainly no utopia.

It is hardly surprising that the less your family has moved around, intermarried and lived in other parts of Spain, the more likely you are to support independence. The same would be true in Scotland. 75% of Catalans with all four grandparents born in Catalonia support separation compared with 29% of those born in Catalonia but with grandparents from elsewhere. Support for independence is stronger in rural areas than in the towns, where people come from a range of backgrounds. Broader experience is associated with more openness to unity with the people in the rest of the country.

As in Scotland, supporters of Catalan independence have tended to be noiser and more visible than their opponents. It is tempting, therefore, to assume, as many did in Scotland, that pro-independence voters are in the majority.  Of course, we don't actually know because of the way in which views have been gathered. 

The referendum in Catalonia, unlike that in Scotland, was illegal. Changing the Statute of Autonomy requires a majority of two thirds of the Catalan chamber, according to a Constitution agreed to by 90% of Catalans in 1978. In fact, the majority in favour of holding a Referendum was just over 50%. The ruling party in Catalonia gained 65 out of 135 seats in Parliament, and with its coalition partners represents only 48% of the seats. Opinion polls before the referendum showed about 40% of Catalonians in favour of independence, though that may have increased as a result of the government's heavyhandedness.

Furthermore, the UN only supports the right to self-determination for oppressed minorities or authoritarian states. That would be difficult to argue in the case of Catalonia versus Spain. Franco has been dead for the best part of forty years. The current right-wing Spanish government may be unpopular in Catalonia, and intransigent, but it is not totalitarian, nor does it act outside the law. Anyway, no country should address political grudges by attempting unilaterally to dismantle the country. As I have written before, it is misguided to use a constitutional hammer to crack a political nut.

So what of the recent hurriedly cobbled-together 'referendum'? Forty three percent of the Catalonian population voted, of whom 90% supported separation. It was carried out with no independent electoral board or official international observers. There were inevitably accusations on both sides of vote rigging. Many 'No' voters boycotted the vote precisely because it was illegal. And then, of course, the brutal behaviour of the Spanish police discouraged others. Similarly, the opposition boycotted the recent vote for a unilateral declaration in the Catalan Parliament, regarding it as illegal. Whether that was wise or not is questionable. The ruling independence party took 70 out of 135 votes, the opposition having left the chamber - hardly overwhelming. Now the Spanish government has taken over and Sr Puigdemont, the Catalan President, under pressure from the grassroots supporters, lit the touchpaper and then skedaddled.

Who on earth really believes that the way to deal with constitutional issues is to hold a referendum? European countries like Britain and Spain have established Parliaments where such issues should be discussed and decided by the people's representatives. We should know that in Britain. Simple binary questions ignore economic, social and political complexities. The general population are expected to express views on financial issues about which they know very little. In Scotland we still get half-educated online commentators making sweeping ill-informed assertions about economic data and about whether Scotland subsidises the UK or vice versa. What would they know? 

And Brexit? That referendum really was a triumph of prejudice and ignorance. 

Last year's British Brexit Revolution was choreographed by a group of rich, privileged members of the upper and upper middle classes who manipulated a section of probably less well educated and definitely poorer voters. Using a set of largely fictitious financial data they claimed that Britain paid far more into the European Union's coffers than it got out. In so doing, they ignored the benefits of EU support to our poorer regions - Cornwall, Wales and the north-east of England - and to valuable sections of our society, such as our universities, medical researchers and farmers. They threatened the security and welfare of millions of our European friends, colleagues and neighbours. Their basic assumption has been that we British owe nobody anything. We have no duties or responsibilities to poorer countries within the EU. In fact, we should focus only on our own welfare. By appealing to British selfishness, ignorance and xenophobia they have simply given a European twist to the 'Britain First' message. 'Taking back control' actually means 'looking after ourselves first'.

Mixed up in our meanness about Europe, is our meanness about the rest of the world. The work of the Department for International Development is constantly attacked by Britain's tabloid press. Right-wing writers sneer at the support we provide developing countries, using the misinterpreted cliche 'charity begins at home'. They laud the 'achievements' of the British Empire, ignoring the injustices, violence and downright theft involved. Indeed, some commentators from developing countries regard our international aid as simple reparation for our draining of resources from their continent. We live our comfortable lives bankrolled by 19th century colonialism and slavery.

Priti Patel, International Development Secretary, recently said that leaving the EU would allow the Government to reclaim billions of pounds of annual aid funding from Europe to be used for Britain's trade and economic development post-Brexit. “There are a whole raft of opportunities there where we can use that money for our national interest, or Global Britain’s interest, as well as helping to alleviate poverty around the world,” Ms Patel said. Has anyone told her that the same money cannot be used twice?

Britain is a rich country. If you told anyone in the developing world that even our poorest have clean safe water on tap and flush toilets, that all our towns and cities have street lights, tarmacked roads and pavements, that we have medical care and education free at the point of use and social safety nets of various sorts, they would regard us as unbelievably wealthy. We British know, of course, that provision of these services and social safety nets have huge holes in them through which increasing numbers of people are falling. However, that is because of deliberate political prioritising and choices made at both British and Scottish government levels. The Brexit vote to separate from Europe was a rebellion by the rich: the genuinely rich and the comparitively rich.

Other regions using financial arguments for greater autonomy are Lombardy and Veneto in northern Italy although they are not (yet) agitating to be independent. In Veneto, the turnout was 57%, with 98% in favour of more autonomy. In Lombardy, the region around Milan, it was just 38%, with 95% in favour. The two regions together generate 30% of Italy's GDP. As with Catalonia, the regions claim that they contribute far more to the country's economy than they receive in benefits. They express resentment at subsidising the south of the country, which they see with some justification as being corrupt and Mafia ridden.

Well, it is up to Catalonia and Spain, of which it is part, to determine what its future should be. The arguments for independence are different from those in Scotland and certainly not for outsiders to adjudicate. However, what does concern me is that increasingly these constitutional issues - in Catalonia, in Scotland, in the UK as a whole and in northern Italy and elsewhere - are viewed simply in economic terms.  Far more important as far as I am concerned, are relationships among the people who make up these countries. Many of us have friends, family members and colleagues in Europe. Many in Scotland belong to intermarried families living in communities across the whole of the British Isles. I am pretty sure that the same is true of Spain. In the modern world, people do not stay behind borders. They work across, and live in neighbouring countries, within Europe and across the global community. As I have written before, I do not think that what this world needs is yet more walls and barriers, yet more divisions. Whatever happened to the socialist belief in the Brotherhood of Man? 

By all means, if that is what you believe in, campaign for separation. By all means hold elections which will help your countrymen and women to decide. However,  please do not agitate for independence because you are unwilling to support the poor, the weak and the vulnerable in other parts of the nation or continent to which you belong.


Catalonia moves to declare independence from Spain on Monday, Reuters, 4 October 2017
Language rights in Catalonia, by Sonia Sierra and Mercè Vilarrubias, London School of Economics and Political Science, April 2014

In Barcelona, do it in Catalan - or pay the fine, the Economist, 16 May 2016

Spanish speakers fight to save their language as regions have their say, by Graham Keeley, the Guardian 2008

Five Spanish regions in Europe's top 10 unemployment blackspots, El Pais, April 2017

Catalonia's economic strength fuels independence push, by Velentina Romei, the Financial Times, 28 September 2017

Support for independence has economic roots and social origin, by Kiko Llaneras, El Pais, 28 September 2017

Ayesha Hazarika: Catalonia is a minefield for Nicola Sturgeon, the Scotsman, 25 October 2017

Europe and its discontents, New Statesman, 1 November 2017

The history of Catalonian independence (video), Channel 4 News

The great Spanish divide (video) The Economist

Scotland offers 'independent' Catalonia rare voice of international support, the Sunday Herald, 28 October 2017

Spain is a collection of glued regions. Or perhaps not so glued, by Megan Specia, Rick Gladstone and Raphael Minder, New York Times, October 2017

Kenny MacAskill: The fight in Catalonia is all about democracy, the Sunday Herald, 31 October 2017

Northern Italy votes for more autonomy, the Economist, 26 October 2017

The man who wasn't there, (about Sr Puigdemont's actions) the Economist, 2 November 2017
Understanding Catalan flags,

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