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Explainer: What you need to know about Catalan independence

  1. Long history between Madrid and the rebellious north east of Spain
  2. Way back to Ferdinand and Isabella
  3. Civil war history is like yesterday

Talk (32)


Jean-Jacques Subrenat

"@John Snelson +1 regarding grammar an..."
Angela Long

Angela Long

"Hi John, I believe the punctuation ..."
John Snelson

John Snelson

"This sentence is very awkward and it'..."
Angela Long

Angela Long

"Correct, thanks. Angela"

The cause of Catalan independence has jolted the very stability of Spain and raised the prospect of a fracturing Europe after a disputed independence referendum in the Spanish autonomous region on October 1st.

Spain’s central government ordered police to stop people entering polling stations, following the Constitutional Court which had previously declared the vote illegal. The resulting images of national guard police clubbing citizens trying to vote and dragging them through the streets were broadcast around the world.

Catalan independence has a long history, going back hundreds of years. This is just the latest manifestation of the tension between Madrid and Spain’s rebellious – and wealthy –  north-east. The modern political movement began in the 1920s. But Catalonia has a sense of itself as apart from Spanish culture going back much further.

Way back

This BBC timeline on the history of Catalonian independence refers to the county of Barcelona existing since the 9th century, although the name/concept of Catalonia was not known in Europe until the 12th century.

It was incorporated into the neighbouring Crown of Aragon and hence became part of the entity of Spain when the famous royal couple, Ferdinand and Isabella, united Castile and Aragon in the late 15th century.

In the early 18th century came the war of Spanish Succession. Catalonia backed the wrong horse, and as a result when winner Philip of Bourbon took power he suppressed Catalan liberty.  According to author and historian John Hooper, the political movement known as Catalanism appeared at the end of the 19th century, hinging on a tract called Lo Catalanisme by Valentí Almirall.

A hundred years ago

Catalonia – particularly Barcelona – was a hub both of industry and left-wing activity. The unions were strong. Neither unions nor local government, nor the King of Spain and his ministers, showed any reluctance to kill or throw bombs. But as author and early 20th century traveller Gerald Brenan wrote in “The Spanish Labyrinth”, both right- and left-wing actors had supported the Bases de Manresa, the basis of Catalan nationalism drawn up at the end of the 19th century. Brenan describes this as “a far-reaching political programme, incompatible either with economic facts or with Spanish unity”. Some would argue this is also true of the current demands.

The Civil War

As the Republican side retreated in the Spanish Civil War, Barcelona became the ultimate last capital of the forces ranged against the nationalists led by General Francisco Franco. When Franco became absolute ruler after the end of the war, in 1939, Catalonia had many of its gains in self-government, language and autonomy rescinded.

Forty years ago

Following the death of Franco, “el Caudillo”, in 1975, a new period of relaxation of central control and a flowering of provincial government in Spain led to the restoration of a regional government, the Generalitat, in Catalonia in 1977.  In 1978, a referendum was held on a new Spanish Constitution, which gave a measure of autonomy to the 17 regions.  Catalonia voted overwhelmingly to endorse the constitution.

Ten years ago

In 2005, the Catalan parliament voted in favour of reforming the province’s statute of autonomy, giving primacy to the Catalan language and setting up a tax-collecting body. The margin was 120 in favour to 15 against. But Mariano Rajoy, then opposition leader in the national parliament, led a campaign against the Catalonian change, and collected four million signatures in a national petition. Subsequently, writes Sebastian Balfour of the LSE, Spain’s Constitutional Tribunal declared in 2010 that the Catalan Statute of Autonomy was mostly unconstitutional. This spurred almost one and a half million Catalans to march in the streets chanting “We are a nation. We decide!”


Months of fiery talk from both Barcelona and Madrid culminated in defiance, with the Catalan parliament resolving to hold a referendum on independence. Three years ago, a similar poll was undertaken, but deemed non-binding. The Constitutional Court declared this year’s referendum an illegal act, and the Spanish Government instructed local officials and police to take action to stop it.

The turnout, an estimated 43 per cent of the electorate, voted 90 per cent in favour for independence. Previous polls had put the figure of Catalonia’s 7.3 million population who wished for independence as around 40 per cent. It is worth noting, however, that the appropriate procedure for a referendum was not followed, without a campaign being carried on both sides of the referendum and with democratic guarantees of the census and the counting of votes.

President of the Generalitat, Carles Puigdemont, led the move to the referendum, on October 1, or ‘1-O’. On October 22 Rajoy, after a Cabinet meeting in Madrid, announced that the government would take control of Catalonia and call new elections for its assembly. Spain and the world is now waiting to see what will happen next.

Sources & References

Catalan Observatory, London School of Economics:

Gerald Brenan, The Spanish Labyrinth, 1990 edition, Cambridge/Canto

John Hooper, The New Spaniards, Penguin books, 1995 edition

John A. Crow, Spain: The Root and the Flower, University of California Press 1985

Paddy Woodworth, Dirty War, Clean Hands, Cork University Press, 2001

Wikipedia Catalonia referendum: how did we get here?

Started by

Consulting editor with WikiTribune. Previous career mostly in print media, news and feature writer, commissioning editor, copy editor, trainer and teacher. 25+ years in leading European/British media, BBC, FT, Sunday Times, Irish Times, including five years on latter's foreign desk. Launch team, Open Government Partnership, Dublin 2013. Teach digital media ethics and journalism practice.

History for stories "Explainer: What you need to know about Catalan independence"

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19 March 2018

Talk for Story "Explainer: What you need to know about Catalan independence"

Talk about this Story

  1. Rewrite

    Hi John,
    I believe the punctuation is correct but you might like to suggest an improvement.
    If you want to read about the bombs in Catalonia in the early 20th century, Gerald Brenan’s “Spanish Labyrinth” is one source.


  2. Rewrite

    This sentence is very awkward and it’s meaning is unclear:

    “Neither unions nor local government, nor the King of Spain and his ministers, showed any reluctance to kill or throw bombs.”

    Is it punctuated correctly? I’m wondering if there should be a comma between “unions” and “nor”. Too many clauses make the sentence cumbersome.

    Are the “bombs” metaphorical? If not I think more should be written on terrorist activity related to Catalonia.

    Also this sentence is unsubstantiated,and therefore possibly inflammatory.

    “Some would argue this is also true of the current demands.”

    1. Rewrite

      @John Snelson +1 regarding grammar and vocabulary, but also on using language which is, or can be construed as inflammatory.

  3. Rewrite

    Spain hasn’t a “federal parliament”. Although “Autonomous Communities” look like federated regions, they aren’t.

    I suggest to use “national parliament” instead.

  4. Rewrite

    Peter, Angela, Sam, Daniel: to Peter’s point about keeping a story online or not: I agree that it should be kept, as long as meaningful updates are done, and that should be the responsibility of the author, with the usual editorial supervision. That’s why I suggested 2 updates to Angela’s backgrounder (see my Talk further down, from 19 October). Final point, is there some way of (optically?) linking Angela’s backgrounder and my essay, which complement each other? I’d be glad to ensure regular updates. Thanks.

  5. Rewrite

    Hi Sam, this is a backgrounder – so it answers the question ‘how long has this independence campaign been an isssue’? The ending should now be changed to record the Rajoy announcement of taking over but otherwise the recent news would appear in other stories, news stories which are being written and updated regularly (given limits of our resources). This kind of story can be archived and as it is mainly historical should remain basically the same.


  6. Other

    I am just curious – as an explainer, is the policy that this kind of article will run up to a certain fixed point. In this case – the explainer ends at 1-Oct.

    Is this a conscious decision? Or could/should the article be updated with information from the last few weeks…

    Is it good to have a moratorium on adding context (maybe three weeks behind ‘breaking’ is a good choice)?…

    1. Rewrite

      Sam, we keep thinking about this and with Developing stories. I suspect they will have a much longer life but will need regular refreshing. My fear about ending them after 24-hours like a normal news cycle is that the discussion about them on TALK — where much of the best information may lie — gets lost. I suspect with some stories we will close them — especially really dated ones or ones that a very controversial perhaps — but most will stay open. What do you think? Peter

      1. Rewrite

        I would tend to agree with your approach here.

        I think the idea of having categories of stories like ‘explainer’ which aren’t breaking news and complement other stories (developing or breaking) is critical to fulfilling wikitribunes mission. When they are done right, they are so useful to helping people contextualise things.

        And I agree with the idea of explainers being ‘periodically’ updated to reflect new (but verified and considered) information – without being in constant ‘breaking’ mode. The could live for quite some time, depending on their value to other story types…


        For me – I think the most important (and perhaps its too early to do this…) is for their to be some sort of general policy or definition of what an ‘explainer’ is – but is the purpose, and in general how should it function (static or updated, on what terms, editorial policy – what are the criteria for ‘closing’ etc…)

        Know what I mean?

  7. Rewrite

    Thank you for writing this interesting article, Angela 🙂

    1. Rewrite

      A pleasure! And I look forward to collaborating with you all out there for the best possible results in the future.

  8. Rewrite

    Hi Daniel, that could be another panel. Catalan is mentioned in the text as a language, which it is regarded to be – not a dialect.

  9. Rewrite

    I am wondering whether people think that the Catalan language is just a dialect of Castilian and that Catalan customs only has a few variations on Spanish customs?

    1. Rewrite

      That’s fighting talk. I am happy to take something on that if it can be made current and doesn’t just duplicate what might otherwise be a Wikipedia entry. Make sense? Peter

      1. Rewrite

        Makes sense. I had to look up the expression “fighting talk”. I apologise for the fighting talk. Angela Long already pointed out that it was mentioned in the text, and I am happy with that. I do not feel the need to mention it twice. You are all doing wonderful work. Thank you 🙂

  10. Rewrite

    The historical background is useful for the general reader. May I suggest a concluding paragraph, which would

    – underline the dilemma that Rajoy’s ultimatum has created for the regional executive of Catalonia, by demanding that they state clearly whether or not they have declared independence;

    – by doing so, Rajoy has, as it were, put the onus of proof on the pro-independence movement in Catalonia. Rajoy’s position is supported by the Constitutional council, whose ruling just before the recent referendum cleared the way for Madrid to suspend the current status of autonomy of Catalonia, if that region was found to contravene the fundamental law of Spain.


  11. Rewrite

    Hi, folks – this is a very well-written story that does a great job of explaining how we got where we are.

    I have a small concern about a bit of hyperbole in the second paragraph, where we say that images of violence at the polls “shocked millions across the world.”

    How do we know?

    This innocent supposition may very well be true, but to critics of the media, it can be taken as evidence that we make things up. It’s also a self-inflicted wound. The story works just fine without this unsupported detail.

  12. Rewrite

    “Catalonia backed the wrong horse” – I wondered if this could perhaps be explained less metaphorically?

    1. Rewrite

      Source for information on the main ‘event’ are ,–14) and Maybe they could be added for people who wants more detail. But, basically, they supported the king that lost.

      1. Rewrite

        I haven’t tried this before, and I’m not a historian, only regurgitating Wikipedia (thank you pvillega for the links) 🙂 but perhaps…

        “In the early 18th century, the war of Spanish Succession took place, triggered by the death of Charles II in 1700 and the resulting shift of power in favour of the House of Bourbon (Louis XIV in France, and his grandson Philip V in Spain). The Grand Alliance (of England, the Dutch Republic, Austria, and the Holy Roman Empire) was reformed to attempt to redress the perceived imbalance, supporting Emperor Leopold I’s claim of Spain for his son, Archduke Charles of Austria. In 1705, Charles’ troops captured Montjuïc and bombarded Barcelona into submission, and the principality (along with the rest of the Crown of Aragon) accepted Charles III as king and supported his claim over Spain against Philip V. When Philip V won the war and took power, he suppressed Catalan liberty and created a singular Spanish nationality, eradicating distinctions and internal borders between Castille and Aragon, with his Nueva Planta decrees.”

        1. Rewrite

          Aha. Very interesting… Though quite long. Is it possible to boil it down into one sentence {and link to the deeper/fuller details?]

          1. In the early 18th century, Barcelona was disputed in the war of Spanish Succession and in 1705 submitted to and supported Archduke Charles of Austria, who subsequently lost to Philip V. As victor, Philip V suppressed Catalan liberty and created a singular Spanish nationality.


            1. Ok but what is the takeaway — from that history/background… What does it mean, in plain terms?

              1. Rewrite

                well, I suppose the (original author’s point was the) fact that Catalan liberty was suppressed over 300 years ago, so the present-day situation has distant roots, caused by being punished for being on the losing side of a war?

                1. Rewrite

                  “Catalonia backed the wrong horse, “.

                  Might perhaps be clearer as:

                  “Catalonia backed Charles of Austria against Philip V, ”


  13. Rewrite

    Hi, is there a reason that the date for this story doesn’t appear on the home page?

    1. Rewrite

      Pete, it depends on the position the story occupies on the home page at a given moment. The size of the “box” or in this case actually a card it is allocated. Some of these variations are being worked on as we speak, Peter

      1. Rewrite

        Peter, thanks for your note. As a reader, the date is important if I’m scanning the home page for the most recent news.

        1. Rewrite

          Understood. The design changes will become more apparent next week and may address this, Peter

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