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

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.

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      • Sources

        Catalan Observatory, London School of Economics: http://www.lse.ac.uk/europeanInstitute/research/canadaBlanch/catalanObservatory/home.aspx

        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



        politico.com: Catalonia referendum: how did we get here?

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