Catalonia. Towards a Catalan Voice.

Catalunya: Towards a Catalan Voice.
Spain’s first Constitution (1812) disappointed Catalans because it espoused centralism and refused to recognise Catalunya’s request for a reinstatement of its historic regional privileges.

The First Republic (1873-74) held out some hope of accommodation for Catalans. Its federalist programme recognised territorial “States” thus limiting the centralist control of Castile. But the failure of the Republic and the return of the monarchy with its attendant centralism in 1875 fuelled a desire for more control of its own affairs in Catalunya. 

This was propelled, too, by Catalan industrialists and businessmen who felt constantly frustrated by what they considered to be Madrid’s incompetence and unwillingness to protect Catalan industry and commerce.

Their frustration was further aggravated by the loss of most of Spain’s American colonies and the subsequent loss of transatlantic trade in which Catalan business men had invested heavily. Already by 1825, only Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines were left of Spain’s once great empire.

Nevertheless, the industrialist and business class did not advocate separation because they feared losing what was left of their colonial market (especially with Cuba) and the national market where they had little competition. In fact they argued that what was good for Catalunya was also good for Spain. 

Constant pressure on their part for tariff protection met with success in 1891 when the Prime Minister, Antonio Cánovas, erected a protectionist wall of high tariffs (it also included Basque steel and Castilian wheat interests).

Giving further impetus towards Catalunya’s wish for some form of recognition was the revival or Renaixença (renaissance) of its cultural and linguistic heritage. The Renaixença created a cultural vitality that was the cultural equivalent to Catalan industrial vigour compared to Castilian business backwardness.

The combination of cultural and linguistic reawakening and industrial and commercial vigour provided the basis of the concept of Catalanism, a growing nationalistic movement that became more pronounced during last twenty five years of the 19th century. This would lead first to calls for autonomy, then separation and finally independence.

The problem faced by the proponents of Catalanism was that they were not all of the same mind. There were Catalanists of the left (i.e. federal republicans), seeking to reduce Madrid’s central authority by the creation of federated states. Catalanists of the right espoused a form of regionalism harking back to the qualities of rural, patriarchal Catalunya, the Catalunya of the casa pairal (“ancestral home”). Neither initially proposed autonomy but sought a role for Catalunya as a distinct society within Spain.

One figure who attempted to reconcile the right and the left was Valentí Almirall i Llozer (1841-1904). For Almirall, all political ideology should be subordinated to love for Catalunya. He directed his appeal especially to the middle class, the pragmatic and solid base of Catalan society.

In 1879, Almirall launched the first Catalan-language daily newspaper, El Diari Català, to get his ideas across to a broader public. Three years later (1882) he co-founded the Centre Català, a political movement that attempted to bring together the left and right in a common bond against Castilian authority.

The Centre was intended to be an apolitical instrument to defend Catalan interests. Its biggest success was in drafting the important Memorial dels Greuges (“Petition of Grievances”) presented to Alfonso XII in 1885, the first document to outline Catalan aspirations as well as complaints.

It criticised Madrid politicians for the decadence of the country, argued vigorously against trade agreements with Britain and France and called for regeneration through regional vitality and competition.

The Memorial did not advocate separation, but rather regional recognition. It further argued that what was good for Catalunya was also good for Spain. And what was bad for Catalunya (being stifled by centralisam) was also bad for Spain!  In 1886 Almirall summarised his views in his book, Lo Catalinisme, which became the “bible of Catalanism” (Carr  543 note 2).

Almirall further argued that historically and geographically Spain was made up of different regions, and that Castile should not impose its centralist views on the others. Spain was the sum of its parts and should not be identified with Castile. In another 1886 work, written in French Espagne telle qu’elle estEspaña tal como es/ Spain as it is, Almirall is very clear about his stance: “Catalans are just as much Spaniards as the inhabitants of Spain’s other regions” (Marías 372).

The main spokesman of regional conservatism was the powerful Josep Torras i Bagès, bishop of the rural diocese of Vic, whose opinions carried the weight of the Catalan church. Torras’s views were strongly influenced by the anti-liberalism of church politics, which meant anti-centralist, anti-Madrid sentiments. Nor did he favour the progressive industrialisation that produced urban decadence and instability.

For Torras, Catalanism was a return to the comfortable tradition of rural, patriarchal Catalunya in which the church was the guarantor of social happiness and cultural heritage. “Take the Church away and tyranny rushes in,” he claimed, the tyranny being that of liberalism.

Torras’s defence of Catalan regionalism extended also to culture. He hated flamenco with its sensuous movements and its individualism that contrasted so much with the “traditional” sardana (it had not long become the national dance) with its restrained motion and emphasis on group participation.

He complained that “the castells de xiquets (human towers), those manly symbols of the strength and aplomb of our people, are losing ground to the corridas de toros–the symbolic expression of the daring and agility of a noble race, but one which is basically different from ours” (Hughes 322). Torras wrote voluminously on all matters, but his views on Catalan regionalism are best summarised in La tradició catalana 1892.

By the 1890s, the strength of Catalan voices had reached a point where some form of political expression was inevitable. Almirall’s Centre Català (1882) was a beginning, but by trying to be apolitical and neutral it satisfied few. 

By 1892 a group of conservatives had formed the Unió Catalanista and organised a convention in the provincial town of Manresa. Its main spokesman was a young, energetic Catholic lawyer, Enric Prat de la Riba (1870-1917).  Born in the provincial town of Castelltercol, Prat’s views coincided in many ways with those of Bishop Torras. To Prat, industry was a patriarchal system, metaphorically a family run according to the principles of the traditional casa pairal (“ancestral home”).

What is important about the convention at Manresa is that Prat brought together under the conservative umbrella a vision of Catalunya as a national, as opposed to regional, entity.

The document produced, called the Bases de Manresa (1892), has been viewed as a kind of Catalan constitution, an “essential programme of Catalinism” (Carr 1 546), although Prat always denied any form of separatism. Catalunya, he argued, was a nation, a pàtria, whose growth was impeded by the Spanish state.  Its mission was also to awaken to their potential the other nations that made up Spain.

As a nation, Catalunya should have its own parliament, its own laws, its own police and its language should be the official one within the region. The public service should engage only Catalans, and the working language of the service was to be Catalan alone. There should be separate Catalan regiments in the forces, run by Catalan officers using their own language.

The Bases de Manresa, in effect, sought home rule or autonomy for Catalunya, leaving the central government to attend only to defence, foreign relations and interregional matters.

Madrid, of course, was unlikely to accept these conditions, and yet Catalan aspirations had come too far to be denied some kind of voice. The next step was to take the fight to Madrid itself, but that required political representation in the capital, i.e. a party to look after Catalan interests.

This became a reality in 1901 with the formation of the Lliga Regionalista –headed by Prat de la Riba– which won four seats in the general elections of the same year. The stage was being set for the decentralisation of the 1930s and, unhappily, the Civil War.

Balcells, Albert    Catalan Nationalism London 1996
Barton, Simon A History of Spain 2nd ed. Basingstoke, Hampshire 2009
Esdaile, Charles J Spain in the Liberal Age: From Constitution to Civil War, 1808-1939 Oxford 2000
Hughes, Robert    Barcelona New York 1992
Elliott, J. H. ed. The Spanish World London 1991.
Marías Julián     Understanding Spain Ann Arbor 1992
Shubert, Adrian A Social History of Modern Spain London 1990