Catalonia, a region of Spain, has held a vote which has decided that Catalonia should be independent of Spain. But first, I will take a brief look at Catalonia’s history, which is unknown to many Americans.
Portugal, Spain and Andorra now exist upon the land once known to the Greeks as Iberia, and to the Romans as Hispania. Hispania was part of the Roman Empire until its conquest by the Visigoths in the 5th century. Three centuries later Ummayad Muslims began their conquest of the Christian Visigothic kingdom, which was completed around 788.
During this time, Catalonia was governed by Counts, one of whom, Guifre Borrel, was the first to rule Old Catalonia, or Catalyuna Vella. The region of Catalonia was partially conquered during this time, with a northern portion remaining under local Counts appointed by the Frankish monarch. Catalonia was only retaken by armed force during the long Reconquista of the Middle Ages.
Catalonia became a semi-autonomous part of the Kingdom of Aragon, which occupied northern Spain. Unification only came in 1474, with the marriage of Isabella of Castile to Ferdinand of Aragon. Catalonia as an entity ceased to exist in the following centuries, as Castilian Spaniards subjugated the principality beneath war, pillage and the dissolving of their ancient institutions and prerogatives. But the Catalonian language and culture have lived on.
Catalans possess their own language, Catalan. While Catalonians speak Castilian Spanish, they do not regard it as their native language. Catalan, a language with connections to Occitan, a medieval tongue spoke in Southern France, is different from Spanish. Like other small languages in Europe, Basque, Occitan, Manx and Gaelic, Catalan saw a huge drop in use in the modern period, with a resurgence in the last century or so.
Catalonia’s relation with the Spanish state has never been entirely one of acceptance. Spanish authorities have behaved as would-be autocrats often do, with contempt for the governing institutions and culture of a people whom they would rule. During the 20th century, what F. Xavier Vila calls a ‘policy of castilianization of Catalans…became a cornerstone of the new Spanish state,” under Franco, this policy ended with Franco’s death in the 1975.
The Spanish Constitution of 1978, Chapter 3, allows for Statutes of Autonomy. Such Statutes have the power organize the internal relations of a self-governing community. In 2006, Catalonia passed a Statute of Autonomy. This Statute declares that Catalonia, “exercises its self-government constituted as an autonomous community.”
Catalonia has decided to try for secession from the Spanish state. Now, as Americans we have certain ideas about secession, and those ideas may be wrong. Let us lay aside our presumptions and try to understand what secession is.
Secession as an idea is perhaps the least thought about topic in politics. Political scientists and philosophers discuss countless topics, but never this one. The only time you’ll find discussions of secession among thinkers or writers is to dismiss it.
In the United State, secession as an idea shares an unfortunate and largely irrational connection with the institution of slavery. American ideas about secession are neither unique to South Carolina, nor are they limited to Southern fire-eaters or John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis.
The first mention of secession in American history is in 1794, when Congressmen Rufus King, Massachusets, and Oliver Ellsworth, Connecticut, approached John Taylor of Caroline, and asked him if he’d back the Northern states leaving the new Republic. In the Hartford Convention of 1815, northern Federalists debated if to leave the Union, over issues of taxation and economic control. Thankfully, in neither case was separation of the States pursued. To have the moral right to a thing does not mean that is exercise is either wise or needful. The Southern Secession of 1861 was the result of foolishness, stupidity, and rhetorical extremes on both sides. And the resulting war left us with legacies which are with us yet. But if the Confederacy’s secession was foolish, what about Catalonia’s?
Catalonia’s decision to leave the Spanish nation has introduced a new crisis for Spain. Spain’s constitutional court has tried to declare that Catalonia can’t leave. But if Catalonians have no wish to be part of Spain, then how does Madrid propose to keep them? By force? If you must keep your nation together at gunpoint, it may be prudent to listen before drawing the sword.
When Catalonia decided to hold this vote on independence, Spain reacted as unitary states do, with armed force. Rather than act in a peaceful manner, Spanish authorities dispatched thousands of police from other parts of Spain, to hold Catalonians in check, to forestall the vote. Spanish police behaved badly, as they beat protestors.
It is doubtful whether Catalonia as a nation will succeed, but it is further proof that the unitary States of our time are being challenged from below. Such a challenge is good news to friends of liberty. When a State is co-opted from above, the result is bureaucratic tyranny, as we see in the EU. But when it is challenged from below, it means that part of the populace believes the State is not doing its job, or that the people it governs no longer wish to be part of it.
If Catalonia desires to manage its own affairs, then it has a God-given right to do so. It even has the right to mismanage them, go bankrupt or be bought wholesale by China. It may be that Catalonia’s desire is a foolish one, which will come to a bad end. Or it may be that she will succeed, and be independent.