Catalonia dreaming

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Special report from Peter Geoghegan, Barcelona

At midnight on Saturday, a huge digital clock on the wall of an apartment block in Plaça Sant Jaume square, in Barcelona, flipped to 00:00:00.

“Fem un pais nou” (“Make a New Country”) said a sign next to the timer.  Red and yellow Catalan flags were draped across the adjacent balconies.  The day of Catalonia’s poll on independence had arrived.

Catalan nationalists understand the power of the spectacle.  The flags, the countdowns, the torch lit processions and human chains all basically tell Catalans – and the world – that the independence movement is here.  It is polite and dignified but clearly it is not going away.

So what will be the impact of yesterday’s electoral spectacle?  This was not a binding referendum.  It was not even a “legal” one.  Catalonia’s constitutional status is no different on Monday morning than it was when polls closed at 8pm on Sunday night.

The Spanish flag still flies from the Palace of the Generalitat, office of Catalan president Artur Mas, in Plaça Sant Jaume square.

It is hard to really assess the results.  Does persuading more than 2m Catalans to vote in a purely symbolic ballot represent success or failure?  Is a turnout of more than 35 per cent and a “yes/yes” vote of more than 80 per cent a ringing endorsement for independence, or simply a reflection of the fact that unionists stayed at home?

Images of queues of voters waiting patiently to cast their ballots on a Sunday morning when they should have been sleeping, or sipping the first coffee of the day, made news headlines around the world.  But the big question underlying all that is whether anything will change in the poll’s wake.

Madrid has remained completely intransigent in the face of calls for a real referendum.  On Saturday, Spain’s conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy – no friend of Catalan nationalists, or indeed many Catalans – said that the poll will have “no effect whatsoever”.

This might sound like bluster given the scale of Sunday’s mobilisation, but Madrid has shown no sign of bending in the past, even when hundreds of thousands of Catalans have taken to the streets demanding an independence referendum, as they have for the past three years on the “Diada”, Catalonia’s national holiday on September 11.

On Sunday, Spanish justice minister Rafael Catalá toed the tough line, saying the vote had no legal implications.  He even said that the Spanish attorney general’s office was investigating whether charges could be filed against the vast network of Catalan civil society groups that organised the poll.

Artur Mas, meanwhile, describes the poll as “a total success”, urging Madrid once again to allow Catalonia to hold a legal referendum: “Like Quebec and Scotland, Catalonia also wants to decide its political future.”

Mas has politely asked Madrid this same question many times before – and there are no reason to expect that he will get a different answer now.

What Sunday did do was demonstrate once again both the depth of feeling among Catalan nationalists and the inherent civility of their movement.

“Catalan nationalist politics was always led by the bourgeois,” says  Scottish journalist and sometime contributor to this site, George Kerevan, when we met in a Barcelona restaurant on the eve of the Catalan poll.

“The working class is very split (on independence).  What really changed in Scotland was the working class took over.”

In Barcelona, nationalism still feels like a largely middle-class pursuit.  Walking around polling stations on Sunday I was struck by just how calm and ordered everything was, especially considering that the government had been barred from playing any overt role in the poll and the whole thing was being organised by some 40,000 volunteers, many with no experience of running a vote.

Inside the polling stations voters smiled and took photographs.  There were dogs wrapped in the estelada, the starry Catalan independence flag.  The mood was festive, light-hearted.

“It’s very emotional because a lot of people wanted (to have a referendum),” said Ivan Trillo, a wiry, spectacled 37-year-old teacher who was acting as an election official for the day.  “I saw a woman almost crying when she voted.”

At least a dozen Scots made the journey to Catalonia for the poll, too.  There was a contingent from the Scottish Independence Convention acting as international observers.  Others travelled under their own steam just to soak up the atmosphere.

“We feel politically enlivened since the referendum, and we saw similar was happening in Catalonia so we came over,” said Norman Todd, an offshore oil worker and SNP member originally from Ullapool.  Todd and his friend, Martin Urquhart, had no shortage of admirers as they strolled down the Ramblas, Barcelona’s main tourist drag, dressed in matching kilts and “Yes” t-shirts.

“We are just being mobbed by locals wanting photos, wanting to talk to us,” said Todd. “It’s been incredible.”

The Highlanders had a serious message, too – that Catalonia should be granted a referendum on its constitutional future.

That view was echoed by a slightly more unlikely Scottish source in Barcelona for Sunday’s vote, Scotland’s Conservative Member of the European Parliament, Ian Duncan.

“This morning I was standing outside a polling station,” said Cameron, who was part of a multi-national delegation of European parliamentarians observing the poll. “When the doors were opened there was literally spontaneous applause.  As a democrat it is very hard not to be moved by that.

“I would hope that this was a message heard loud and clear.  People’s futures cannot be determined in a court room, they must be determined in a ballot box.”