How Big is My Tribe? The Crisis in Catalonia

Photo by AthalberthH | CC by 2.0

What makes a border today: the natural divide of a river, mountain, or sea, a ruled mark on a dusty map such as in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement that carved up the Ottoman Empire, or the common history, language, or race of a group, not at all mutually exclusive or easily defined? Of course, one should expect trouble when a straight-edge ruler marks the difference between you and me, but the bigger question now is how atomized must we become before we stop drawing lines between us? Simply put, how big is my tribe?

If my tribe is the world, I am concerned about nuclear proliferation, global warming, and the plight of refugees, some of whom are still fleeing war-torn countries and conflicts started in my name to protect our fossil-fuel burning past. If my tribe is my nation, I may want to discourage others enlisting and using my resources for free, unless I need them for cheap work as in the US and Canada, or to take care of me in my old age since fertility rates in Europe have fallen below the essential “replacement level” of 2.1 (Portugal, Spain, and Greece 1.3, France and Ireland 1.9, the EU average 1.6).

Indeed, there is much wrangling these days over what is yours and what is mine, though perhaps it has ever been thus. The UK (majority only in England and Wales) wants out of Europe to be separated by more than just the English Channel (a.k.a. La Manche on the French side), the red rural and blue urban American states are in a permanent state of bicker, while Catalonia (Cataluña/Catalunya) is split in half, unable to muster any call to common cause. Hopefully, we can agree on something to unite us within our narrow worlds without resorting to schoolyard name calling. Honestly, Pocahontas – is that the level of discourse President Punk has stooped to?

Part of the problem is a loss of identity in our new-world melange of everything. Am I Irish because of birth, Canadian because of upbringing, or a long hyphenated list of this and that because of a mixed genetic past? Is anyone a purebred? What exactly is that today? Barack Obama is part English, German, Irish, Scottish, Swiss, Welsh, Kenyan, and American. Perhaps that’s the real story in Trump’s misty-eyed MAGA white world.

In Cataluña/Catalunya, the elephant in the room is the extent of “popular” support for independence from Spain. As everyone knows the 90% number is not real, fashioned by a quick-trigger premier wanting to show his overlords the extent of his meaning and the 10% in his coalition his resolve. Fifty-fifty is more like it, a coin flip at best, and not the stuff to step unguided into the unknown, with or without the law. If 90% of all Catalans actually wanted to split from a centuries-old Spanish hold, few of us would be able to deny that right, automatic entry into the European Union and further border disputes notwithstanding. But be careful of push-button democracy, with or without a functioning populist Twitter account, the minorities among us all have rights. And that minority is larger than you think. In fact, the minority is as large as you want it to be, a line at which I stand at the front.

The law is our guide, though of course any law can be changed. Even the U.S. Constitution can be changed, most recently in 1992 to codify congressional pay raises and in 1971 to set the voting age at 18. No women’s suffrage (1920), no alcohol (1919, repealed in 1933), and slavery (1865) were all deemed laws of the land at one time until deemed unlawful at another. Mutable laws are always up for discussion, though hopefully not after each election as the new bums throw out the old bums, having previously thrown out the older bums.

Immutable laws are much harder to etch in stone, though presumably a central sun, gravity, and heat-absorbing atmospheric gases (CO2 and CH4) are not open for too much time-wasting discussion. Alas, everything seems up for debate now, including whether to trust the solid no-pass line in the middle of the road, considered law by some or just a suggestion drawn up by an overpaid, soon-to-be-pensioned, government lackey by others.

To be sure, realpolitik is more nuanced. Spain and Catalonia are suffering the gamesmanship of its leaders, the right-wing Partido Popular (PP) leader, Mariano Rajoy, choosing a no-negotiation, the-law-is-the-law (fair or not) “indissoluble union of the Spanish nation,” borders-are-immutable route, while Carles Puigdemont of the Partit Demòcrata Europeu Català (PDeCAT) continues cart-wheeling off the high board based on a slim parliamentary majority and a highly irregular October 1 poll (1-O in Spanish-styled dating). Not what one usually hears on Ellen, Conan, or the Jimmies, or indeed from el Gran Wyoming, the host of El Intermedio, Spain’s most popular political satire show.

Indeed the 1-0 Puigdemont poll was unlike earlier referenda in Quebec in 1980 and 1995, Scotland in 2014, or the UK in 2016, which were sanctioned by all parties. In 1980 in Quebec, 60% voted no to negotiating “sovereignty association” on a turnout of 86%, while in 1995 51% voted no to independence on a 94% turnout. In 1979 and 1997, Scotland was asked to vote on devolution (approved the second time by 74% of voters on a 60% turnout), and then on independence in 2014 when 55% voted no to the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?” on a turnout of 85%.

In each case, separatist parties held majorities in their parliaments, but only in Catalonia did a majority not vote in the independence poll. Separatism requires unimpeachable numbers, no matter the sweat required to get there. Even the question asked has to be approved down to the final punctuation mark to avoid favouring one side over the other. One can also ask about Spanish electoral practice that weights rural votes more than urban votes, as noxious to some as the American Electoral College electing Donald Trump president 304-227 when Hillary Clinton polled almost 3 million more votes. Or indeed the fairness of filling a 100-strong American senate in lots of 2 that gives Wyoming (pop. 590,000) as many senators as California (pop. 39 million).

One can also ask who gets the children after a divorce. What happens if smaller regions of Catalunya want to break away from their newly crowned masters as some have already indicated in the event of secession? Or if the Catalan parts of France and the Valencian Community want to join the most modern of Club Meds? The borders can become messier than a Brady Bunch family reunion. Where will Barça FC play, no small detail in any settlement?

Indeed, borders are never simple. In the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, Ireland was partitioned into the nine counties of Northern Ireland and the twenty-three counties of the Irish Free State, although Northern Ireland soon became six counties after three chose to join the South as prescribed in the Treaty’s Boundary Commission (Note, Ulster is thus not synonymous with Northern Ireland). I suppose, we can keep pulling parts of the North into the South to cement our differences, although had all of Ulster remained part of the North a united all-Ireland republic might be closer to reality today, that is, assuming a unity vote greater than 50% could more easily be achieved in a nine-county North. No doubt, the north of the North would object to any such proclamation….

Devolved local power is good, doubling up on essential services everywhere not so good, standing armies on every border a throwback to city-state empires of the Middle Ages. Isn’t the smallest government that ensures equal rights for all the best, satisfying both libertarians and socialists? Yes, not easily got, but sadly the goal of today’s political puppeteers is to keep the important issues off the front pages – inequality, climate change, deregulation – to discuss instead the personalities of the players, a 24/7 megaphone circus full of repeated “breaking news” sound bites. What about the millions who don’t want independence? Who demands their voices to be heard?

Yes, elections is the way to go Senyor Puigdemont as you build your case for change, but one builds from the foundation up, brick by brick. One doesn’t build a house of straw and ask the world to admire it. Democracy is not dead (even amid European administration or the constitutional quagmire of Spain), it’s just very hard. Knock on doors, send letters/emails/tweets, hold town-hall meetings, bang on pots and pans, anything to build support. There is a case for Catalan independence if that’s what a majority of Catalans want.

The former Catalan leader Artur Mas, however, has stated Catalunya is not ready, while Santi Vila, one of the gang of 14 charged by the Spanish court, has already broken from the main, preferring constitutional reform to a unilateral declaration of independence. Tolstoy wrote that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Perhaps every unhappy rebel is also unhappy in his or her own way. Some take over a party from within as Donald Trump did (not wanting to crash and burn like the other failed third-party reformers before him), while others have tried violence in varying degrees. Today, change comes only in the ballot box, after which we plod on to include all, the unhappy and the happy.

Indeed, Spain must also take care not to ruffle Catalan feathers. The British horribly overreacted to the 1916 Easter Rising, executing 15 men by firing squad (including a badly injured James Connolly who was shot while propped up on a chair), only to swing Irish opinion in favour of the rebellion. When it comes to fairness, we should remember Portia’s wisdom and not Shylock’s claim: “The quality of mercy is not strained; / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest; / It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” Who among the Spanish elite will heed such words to meet for a parlay upon fair ground and heal wounds? Shylock’s pound of flesh is no route to justice.

It is true that money corrupts more today than ever and that electoral machines have a powerful hold on our media and our choices. Citizens United is anything but and indeed the DNC is its own modern-day Tammany Hall, while fake news lurks on social media. But despite the fears of a vanishing past, voters can see the truth in front of them. We just need confidence in the product.

We get the word “revolution” from Nicolaus Copernicus, the Polish astronomer who changed the way we think about the heavens with the publication of his 1543 book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), which spawned the use of revolution to mean radical change. When the time comes for an incontrovertible idea to flower, we will all carry it. Now is not the time to rip ourselves apart because of our differences, but to unite over how much we have in common.

Want to dump Trump? Want to be independent from or stay a part of Europe, the UK, Canada, Ireland, Spain? Get out and vote. Check your anger at the door and talk back with a loud X. Everyone, everywhere, tell the world your mind. We should all be fighting against inequality, influence peddling, offshore tax havens, sexual harassment, profit-only deregulation, dwindling rights, …, not each other. There are bigger issues at stake than the size of our individual differences.

Most importantly, do not demand only your rights, but those of everyone. That is the spirit of all revolutions, yours and mine. Onwards from D-21 to beyond.

John K. White, a former lecturer in physics and education at University College Dublin and the University of Oviedo. He is the editor of the energy news service E21NS and author of The Truth About Energy: Our Fossil-Fuel Addiction and the Transition to Renewables (Cambridge University Press, 2024) and Do The Math!: On Growth, Greed, and Strategic Thinking (Sage, 2013). He can be reached at: