THE BLOG
30/10/2017 10:26 GMT | Updated 30/10/2017 10:26 GMT

Letter From Catalonia: Is This The Birth Of A Nation?

A few weeks ago, I supported the Catalan right to self-determination yet hoped they would ultimately choose to remain Spanish. Today I find myself somehow warming to the idea of the creation of a Catalan nation. To me it's all about democracy; to others, it's all about the money.

Yves Herman / Reuters

What does it mean to create a nation? In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, military might would determine whether or not it had been achieved.

The American Revolution succeeded; America gained its independence from the United Kingdom. Just four score and seven years later, Abraham Lincoln spoke his famous words as that very nation, conceived in liberty, fought tooth-and-nail to prevent the creation of another nation from it. Had either war had a different outcome, history might well have been likewise very different. Books have been written on the subject.

In our modern, 21st-century world, it's inconceivable that this age-old question in a modern Western democracy could be settled in such a manner.

I've been in Catalonia since the afternoon its Parliament declared independence, speaking to ordinary people rather than those on marches.

At the moment I'm writing this, I'd describe it as the 'polite revolution'. Walk through the streets of Girona or Barcelona and, unless you happen to come across mass demonstrations, there is no indication (save for the flags) of what has happened. I walk past a man whose t-shirt shows he outline of a thumbs-up, filled in with the image of a Catalan flag. I resist the urge to take a photo, lest it's seen as rudeness. A shame: it would have accompanied this article well.

Police officers are sparse, the military not out on the streets. There's more military activity on the streets of Brussels every day of the year than on the streets of Barcelona the day after polling day.

Catalan flags abound. Different versions of the flag are draped from balconies. Drive into almost any small Catalan farming village, and the Catalan flag undoubtedly flies proudly and prominently at the entrance. The message is unmistakable. I see no Spanish flags anywhere, not a single one. After the slight embarrassment of my rusty Spanish meaning that I've forgotten the Spanish word for flag, I'm able to communicate this to a taxi driver: he immediately replies that his home town of Badalona flies Spanish flags rather than Catalan. It feels that town must be in a minority.

The Catalan flag flies everywhere, a reminder to all that a belief in one's country (provided that the intention is not to denigrate anyone else's) is a poignant symbol of unity and culture.

I walk into a bar in Girona, where a Catalan flag is placed at the entry to the bar. Here the mood is somewhat different. The menus are in Catalan only; I sense that speaking Spanish here is almost an affront right now. I ask for an English translation of some items which I can't quite work out, but they speak no English. Reluctantly, they communicate with me in Spanish. The television has Catalan regional television playing; Puigdemont's speech is listened to intently by everyone there. Conversation stops, but eating doesn't. When he finishes speaking, the entire bar erupts in a round of applause.

I ask the waitress whether most people around here are pro-independence. She replies with the single word "Todos", meaning everyone. That's certainly the impression I get in that area.

The Catalan TV station is, perhaps, a little biased in favour of Catalan independence - at least from as much as I can work out when I'm listening in a language I don't speak. I pick up the speeches which are in Spanish, and a smattering of Catalan from my reasonable Spanish and poor French. It's enough to get a flavour of their editorial slant. They make some valid points - for example, the content of statements by various governments around the world which do not recognise the Catalan Declaration of Independence. They highlight a message sent by Spain seeking to choreograph various pieces of content it wants in those statements.

It's less biased than the Spanish media is in the opposite direction, however. The Spanish media focused on the potential imprisonment of Catalan leaders, complained of the teaching in Catalan schools, focused on smaller Spanish counter-demonstrations more than Catalan demonstrations, upon threats to Catalan businesses, and of course on the reactions of the governments. What surprised me was just how intense these messages were on the Spanish television channel I was watching: one after another, blatantly pushing their agenda.

There are Spanish-only areas in Barcelona. One fairly young British ex-pat has lived and worked here for 17 years; he now thinks and dreams in Spanish. He speaks Catalan; to what extent I don't know, but he's scathing about it.

"This is Spain", he says, dismissing the Catalan language as though its millennium-long history were a modern fad. I'm surprised by the sarcastic, belittling side to his further remarks; it's the first I've seen, but then, he's the first enthusiastically pro-Spain person I've found. His attitude seemingly mirrors that of the Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy. I realise that I've seen this attitude before, from smug Remainers during the British EU referendum.

Meanwhile, out on the streets it seems that it's a polite revolution, perhaps the politest I've ever seen. One video doing the rounds on social media shows a pro-independence demonstration. A lone person waves a Spanish flag amongst the sea of Catalan ones; the crowd simply and politely ignore him. Having failed to goad the crowd into a reaction, he silently walks away.

Has there been some unrest? Yes, there has, but in the context of over a million people marching on both sides, and the emotions undoubtedly accompanying an unilateral Declaration of Independence, it's surprisingly and thankfully little.

The Spanish government has forced elections upon Catalonia for just before Christmas, which will be on a knife edge.

The final word goes, fittingly perhaps, to the last person I speak to before leaving.

I ask him whether he supports independence. He replies that it's irrelevant: Madrid will never let Catalonia leave Spain, in his opinion. "For every 10 euros we send to Madrid, we get 4 back. Without Catalonia, the Spanish economy would collapse. They'll never allow us to leave."

To him it's all about the money. I venture the proposition that it might be about democracy too, but I fear he considers me to be somewhat naive in doing so. For the people I met in Girona, the question was clearly one of sovereignty: who governs Catalonia? But for many, for those less politically engaged, it's all about the money. It was ever thus.

Yet daily life continues unchanged; those who are pro-independence Catalans seek remedy at the ballot box rather than other means. For that reason, I have far more sympathy with them than I ever did with any independence movement resorting to nastiness, threats or even outright terror.

A few weeks ago, I supported the Catalan right to self-determination yet hoped they would ultimately choose to remain Spanish. Today I find myself somehow warming to the idea of the creation of a Catalan nation. To me it's all about democracy; to others, it's all about the money.