Andrew Dowling

In 1982 the Irish arch conservative and commentator Conor Cruise O'Brien made a coinage that entered the language. GUBU: grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented. This had its origins in a strange series of events surrounding the then Irish Prime Minister Charles Haughey. The term GUBU may need to be revived to understand events in Catalonia and the response of the Spanish government since early September 2017. On 6-7 September the Catalan parliament announced that it was breaking with the Spanish legal system. It announced a referendum on 1 October 2017. Neither the Spanish government nor the Catalan opposition recognised the referendum. The Catalan opposition walked out of the parliament. The Spanish authorities gradually began undermining the referendum. When 1 October arrived, the world was shocked by the GUBU response of the Spanish police. Human Rights Watch has validated over 900 injuries in the unrestrained police action. Spain’s international credibility was deeply damaged. A sort of referendum still took place in Catalonia though no credible international observer validated it.

On 3 October a general strike was called in Catalonia to protest the police violence. Though it was not in fact a general strike as the Catalan government and many employers gave people the day off work. Since that point, things have become even more GUBU. On 10 October the Catalan President declared the independence of Catalonia. Eight seconds later he announced its suspension for two months. To enable dialogue. Things became more GUBU as the Spanish government demanded to know had Catalonia declared independence or not. As the Catalan government declined to clarify its position, Madrid announced the suspension of Catalan autonomy, using an article of the Spanish Constitution, article 155. Meanwhile the two leading activists of a peaceful Catalan independence movement were put in prison by the Spanish authorities. The final GUBU phase was completed on 27 October with Catalonia declaring independence from Spain. Within 24 hours Catalan autonomy was suspended, the government removed from office and direct rule of Catalonia imposed from Madrid. The Spanish Chief Prosecutor announced charges of sedition and rebellion against Catalonia’s leading public and political officials. The main figures of the Catalan government, 72 hours after announcing Catalonia’s independence from Spain, left for Belgium. Madrid announced new regional elections are to be held for Catalonia on 21 December and in a final GUBU twist, the Catalan independence parties said they will participate in an election organised by a state that they, in theory, claim they are no longer part of.

I will try to take us through some of the wider context that has led us to the GUBU situation of September-October 2017. Spain began the process of the building of a new semi-federalism political system in the late 1970s. A system that seemed to offer a response to Spain’s historical issue with its national minorities. However Spanish nationalism gradually re-emerged in a renewed expression in the late 1990s and was increasingly determined to halt the further concessions to the regions. Basques and then Catalans became increasingly frustrated. The new Spanish nationalism has sought to give a totemic quality to the Constitution of 1978, as the foundational myth of Spanish democracy. The text became sacred and its questioning profane. Loyalty to Spanish unity is deeply embedded within the narrative of Spanish nationalism and the territorial unity of Spain is thus beyond negotiation. The referendum that was agreed between London and Edinburgh in 2014 is not conceivable with the broad parameters of Spanish political culture. For Spain, Catalonia is too big to leave: the region has 16 per cent of the Spanish population and contributes 19 per cent of the country’s GDP. For unreconstructed Spanish nationalism, Catalonia is Spain. The loss of the Catalan region, one fifth of Spain’s economy, would produce Spain’s biggest political crisis since the Spanish Civil War. The remaining rich areas of the country would struggle to finance the poorer regions of Spain. Here the economic importance of Catalonia contributes towards  a deep intransigence in the Spanish position.

The Catalan movement is distinctive to similar movements and political projects found in societies such as Quebec, Flanders and Scotland. The distinguishing characteristic has been the movement of civil society. More than a lobby or grass roots collective, yet less than a social movement, Catalan independence has been highly successful in popular mobilisation. The movement was growing before the economic crisis, but its rapid expansion is inexplicable without the deteriorating economic context. Whilst the calls for independence by party elites initially functioned as a lever to obtain concessions from the central state, the absence of concessions from Madrid has pushed mainstream Catalan nationalism to embrace independence. The Catalan independence movement has been highly successful at channelling the range of emotional responses that emerged after 2008. The movement became the most successful political response to the social, economic and national crisis that was underway. The movement has demonstrated an obsession with timing for dramatic breakthroughs, which it has been repeatedly unable to fulfil. The alliance between ideologies spanning revolutionary socialism to Christian Democracy has inevitably meant a high degree of tactical and strategic dispute. Given this difficult balancing act, the movement sought to carry its supporters by attaching urgency to the need for separation. A culture of resistance has been absent, partly because the independence movement told itself and its supporters that it chosen means of public expression would deliver the desired result.

The independence movement successfully crafted a distinctive ideological vocabulary, communicating a simple message. However, this simplicity led to major underestimation of its adversary and overestimation of its own ability to break with Spain. The movement articulated the hope that Catalonia could move seamlessly from being within the EU as part of Spain to being within the EU as an independent state. The complete absence of international recognition for the newly proclaimed Catalan state is testimony to this naivety.

Spanish and Catalan political cultures are gradually recovering from the profound disruption of the economic crisis but there is no longer a belle époque that might be returned to. The political settlement that marked Catalan politics after 1980, and the modest powers given to the Generalitat, has few supporters left. Fewer than a quarter of Catalan voters advocate the continuation of this status quo. The Catalan political debate is framed from a spectrum spanning from federalism to independence. Pro-secessionist sentiment and voting behaviour is unlikely to recede. Catalan political culture, its party system and the principal demands of society are unrecognisable from ten years earlier. Support for independence has consolidated to the point where it is unlikely to fall much below 40 per cent, even with substantial concessions from Madrid. This suggests a low intensity impasse will continue, with neither an independent Catalan state nor a marked decline in the secessionist movement likely. To move beyond the parameters of GUBU, mutual respect between Madrid and Barcelona, the willingness to compromise and a new settlement for Catalonia is essential.


Andrew Dowling Senior Lecturer in Catalan and Spanish History at Cardiff University.  He tweets @painesrepublic.