Magazine article The Spectator

Spanish Practices

Magazine article The Spectator

Spanish Practices

Article excerpt

Madrid's violent tactics will only push Catalans towards independence

In October 1936, on the anniversary of Columbus's discovery of the New World, a ceremony was held at Salamanca University, in the heart of the nationalist Spain, to celebrate the 'Day of the Race'. The Bishop of Salamanca, who had recently offered up his episcopal palace to be Franco's headquarters, stood in the great hall next to the founder of the Spanish Foreign Legion, General José Millán Astray, a one-armed and one-eyed thug of a man. Also present was the university rector, Miguel de Unamuno, an eminent Basque philosopher who had supported the nationalist coup when it was launched four months earlier, but had since become disillusioned with its viciousness.

One of the speakers, Professor Francisco Maldonado, tore into Basque and Catalan separatism, which he described as tumours in Spain's body. The fascist's role, he said, was to act as a surgeon, cutting into live healthy flesh to remove the cancer.

It was too much for Unamuno. Rising, he told the audience that there were moments when 'to be silent is to lie'. Looking at the maimed Millán Astray, he lamented that Spain would soon be full of cripples. As for the vituperative language just used against Basques and Catalans, 'I was myself, of course, born in Bilbao, and the bishop, whether he likes it or not, is a Catalan from Barcelona'. The prelate shrank in embarrassment, but the eyepatch-wearing Millán Astray was enraged. 'Muera la inteligencia!' he screamed. 'Viva la muerte!' ('Death to intelligence! Long live death!')

That nihilistic yell prompted Unamuno to deliver a put-down that Spanish Republicans have treasured ever since. 'You will win through brute force,' he told the furious general, 'but you will never convince, for to convince you must persuade.'

Unamuno's words serve as a rebuke to any government that sees force as a substitute for argument, but are especially apt when, as happened last Sunday, state power is again deployed against separatism.

To overseas observers, the use of riot police to break up Catalonia's independence referendum was both disgusting and bewildering. How could a democratic government send black-clad troopers, with batons and visors, against families? How could modern Spain generate scenes that belong in propaganda cartoons about state repression? As the polls closed, and online media fizzed with images of policemen dragging women by their hair, the Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, with a pomposity that often creeps into his public pronouncements, told his countrymen they had been 'an example to the world'. What the world actually saw was an example of brutal 'muera la inteligencia' philistinism.

Incredibly, the king followed suit, ticking Catalonia's Generalitat off for its 'unacceptable disloyalty' and pledging to defend Spain's unity. The Crown's open alignment with the right is seen by many on both sides as the ultimate vindication of their stance.

All politicians sometimes march to ancestral drumbeats, inaudible except to others of their tribe. For Spanish conservatives -- among whom I count many friends, and through whose eyes I saw the Catalan question until very recently -- national integrity is the paramount virtue. While conservatives the world over tend to oppose separatism, in Spain national unity is elevated in an almost spiritual way. …

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