The Catalan Referendum


…the ballot papers – in three languages, Spanish, Catalan and Occitan.

George Orwell said of the Catalans, “I defy anyone… not to be struck by the essential decency, above all their straightforwardness and generosity.”

What he saw in 1935 is still present today.

Straightforward decent people want the right to vote on the most important issue- the issue of how they should govern themselves. Yet the Spanish government does not want to engage in the debate – rather it prefers to deploy the Guardia Civil, whose faces are hidden behind perspex shields, to kick and punch peaceful protesters and to attack and beat with truncheons ordinary citizens and old ladies in a crude attempt to dissuade them from congregating and voting. It seems they have learned nothing. The power of the masses will not be thwarted by a few policemen, however belligerent.

Since our arrival in Barcelona a few days ago, only a blind man could have missed the Catalan flags hanging from apartment windows and balconies and posters for Democràcia stuck on walls. At ten o’clock each night, the messages were reinforced with the caceroloda as people banged pots and pans in protest for ten to fifteen minutes without a break. But it was on Sunday, the day of the referendum, in Girona that I came face to face with the reality of the struggle.

Carrer del sac is an ordinary street of close-built stone buildings in the old town. A crowd lingered in front of low arches leading to a small square.


His arm embraced me as a friend.

Josep Capdeferro (I discovered his name later) grabbed my arm. ‘Do you know why we are here?’

I demurred but smiled. ‘It’s the referendum.’

His arm embraced me as a friend. A bond had formed instantly and I followed up with,’What are you doing here?’

‘We are protecting the ballot boxes from the police.’

I didn’t understand, but on the train ride to Girona, Saška, my daughter-in-law had shown me images of the Guardia Civil neither guarding nor being very civil. People who wanted to vote peacefully were attacked, yes, attacked by the Guardia Civil, police in helmets and heavy boots who looked more like stormtroopers from Stars Wars than public servants helping society.

Josep adopted me and proudly told me his views. I had been reading Orwell’s ‘Homage to Catalonia’ and it all felt so reminiscent. I reached into my jacket pocket and pulled it out.

Josep’s eyes lit up and he started speaking loudly in Catalan as if he were the leader of the crowd.

I could not understand his Catalan.

He held my book aloft and suddenly spontaneous clapping broke out from the hundred or so people. It went on for at least a minute and I stood there bemused and a little proud.

Now we were friends and he led me through a door guarded by a large man and a woman with a scarf into the voting station. He explained they had to be vigilant as they had heard that plain clothes police might try to infiltrate the station and steal the ballot boxes. He showed me the ballot papers – in three languages, Spanish, Catalan and Occitan. It all looked properly organised.

The people of Catalonia deserve their referendum. Ordinary people want to express their wishes about how they should be governed.

What has a government to fear if it rules a free people? What have people to fear if they are ruled by a government of the people?

Only when power hungry men with vested interests rise above the democratic process do people have something to fear.

Josep and millions like him in Catalonia want a proper debate and a recognised vote so that Catalonia and Spain can settle their differences peaceably and in good faith. We have seen the Irish try it unsuccessfully in Ulster with a Republican Army (IRA) and something similar in the Basque region with the ETA group. Both these military approaches gained no mainstream support, whereas Scotland’s attempt at independence through the ballot box was a close run thing for a union which had lasted just over 300 years.

I salute you, Josep, and good luck in your democratic arguments, they seem unstoppable to my untutored ear.

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