A statue holding an independence flag is carried through Plaça Sant Jaum, Barcelona, during a pro-referendum rally. Photograph: Emilio Morenatti/AP
In September 2015 as Catalonia faced elections in which the question of independence was at the top of the agenda, the Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy held a press conference with Angela Merkel, at which the German chancellor made clear her opposition to Catalan independence and her support for Rajoy.
While in Berlin and Madrid this might have seemed like a good idea, in Catalonia, a region in the process of reimagining itself and thus deeply involved in the legacy of its own oppression, it was deemed ill judged and unfortunate. And even though the comparisons are unfair and unfounded, it escaped nobody in Catalonia that the last time a German chancellor had sided with a rightwing Spanish politician against the Catalans was when Franco was seeking to win the Spanish civil war.
As I write this, the Spanish attorney general, José Manuel Maza, has refused to rule out the possibility of arresting Carles Puigdemont, the president of the Catalan government, who is organising the 1 October referendum on Catalan independence. While, once more, this might seem a good way for the Madrid government to establish its credentials with the rest of Spain, it merely reminds Catalans of the arrest of the Catalan president Lluís Companys in 1934, when he had declared a Catalan state, and his second arrest by the Nazis in 1940 and his subsequent torture and execution at the hands of Franco.
In threating Puigdemont and arresting Catalan politicians and sending the Guardia Civil into the streets of Barcelona last week, the Madrid government is driving a further wedge between Spanish centralism and Catalan separatism and increasing the long-held sense of grievance in Catalonia.
In any normal situation, Puigdemont would be a gift to Europe. He is a pragmatist, a centre-right politician, close in ideology to Emmanuel Macron and Merkel. His party has traditionally been pro-Europe, pro-business. Across from Puigdemont’s seat of power in Plaça Sant Jaume in Barcelona, in the town hall Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, is a popular and committed leftwing politician, also part of the European political mainstream.
Since both are known to be calm, thoughtful, rational democrats, and since both are vehemently in favour of holding the referendum, as indeed are more than 70% of the Catalan electorate, it might seem difficult to fathom the strategy of the Madrid government as it seeks to demonise all those who support the referendum.
Ada Colau and Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont. Photograph: Quique Garcia/EPA
Madrid is not itself prepared to make a detailed case against the vote being held, but rather is insisting that it is illegal, as though the law were something that could not be changed.
It is curious also that Madrid politicians have not been travelling the length and breadth of Catalonia – as, say, Gordon Brown did in Scotland in the runup to the independence referendum there – to make the argument against the referendum and against Catalan independence.
Why have these politicians stayed in Madrid? Why did we not hear from them on the independence question in Catalonia this summer? Why have they offered coercion rather than argument?
One reason is the work of a woman named Aina Moll, who was born in Menorca in 1930. A philologist, she was director-general of linguistic policy for the Catalan government between 1980 and 1988. She worked with Miquel Strubell, who had studied linguistic psychology and bilingualism, and who from 1980 was head of what was known as linguistic normalisation in Catalonia. With their team, they became convinced that the only way Catalan as a language would survive was total normalisation and immersion. Unlike Irish, for example, Catalan was not associated with poverty. It was spoken by middle-class urban people as much as in the villages and in the foothills of the Pyrenees. In the years between 1939 and 1975, however, the use of Catalan in public was banned by Franco. In those years it became a private, family language.
This began to change in the 1980s, with Catalan radio and television, with the publication of a daily newspaper in the language. Many books were translated, and lessons in schools and lectures in universities were given in Catalan. Slowly, it became possible to live and work in Catalonia without having to bother too much about Spanish.
When I interviewed Moll in 1980 I noted her determination and almost scientific approach to restoring the full and extensive and, if possible, exclusive use of Catalan in the public realm. The project was to make it the first language of Catalonia. Spanish would be there too – all Catalans are bilingual – but it would essentially have a secondary role.
The Catalan fight for independence explained – video
One day in the mid-1980s, when I was having lunch in a Barcelona restaurant with one of her advisers, he asked for the menu in Catalan to be told that it was only in Spanish. He smiled, and said to me that the restaurant would get a warning within a week and would be threatened with closure within a month unless it printed a menu in Catalan.
In 1988, as I came out of mass in the monastery at Montserrat, to the north of Barcelona, I met a couple from Madrid who were fuming. The mass had been celebrated in Catalan. Since this was a popular place of worship, they said, why could mass not be in Spanish so that everyone could understand?
Such rage against Catalonia became common. The bar-room version is that Catalans are clannish, mean with money, and filled with nationalist bigotry and effrontery. The Catalans, in turn, have a horror of bullfighting and view people from Madrid as less than hard working. They also take the view that they are paying more money into the central coffers than they are getting back, and that there is a policy in Madrid to undermine Catalonia as an industrial and financial powerhouse.
But there is also the numinous question of identity and emotion around nationality. Many Catalans do not “feel” Spanish. They have spent the years since the death of Franco recreating their country, taking what power they can and using it to consolidate the idea of Catalonia as a place as worthy to be a state as any other European country.
The success of the policy on language is the main reason why Spanish politicians have not been visiting towns and villages in Catalonia, and not speaking on radio or TV to make the case against the referendum. Catalonia, for them, has become terra incognita. If Rajoy or his attorney general were to visit the heartland, they would find that no one had heard a political discussion in the Spanish language before, and they would notice also a strangeness, a sense that they themselves were in a foreign country.
The arrival of the Guardia Civil in Barcelona and the arrest of politicians seemed disproportionate