Catalan Politics and Language in the 1980s and 90s

from Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective by Simon Harris

Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective by Simon Harris

Whilst Spanish politics were dominated first by Felipe González's PSOE and then José Maria Aznar's Partido Popular, Catalan politics can also be summarised by two parties and their respective leaders. As President of the Generalitat from 1981 to 2003, Jordi Pujol and CiU were responsible for the reintroduction of the Catalan language in the media and education. Their policy of pacting with Spanish governments was more questionable. Throughout the period, Pasqual Maragall was PSC Mayor of Barcelona and was responsible for the 1992 Olympic Games.


Chapter 24: Catalan Politics and Language in the 1980s and 90s

After the 1982 General Elections, the PSOE under Felipe González was firmly esconced in Madrid and remained in power until 1996, serving four consecutive terms of office. The main political event of the 1980s as far as Spain was concerned was its adhesion to the European Economic Community in 1986. In the same year, there was also a referendum on whether Spain should remain a member of NATO of which it had been a member since 1982. Felipe González, who had originally been against joining NATO, performed a complete U-Turn and campaigned in favour of staying in the alliance. The Yes vote won by a comfortable margin.

Convergència i Unió led by Jordi Pujol had controlled the Generalitat since the first autonomic elections and were to continue governing Catalonia until 2003. The reason for this success was that Pujol was able to convert CiU into a very broad centre-right Catalanist alliance. The party's supporters ranged from moderate separatists to former Francoists and included conservatives, liberals, social democrats and Christian democrats.

During his time as President, Pujol never pronounced in favour of Catalan independence but always professed a commitment to a federalised Spain that would recognise Catalonia "as a country, as a collective with its own personality and differences," and a "guarantee that her own identity be respected". His negotiation tactics with central government were nicknamed as peix al cove, literally fish in the basket, and the main objective was to obtain greater powers and financing for the Generalitat in return for giving support to whichever party was in power in Madrid. This policy always provoked mistrust for both Pujol and CiU from more radical Catalanists.

For similar reasons, Pujol was also committed to giving Catalonia a voice in Europe. He was one of the founders of the Assembly of European Regions, of which he was president from 1992 to 1996. The Generalitat-controlled Patronat Català Pro-Europa set up Catalan delegations in various cities to promote trade and culture. These 'Catalan Embassies' have been much criticised by the right-wing Spanish Partido Popular in recent years.

My impression is that the peix al cove philosophy was shared by the majority of Catalan voters, who consistently voted Catalanist CiU in autonomic elections but generally voted PSOE in general elections for tactical reasons. Whilst certainly not pro-Catalan, the Spanish socialists have never been as aggressively anti-Catalan as Manuel Fraga's post-Francoist Alianza Popular which became the Partido Popular under José Maria Aznar in 1989.

The other major player in Catalan politics throughout the 1980s and 1990s was Pasqual Maragall, who as leader of PSC was Mayor of Barcelona from 1982 to 1997 before a term of office as President of the Generalitat after Jordi Pujol's retirement in 2003. An alliance between Spanish-speaking urban working-class immigrants and middle-class Catalanist intelligentsia, PSC is actually a separate party affiliated to PSOE. Throughout the Maragall period, PSC behaved pretty independently regarding its policies in Barcelona and Catalonia but tended to follow the PSOE whip in the Cortes in Madrid.

As grandson of the great Catalan poet Joan Maragall, who wrote the lyrics for the Cant de la Senyera which got Jordi Pujol arrested in the 1960s, Pasqual Maragall's Catalanist credentials were impeccable. As Mayor of Barcelona, a city which had absorbed a massive influx of immigrants from other parts of Spain in the 1960s and 1970s, Maragall was fully aware that much of the city's success depended on serving the needs of both Spaniards and Catalans.

One of my favourite Maragall quotes from the period is when he described his position as "A Catalan who is a Catalanist but does not like nationalism finds himself in a difficult position. But it is my position." I always found this attitude much more acceptable than the snobbish bourgeois conservative Catalanism of Pujol and CiU that, certainly at the time, seemed to me to look down on working-class Spanish speakers.

Pasqual Maragall, who was also a great Europeanist, is famous for bringing the Olympic Games to Barcelona in 1992 and putting the city back on the world map. However, his main contribution to Barcelona was using the Olympics as an excuse for a massive urbanisation programme. This complete renovation project not only cleaned up the seafront and created first-class facilities in the centre but also improved the lot for residents in the rundown outlying neighbourhoods that had been jerry-built under Francoist mayor, Josep Maria Porcioles.

Language Policy

One of the Generalitat's main tasks centred, as it has done so often in Catalonia's history, on developing a coherent language policy. The role of Catalan was not only seen as a necessity by Catalanist members of La Crida, who had been irritated by the LOAPA and its aftermath, but it was also necessary for the Spanish-speaking newcomers to be able to speak the local language. The alternative would have been a separation between the mainly Catalan and mainly Spanish communities. This would have led to monolingual ghettos and increased social tensions between old and new Catalans.

Once the Generalitat was established, the basis was there for rapid change in linguistic policies. Within the Department of Culture, a key role was played by the Direcció General de Política Lingüística (DGPL), an institution explicitly charged with language planning. In 1982-83, the DGPL set in motion a campaign aimed at increasing public awareness of language issues involving all manner of media. Billboard advertising, strip cartoons, radio and television shows, adhesive badges and labels, short films and music put the Catalan language back in the public eye. The DGPL also organised free classes for adults, sponsored lectures, public debates and much more.

One of the campaign's aims was to encourage speakers to use their own language while at the same time understanding the language of the interlocutor without expecting the latter to reciprocate. Borrowing from the Catalan sociolinguistic school, the DGPL described this ideal practice as passive bilingualism, where a speaker would use their language expecting an interlocutor to do likewise rather than switching languages. Catalan-Castilian bilingualism was thus meant to be encouraged as daily practice.

The campaign was a prelude to a new law passed by the Catalan Parliament in 1983. The Llei de Normalització Lingüística or Law of Linguistic Normalisation set the juridical basis for language use in all public domains and established Catalan as the language for instruction in schools. Although passed with unanimous approval from all political forces by the Catalan Parliament, the PSOE government brought the law before the Constitutional Court, which restricted its use in two sections.

The existence of the Catalan public television channel TV3 from 1984 and Canal 33 from 1989 together with a whole gamut of radio stations also made the Catalan language much more accessible at all levels of Catalan society. This was certainly my experience when first learning the language back in 1988. As a result of the media, most Catalans at least understand Catalan, although many are unable to read and write it.

By the year 2000, Catalan was the language habitually used by 49.6% of Catalans while 49.9% normally spoke Castilian. The proportion of mainly Spanish speakers rises to 52.9% in the city of Barcelona and 62.7% in the Barcelona Metropolitan Area. The industrial belt that circles the capital received the highest proportion of Spanish immigration in the 1960s and 1970s and has remained culturally more Spanish.

Linguistic immersion in schools has been instrumental in integrating these new generations and bilingualism is the norm throughout Catalonia. In fact, Catalan school-leavers on average consistently get better results in Castilian, according to independent tests, than pupils in most other parts of Spain. It appears that bilingualism may have enhanced language ability in general.

Olympic Barcelona

There is a before and after the 1992 Olympic Games as far as modern Barcelona is concerned. I was lucky enough to arrive in the city in 1988 and so had a chance to catch a glimpse of the honky-tonk provincial city that was still suffering the effects of nearly four decades of Francoism. The nomination to hold the Games had been secured in 1986 so by the late 1980s, the city was a hive of activity in preparation for the big event.

'Barcelona, Posa't guapa' - 'Barcelona, Make Yourself Beautiful' was the city council's official slogan but 'Barcelona, patas arriba' - 'Barcelona, legs in the air' was phrase in the mouths of the locals on account of the number of public works projects going on around the city. The building of the Ronda del Litoral and Ronda de Dalt bypasses took the extraordinary traffic congestion out of the city centre. Montjuïc was transformed from picnic spot to sporting and cultural megalopolis. The derelict industrial seafront at Poblenou became the Olympic port and village and a string of sandy blue flag beaches suddenly made Barcelona the best beach city on the Mediterranean.

These were the most obvious improvements but the whole city was reinventing itself. The projects would leave a lasting effect on the quality of life of Barcelonans and put the Catalan capital on the A-list of world cities. It is fair to claim that no other city in history has taken quite such advantage of the opportunity to host the Olympic Games as Barcelona.

Convinced of the primacy of cities, Maragall and his colleagues achieved their objective of making Barcelona the cultural and commercial capital of the north of the south of Europe. They would not accept the Pujolist line that there was an immutable rural Catalan essence to which cosmopolitan Barcelona was somehow foreign. Barcelona had created Catalonia and not the other way round. It had a natural competitive affinity with other cities in Europe especially after Spain became a member of the EEC.

"In my opinion," said Maragall, "Europe has to recover a certain militancy. Paying for food surpluses is expensive and has to be done every year. Paying for cities is also expensive, but cities are already there: they are not produced yearly. A Europe, a world seen as a set of nations is slower, with more opposed languages, than a Europe, a world seen as a system of cities. Cities have no frontiers, no armies, no customs, no immigration officials. Cities are places for invention, for creativity, for freedom."

The Olympic Games themselves were an extraordinary success and are still a source of iconic images and memories. The incredible opening ceremony and slick organisation impressed the world and showed what Catalans were capable of. They were also a sporting success for Spain with the best tally of medals before or since. This was also the first time the 'Catalonia Is Not Spain' banners were seen at international sporting events.

After the games Barcelona was once again the best-known city in Spain. Meanwhile Madrid seethed in jealousy. Since 1992, the Spanish capital has spent more money on unsuccessful bids to win the nomination than Barcelona spent on organising the whole of the 1992 Olympics. The rivalry between the two cities stepped up a notch. It seemed clear to many that Barcelona surely ought to be the capital of somewhere.

The Fish in the Basket

In the General Elections of  1993, Felipe González and PSOE failed to win a clear majority in Congress over José Maria Aznar's Partido Popular and were forced to pact with the Basque and Catalan nationalists. Jordi Pujol's policy of giving CiU's support almost unquestionably to the PSOE government in return for concessions for Catalonia was known as the peix al cove, literally the fish in the basket meaning somewhere between 'Take the money and run!' and 'It's in the bag!'

However, the 1993-96 PSOE legislature was marred with corruption scandals, most notably protagonised by Luís Roldán and Mario Conde. I remember saying to my wife at the time that Felipe González either had to be corrupt himself or incredibly stupid. Even worse was the GAL affair in which a network of anti-ETA death squads made up of Guardia Civil and police officials came to light.

Pujol stood by González blocking investigation commissions into the corruption and GAL. However, the peix al cove policy took its toll. In the 1995, autonomic elections, CiU lost their majority in the Catalan Parliament. There was also a worrying rise in votes for the Partido Popular, who had received virtually no support from Catalan conservatives previously. Pressured by Pujol, González called General Elections in 1996, which he lost to José Maria Aznar and Partido Popular.

Yet again Aznar didn't have an absolute majority. As a result of the infamous Pact of the Majestic, the Partido Popular was able to form a government with CiU's support. Pujol evidently hadn't learned from his previous mistake and was now allied with former Francoists.

Aznar's first term of office was marked by draconian measures that would trim Spain's economy down and prepare the country to join Europe's single currency, the Euro. A wage freeze sparked of a series of strikes and the strict budget of 1997, which included spending cuts and tax adjustments, was followed by a policy of mass privatisation. Catalan and Spanish conservatism were living a happy idyll.

The General Elections of 2000 saw a clear victory for the Partido Popular. As CiU were no longer necessary, the PP's intense dislike of Catalans could now rise to the surface. Vehement attacks on the language and education policy began, normally spearheaded by Esperanza Aguirre, Minister of Education, Culture and Sport. It was clear that Aznar's government wanted to reduce autonomic power and recentralise Spain. The total lack of respect for Catalonia was best seen in the Plan Hidrológico Nacional, which envisaged redirecting the River Ebro before it got to Catalonia. This would have resulted in the destruction of the Ebro Delta Nature Reserve and caused an ecological disaster.

More disturbing though was the anti-Catalan and Basque tone of the discourse. I remember being quite shocked that the Partido Popular always referred to itself as constitutionalist whilst tarring Catalans and Basques with the nationalist brush. The term estado de derecho, which means rule by the higher law of the Constitution, always seemed to be on their lips. Not surprisingly, La Diada, the Catalan National Day on September 11th, all of a sudden regained its popularity.

After the effective draw between CiU and PSC in the autonomic elections of 1999, Jordi Pujol designated Artur Mas as his successor as leader of Convergència. The veteran Catalan politician finished his last term of office as President of the Generalitat in 2003 and an era of Catalan politics had come to an end.

Now Read Chapter Twenty-Five of Catalonia Is Not Spain - The Estatut and the Independence Movement

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