Mancomunitat - The Catalan Commonwealth

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

Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective by Simon Harris

Following the loss of Spain's remaining colonies in 1898, the conservative Catalanist Lliga Regionalista achieved its first election successes. An army attack on some newspaper offices provoked a moment of Catalanist unity and a coalition including left-wing groups pushed for more powers for Catalonia. In 1914 the Mancomunitat was created under the Presidency of Enric Prat de la Riba. The modernising achievements of the institution were extraordinary until nipped in the bud by Primo de Rivera's military coup of 1923.


Chapter 19: Mancomunitat - The Catalan Commonwealth

Still capable of imposing repressive measures on the Catalans, the weak and incompetent Spanish government inspired less and less confidence abroad. In 1898, Spain entered into a foolhardy war with the United States over the control of Cuba. A humiliating defeat resulted in the loss of Spain's last remaining foreign colonies, which included not only Cuba but also Puerto Rico and the Philippines.

The Disaster of '98 provoked a serious crisis of confidence in Spanish politics and throughout the country as a whole. The loss of the empire and more importantly the senseless loss of thousands of young Spaniards' lives inspired a group of writers and intellectuals, known as the Generation of '98, to take a critical view of the corrupt political system in post-restoration Spain.

With the upsurge of political Catalanism, the Disaster of '98 was the final straw for many of the Catalan monied classes. Cuban trade was crucial to Catalan business and the privileged position had now been lost to the United States.

A disproportionate number of the soldiers who had lost their lives were working-class Catalans. This had caused an outcry prior to the conflict from the parents and wives of the young men obliged to fight. Furthermore, middle-class parents were angry at having been forced to pay for their sons to avoid conscription. Relations with the state were at an all time low.

Catalonia's literary reaction to the Disaster of '98 was more immediate and damning than Madrid's. Poet Joan Maragall's epic Oda a Espanya is a harsh criticism of centralist Spain from start to finish. It condemns the regime's inability to listen to its people and its needless desire to spill blood. The poem finishes with one of the most powerful verses ever written in Catalan literature.

Where are you, Spain? I don't see you anywhere.
Can't  you hear my thundering voice?
Don't you understand this language - that speaks of danger?
Have you forgotten how to understand your children?
Goodbye, Spain!

Despite the strength of feeling, the Regeneracionista sector of the Spanish Conservative party briefly managed to attract members of the Catalan bourgeoisie with promises of greater decentralisation. The understanding was short lived. A sharp increase in taxes provoked a complete fiscal boycott by Catalan businesses. The rebellion, known as the Tancament de Caixes, further distanced the Catalan middle-classes from central government and played into the hands of conservative Catalanism.

In this atmosphere of continual tension with central Spain, two young Catalanist politicians, Enric Prat de la Riba and Francesc Cambó, of the Centre Nacional Català managed to convince older conservative members of the Unió Regionalista to collaborate in the formation of a new party, the Lliga Regionalista.

This newly-formed conservative Catalanist party had unexpected success in the general elections of 1901, sending 6 deputies to the Cortes in Madrid. The Lliga had broken the hegemony of the traditional Spanish centralist monarchist parties and political Catalanism looked like a viable alternative for the first time.

The success wasn't repeated in the 1903 elections. These elections saw the emergence of Alejandro Lerroux's violent populist pro-Spanish Partido Republicano Radical but, by now the Lliga Regionalista had carved out a position amongst conservative Catalans. It was a political force to be reckoned with. The Lliga had another sweeping success in the municipal elections of 1905, which unwittingly caused yet another rupture with central government.

Military Repression

The day after the elections, the satirical Catalanist magazine Cu-Cut! published a cartoon of the election celebrations called the Banquet de la Victoria. The cartoon contrasted the Lliga's victory with the Spanish defeat in Cuba in 1898 and ridiculed the army.

In response, the ever-restrained Spanish army sent 300 officers to smash up the magazine's headquarters, which was also where the Lliga Regionalista's official newspaper La Veu de Catalunya was published. Rather than punishing the army officers, the government arrested Catalanists and closed down the newspapers.

The Cu-Cut! affair provoked a rare moment of unity in Catalanism. Openly left-wing separatist groups joined with the conservatives of the Lliga Regionalista to form the coalition Solidaritat Catalana, which swept the board in the elections of 1907.

Now with broader and more radical support, Prat de la Riba, President of the Diputació de Barcelona, and Francesc Cambó, leader of the Catalanist deputies in Madrid, began lobbying central government for permission to combine the four Catalan provinces of Barcelona, Girona, Tarragona and Lleida into one. The resulting federation would be known as a Mancomunitat or Commonwealth.

Prat de la Riba and Cambó weren't requesting any extra powers. They were simply asking for the Catalan provinces to be allowed to work together and share resources in the name of efficiency. The symbolic meaning was to recreate Catalonia as an administrative entity.

The Catalan politicians also wanted to do away with the province system. This had broken up the traditional comarques and had always been seen as a foreign imposition since its introduction in 1833.

A Political Proposal

Central government opposed the idea as did the Conservatives, Lerrouxists and many sections of the Liberal party in Congress. After the five days of lootings and violence known as the Setmana Tràgica or Tragic Week that swept in Barcelona in 1909, opposition in Madrid was even more entrenched. However, the idea had taken root and the four presidents of the provincial Diputacions of Barcelona, Girona, Tarragona and Lleida drew up a formal proposal in 1911. Francesc Cambó was given the task of lobbying the Cortes in Madrid.

Keen to win Catalan favour, in 1912 the liberal prime minister Canalejas pushed a Bill of Mancomunidades through parliament. However, Canalejas was assassinated a week later and his substitute Romanones blocked the process. By now the idea had filtered down to Catalan society at large.

In early 1913, demonstrations were organised in the Catalan towns of Falset, Cornudella de Montsant and Santa Coloma de Queralt and the 1,073 Catalan Ajuntaments or town councils were surveyed on the support of the Law of Mancomunidades. With 1,016 Ajuntaments in favour, representing 96% of the Catalan population, the Lliga Regionalista organised a Catalan Assembly with representatives from all political parties. On October 27th the same year, a massive demonstration of 60,000 people took to the streets of Barcelona.

Three days later, Eduard Dato became Spanish President and the regionalist deputies Cambó, Abadal and Duran i Ventosa met with Governance Minister, José Sánchez Guerra. The Catalan deputies proposed that the bill should be passed in order to avoid a popular uprising. For once, the Madrid politicians listened.
Cambó and his colleagues drafted a formal bill that the Council of Ministers approved on December 18th 1913. The decree was finally passed on March 26th 1914.

The Commonwealth of Catalonia

The Bill of Mancomunidades actually allowed any Spanish province to group with its neighbours but the four Catalan provinces were the only ones to take advantage of the new law. The Catalans wanted to reconstitute the administrative structure of the old Corts Catalanes.
For many sectors, the Mancomunitat was a step closer to a possible future autonomy. Central government ceded no powers that were not already designated to the provinces so the Mancomunitat's significance is mainly symbolic. However, its modernising achievements were extremely important for the later political development of Catalonia.

The Mancomunitat was constituted on April 6th 1914 in a ceremony at the Palau de la Generalitat and Enric Prat de la Riba was unanimously elected as the first president. He obviously had the support of his own party, the Lliga Regionalista, but also that of the increasingly powerful left-wing Catalanist groups as well.

The symbolic importance of the Mancomunitat was reinforced by the date of its inauguration. 1914 was the 200th anniversary of the end of the Siege of Barcelona when Catalonia lost all its charters and constitutions and fell under the control of Castile and Madrid. As Prat de la Riba said in his inaugural speech, "The Mancomunitat closes a period that begins with the fall of Barcelona and the Nueva Planta Decree ... and starts another, which is tomorrow." He went on to say "Let there be no Ajuntament in Catalonia that doesn't have, apart from its police force, a school, a library, a telephone exchange and a highway."

Organisation of the Mancomunitat

Apart from the President, the Mancomunitat comprised a council of 8 members. In order to avoid dominance by Barcelona, two came from each province. Members of parties other than the Lliga Regionalista were encouraged to participate so the Mancomunitat had broad support. The ministries were Roads and Ports, Culture and Education, Agriculture and Forestry, Welfare and Health, Hydraulic Works and Railways, Telephones, Social Policy and the Treasury.

There was also a General Assembly of 96 deputies, 36 from Barcelona and 20 from each of the other three provinces, which was democratically elected every two years. Taking 1917 as an example of the broad political spectrum it represented, the Assembly consisted of 36 Dynastic Monarchists, 28 Lliga members, 6 Carlists, 2 Reformists and 1 Independent.

Prat de la Riba's presidency lasted from 1914 to his untimely death in 1917. The period was inspired by the modernising cultural movement known as Noucentism, literally 'nine-hundred-ism' after the new century. Prat de la Riba was no radical. In fact, he was a practising Catholic strongly in favour of authority, traditional family life, defending public property and law and order. He was a Catalan conservative, whose plans for modernisation were very much in line with what was happening in the rest of Europe. What distinguished him from Spanish conservatives was his belief in freedom for Catalonia and lack of faith in Spain's capacity to become modern and democratic.

Given the restrictions on its power, the modernising achievements of the Mancomunitat were extraordinary. During Prat de la Riba's short presidency there were improvements in ports, roads, dams, railways and telephone systems. A primitive welfare system was created based around charities and cultural organisations, which offered free schooling and health services. The Mancomunitat also took measures to improve agricultural and forestry production and invested heavily in adult education. By creating technological schools, the aim was to provide a qualified workforce for Catalan industry.

The Institut d'Estudis Catalans had been founded in 1907 but other important institutions were created during Prat de la Riba's tenure. The Biblioteca de Catalunya, the Escola de Bibliotecàries, the Escola Superior d'Agricultura, the Universitat Industrial and the Escola del Treball would play an important role in the modernisation of Catalonia. It was also during Prat de la Riba's presidency that Pompeu Fabra began the linguistic work that would turn Catalan into a modern scientific language with a fully regulated grammar and vocabulary.

After Prat de la Riba

Despite his reputation as one of the great Modernista and Noucentista architects, Josep Puig i Cadafalch, who replaced Prat de la Riba following his death in 1917, was more of a practitioner and didn't have the political charisma of his predecessor. The Puig i Cadafalch presidency from 1917 to 1923 was also plagued by problems of a more practical kind.

The early 20th century was a turbulent period for Catalonia in general and Barcelona in particular. The rise of anarchism and left-wing radicalism provoked the violent right-wing reaction known as Pistolerisme. The Catalan capitalist class was unwilling to recognise workers rights and political murders were common. The situation came to a head when a strike at La Canadenca power company brought Barcelona to a standstill for 44 days in March 1919. The stoppage evolved into a general strike across the whole of Catalonia.

Under the leadership of Puig i Cadafalch, the Lliga Regionalista was not up to the circumstances. As conservatives, the party gave support to the factory owners, which aligned it with the police and the Spanish Captain General of Catalonia. This placed the Lliga in direct opposition radical left-wing view of Catalanism that was beginning to form around the charismatic figure of future Catalan president Francesc Macià. The Lliga decided to enter into the right-wing Monarchist Spanish government of Eduardo Dato and when Francesc Cambó became a minister in Madrid, the party lost much of its credibility amongst the Catalanist left.

Cambó managed to present a project for a Catalan Statute of Autonomy into the Madrid Cortes in 1921 but the social tensions, strikes and violence in Barcelona continued unabated. So when the Captain General of Catalonia Miguel Primo de Rivera staged a military coup on September 13th 1923 and imposed military rule across Spain, many conservative Catalanists initially supported him.

Within days a royal decree banished the Catalan flag and language. Offences against the unity of Spain were placed under the jurisdiction of military courts. Catalanist organisations were dissolved, meetings were prohibited or monitored by Madrid's agents and political leaders were arrested on trivial pretexts. A royal decree also imposed a national Spanish syllabus on schools, with a ban on teaching any subject not included in it.

Primo de Rivera initially imposed his own anti-Catalan candidate, Alfonso Sala of the Unión Monárquica Nacional party, as President of the Mancomunitat. He soon realised that Catalanist leaders would never accept his policies and finally suppressed the Mancomunitat in March 1925. Catalonia entered into a dark period of dictatorship and Catalans were unable to express themselves freely once again.

Now Read Chapter Twenty of Catalonia Is Not Spain - The Catalan Republic under Macià and Companys

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