In September 2013 I travelled to Barcelona for a long weekend. Staying in the Hotel Continental on Las Ramblas, the very place that Orwell penned Homage to Catalonia, I hardly slept instead sitting on the balcony for most of the night watching everything that went on below me. The speed at which the street traders switched from selling sunglasses to umbrellas was fascinating as was where they stashed their wares and the “International Street Dancers” quickly drew large crowds yet sidled away unnoticed when the ﬁrst look out spotted a policeman. The weekend before Independence Day, Placa de Catalunya had stalls similar to our own street campaigning for Yes; the only bizarre diﬀerence was hearing people singing the praises of the wonderful David Cameron! The perception that he was “allowing” Scotland to hold a Referendum was strange and something that I did not appreciate the sentiment of until very recently. Unfortunately due to heavy rain, the candlelight vigil was called oﬀ but we met a woman who insisted we took her Independencia wristbands and pleaded with us to remember them when we cast our votes.
In the run up to Catalunya’s own Referendum, I watched with increasing despair as the news reports began to come in of political arrests, threats of police force disbandment and ballot conﬁscations; this was not something that you could credibly accept happening in a modern European city. Yet I still believed that all would be well; this was just the Spanish government trying to exert its fading control before all was lost – the Referendum would take place and Catalunya would awake to a new beginning. I honestly could not comprehend that a country such as Spain could do otherwise.
It was with complete horror that I watched the unfolding events on Sunday 1 October. From ﬁrst thing in the morning, the pictures and tweets started to emerge of riot police attempting to close polling stations. Sickening images of people forcibly being thrown several feet, women getting pulled by the hair and a truly horrifying video of a policeman intentionally jumping down several steps to land on a voter left me reeling. More details emerged of oﬃcers clad in riot gear beating protestors and ﬁnally, the use of rubber bullets to disperse the crowds – not the tiny pellets I had always imagined but large balls similar in size to tennis balls.
Most television channels portrayed factually what was happening yet the BBC barely mentioned the events during the day and, by evening, had practically turned events on their head showing images of the Guardia Civil being escorted out of one village by its inhabitants with the impression that this had been the case all day all over Catalunya and the perpetrators were in fact the victims. As Spanish politicians spoke of proportionate response and denied having seen any of the events of the day that had been broadcast around the world before denying that even the Referendum had taken place, you wondered why? Why not just stand up and be counted for what you had felt needed to be done, take responsibility for the orders given and answer for your actions; that would have been the true substance of a leader.
As the day went in, and the forecast result looked more and more promising, coupled with the events of the day, the rumours started about a forthcoming announcement of a Unilateral Declaration of Independence. Could we dare hope that despite all that had been attempted over the years to deny the people their voice, they would achieve, against all odds, what we dreamed oﬀ? As the result of a 90% SI result broke and Catalan President Carles Puigdemont made his request to parliament for the result to be respected and independence initiated, the sadness and despair felt moved towards relief and hope although still tinged with sorrow and shock. Can you imagine if this had happened here? It seems too far fetched to ever happen yet it did in a country that is supposed to the same as us.
We place such importance on how it is both your duty and privilege to be able to vote yet here we saw brutality and despotism towards those who attempted to undertake their responsibility. Nicola Sturgeon was the only politician who appeared to speak out strongly about the unfolding events and it was no surprise to see the statement from Westminster siding with the Spanish government. As the EU also denounce the legality of the Referendum and imminent strikes are forecast, we await the developments to come and pray for a peaceful process.
Governments and institutions around the world might try to pretend that this day in October 2017 never took place but it did and the coming days will prove this forever. There will be no common ground to be found now, the relationship between the two will never recover But a new, forward looking state will ﬂourish and thrive with people searching for a better future for all. To our Catalunyan friend, we did not and will not forget you and thank you and your fellow countrymen for having the courage to ﬁght for what you knew was right unlike us who got it handed to us on a plate yet balked at the last minute. Nearly 80 years on, Orwell’s words are as poignant today as they ever were when he wrote Homage to Catalonia in 1938; “There are occasions when it pays better to ﬁght and be beaten than not to ﬁght at all.”