The fervour of Spanish politics makes our Kiwi concerns look trivial

by Bill Ralston / 26 September, 2018
Supporters of Catalonian independence in Barcelona on September 11, 2018. Photo/Getty Images

Supporters of Catalan independence in Barcelona on September 11, 2018. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Spanish catalonia politics independence

From Bill Ralston's perspective in Barcelona, where part of the population is vying for Catalan independence, NZ politics looks a little petty. 

We arrived in Barcelona and a million flag-waving locals turned out to greet us. Well, actually, the crowd was waving the yellow and red striped flag of Catalan independence; they blocked the streets and choked the city square where our tiny hotel, Catalunya, was situated and seemed somewhat irate that their bid for full autonomy last year had been blocked.

Like much of Spain’s politics, the people of Catalonia are roughly equally split over full independence as opposed to being an autonomous state within the country. The Catalans are a distinct national group with their own language and customs who were brutally suppressed by General Franco after the civil war and only gradually re-emerged at about the time democracy did.

The problem is that their capital, Barcelona, is a thriving industrial town that in recent times has attracted workers from all over the country who have diluted the spirit of Catalan nationalism. In a 2017 referendum on independence, 90% of voters were in support but the turnout was only 43%. Anti-independence parties had called for a boycott of the vote and the Government in Madrid declared the ballot illegal, sent in police from all over the country, seized political control of the region and arrested several independence-movement leaders, who are still in prison.

Not a happy state of affairs but, it seems to me, very Spanish. The day after the demonstration that greeted us, Barcelona had returned to normal. The city’s occupants were drinking wine, eating tapas and flocking to the shops in Plaça Catalunya.

A few days later, in the French city of  Perpignan, just over the Spanish border, I was surprised to see the Catalan flag on a store below our Airbnb. It was a shop selling memorabilia of USA Perpignan, the local rugby team, in which Kiwi players are habitually a part.

We were there for a wedding; the Kiwi groom was a former Perpignan player. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the locals burst into a stirring renditon of the anthem of the Perpignan rugby team that, historically, was also a call to arms for the Catalan cause. They take politics seriously here; the passion and pride almost have a spiritual fervour.

Here, on the other side of the world, I logged into my largely New Zealand Twitter feed and found myself reading about Winston Peters and dysfunction junction, whatever that is. Petty squabbles over trivia, I concluded, and quickly logged out.

I did not vote Labour at the last election but it seems to me that New Zealand has not seriously faltered, aside from a couple of ministers being sidelined due to their own inadequacies. Yes, the Labour-led Government does not seem to have the same smooth efficiency as the last National-led one, although I note that apparently to spare Peters’ easily injured feelings we must refer to it as the Labour/New Zealand First coalition Government.

This, of course, must be terribly hurtful to the Green Party, which is crucial to the coalition’s stability. To be fair, we should be calling it the Labour/NZ First/Green coalition Government, but that does seem just a tad cumbersome.

Forgive me if I say, from my Perpignan perspective, I do find it all a little petty. Perhaps, in a year or two (or three), after the coalition’s 150 or so working parties and inquiries report back with some potential policies, I might become roused to seriously object to something.

This article was first published in the September 29, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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