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The Spectres Haunting Europe: Reading Contemporary Catalan Nationalism through The Break-Up of Britain

  • Jerry White (a1)


This article reads contemporary Catalan nationalist discourse through the lens of Tom Nairn’s polemical classic The Break-Up of Britain. First published in 1977, that text presents key issues for understanding contemporary Catalonia. The first is the emergence of a national sentiment that is separate from that of anti-colonialism because it is characterized by a higher level of economic development than the place it is seeking to break from, but is the repository of a legitimate claim to self-determination. That is how Nairn sees the Northern Ireland–Éire relationship, and that is a good analogy for Spain–Catalonia. The second is the tension between what he sees as ‘indifferent’, that is to say strictly civic-political nationalism and a more linguistically or culturally-driven nationalism. This is also a key tension in Catalonia, where immigration has transformed the national movement towards an interculturalist ideology and a de facto bilingualism (with Catalan and Spanish) remains a key but strategically unacknowledged element of that movement. The third aspect of Break-Up, and the synthesis of the comparison, is the importance of federalism, which is key for Nairn in seeing a way forward for the constituent countries of the UK and long a crucial, if not the crucial, political element of catalanisme.



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1. Nairn, T. ([1977] 2015) The Break-up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-nationalism (Champaign, IL: Common Ground Publishing), p. 346. Throughout this paper I am using the 2015 edition issued by Common Ground Publishing; it reproduces the 1981 edition more or less wholesale, including typos. That 1981 reissue itself added very little to the original 1977 version, except for this postscript. For an early version of some of the key arguments, see T. Nairn (1968) The three dreams of Scottish nationalism. New Left Review (first series), 49 (May–June), pp. 3–18.
2. Prat de la Riba, E. ([1906] 1998) La nacionalidad catalana / La nacionalitat catalana, edited by J. Tusell (Madrid: Biblioteca nueva), This is taken from Biblioteca Nueva’s 1998 bilingual Spanish/Catalan edition, whose Catalan version is simply a facsimile of F. Giró’s 1910 reprint of Prat de la Riba’s 1906 original. That reprint was produced by subscription.
3.In 2006, a new Statute of Autonomy for Catalonia (Estatut d’Autonomia de Catalunya) was approved by a popular referendum and by both the Catalan and Spanish parliaments. It was almost immediately referred to the Tribunal Constitucional, who took four years to rule on its constitutionality. The interpretation that finally emerged changed significant aspects, especially those that pertained to Catalonia’s status as a ‘nation’ and to the powers over language and cultural legislation that would logically follow from such a status. Relevant documents, including the full text of the Statute as well as the Tribunal Constitucional’s ruling, can be found at or
4.The term ‘Ulster’ tends to carry polemical weight in these discussions; its use to describe the part of the island of Ireland that remains part of the UK generally indicates that one is on the Unionist side of the debate (that is to say, the side that believes that the United Kingdom should continue to be defined by the union of Northern Ireland with the rest of Great Britain). Use of the terms ‘the North of Ireland’ or ‘the Six Counties’ tends to indicate that one is on the Republican or Nationalist side (that is to say, the side that favours Northern Ireland uniting with Éire to form an all-island Republic of Ireland). ‘Northern Ireland’ is generally taken to be the politically neutral term, if for no other reason than this is the official name of the territory. Use of ‘Ulster’ in this context is also, geographically speaking, simply inaccurate. Ulster is one of the four provinces of the island of Ireland; it is made up of nine counties in total. Of these, three are in the Republic of Ireland: Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan. The fact that ‘Ulster’ continues to be used by major media outlets, including the BBC, as a synonym for ‘Northern Ireland’, has promoted widespread confusion on this matter.
5. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (2008) Higher Education in Regional and City Development: Catalonia, Spain (Paris: OECD Publishing), p. 2.
6.An OECD report on the region published two years later, in 2010, also stated that ‘Catalonia is larger than many OECD countries in terms of population, surface and economy. With 7.5 million inhabitants, its population is similar to that of Switzerland. Catalonia covers an area of over 32,000 km2 and has a surface area similar to Belgium. With a GDP of approximately EUR 200 billion, its economy is as large as Norway’ (Ref. 36, p. 40).
7. Balcells, A. (2004) Breve historia del nacionalismo catalán (Madrid: Alianza Editorial).
8. Loughlin, J. (2011) British and French nationalisms facing the challenges of European integration and globalization. In: A.-G. Gagnon, A. Lecours and G. Nootens (Ed.), Contemporary Majority Nationalism (Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press), p. 132.
10. Serrano, I. and Bonillo, A. (2016) Boundary shifts and vote alignment in Catalonia. Ethnicities, 17(3), p. 385.
11.For all intents and purposes, all Catalan speakers are bilingual with Spanish; the 2013 census states that 99.7% of Catalans report being able to speak Spanish; for Catalan the figure is 80.4%. The complete breakdown can be found at or Most linguists agree that all Irish speakers of at least school age are bilingual, as indicated by the fact that the Irish census has no means to indicate that someone is a monolingual Irish speaker.
12. Tribunal Constitucional (2010) Interpuesto por noventa y nueve Diputados del Grupo Parlamentario Popular del Congreso en relación con diversos preceptos de la Ley Orgánica 6/2006, de 19 de julio, de reforma del Estatuto de Autonomía de Cataluña. Sentencia 31/2010, 28 June, p. 11.
13. Grup d’experts per encàrrec MHP (2010) Informe sobre la sentència del Tribunal Constitucional sobre l’EAC (Barcelona: Generalitat de Catalunya).
14.The 2016 Canadian census reports that 49.9% of the population of Quebec reports ‘French only’ for command of official languages. The complete breakdown is at or
15. Vidal, P. (2015) El bilingüisme mata: del canvi climàtic al canvi idiomàtic (Barcelona: Portic), p. 166.
16. Vallverdu, F. (1970) Dues llengües, dues funcions? (Barcelona: Edicions 62).
17. Zapata-Barrero, R. (2009) Building a public philosophy of immigration in Catalonia: the terms of debate. In: R. Zapata-Barrero (Ed.), Immigration and Self-government of Minority Nations (Brussels: Peter Lang), p. 129.
18.The term ‘nationality’ is a loaded one in Catalonia. The Spanish constitution of 1978 affirms the unity of the Spanish state in Section 2, but also clarifies that that it ‘recognises and guarantees the right to self-government of the nationalities and regions of which it is composed and the solidarity among them all.’ This tension between ‘nation’ and ‘nationality’ was also at the heart of the 2010 Tribunal ruling on the 2006 Statue of Autonomy, which stated that ‘From the perspective of the Constitution, Catalonia is not a nation in the sense that Spain is, but rather a nationality with a right to autonomy’ (Ref. 12, p. 23). Carles Viver Pi-Sunyer and Mireia Grau Creus have remarked that the Generalitat continues this fight, though: ‘Despite the fact that the Spanish Constitution uses the word “nation” to refer to Spain itself, and only admits to the possible existence of “nationalities,” the Parliament of Catalonia has proclaimed openly and freely that Catalonia is a nation, and has used the adjective “national” in numerous statutes concerning a wide range of realities’ (Ref. 37, p. 27).
19. Dorel-Ferré, G. (2011) Nations d’Europe: Le cas de la Catalogne. L’Action nationale, 101(6–7), pp. 199200.
20. Zapata-Barrero, R. (2005) Immigració i govern en nacions minoritàries: Flandes, el Quebec i Catalunya en perspectiva (Barcelona: Universitat Pompeu Fabra / Fundació Trias Fargas), p. 88.
21. Boffey, D. (2017) Don’t make dialogue impossible, Donald Tusk tells Carles Puigdemont. Guardian, 10 October.
22. European Commission (2017) Statement on the events in Catalonia. 2 October. Available at or
23. Fennell, D. (1995) Solutions to the northern problem: a federal Ireland and other approaches. Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, 21(1), pp. 124.
24. Fennell, D. (1974) Organising the British Isles – 1: a new look at federation. Irish Times, 23 March, p. 8.
25. Fennell, D. (1974) Organising the British Isles – 2: The Federation of Man. Irish Times, 25, March, p. 8.
26. Gagnon, A.-G. (2008) La Raison du plus fort. Plaidoyer pour le fédéralisme multinational (Montreal: Québec-Amérique), p. 20.
27. Costa, L. (2013) Cuba i el catalanisme: Entre l’autonomia i la independència (Barcelona: Rafael Dalmau).
28. Rovira i Virgili, A. ([1917] 1982) Nacionalisme i Federalisme (Barcelona: Edicions 62), p. 196.
29. Requejo Coll, F. (2009) Les ombres de la Il·lustració. Refinant el pluralisme a les democràcies del segle XXI. In: F. Requejo-Coll and M. Caminal (Eds), Liberalisme polític i democràcies plurinacionals (Barcelona: Institut d’Estudis Autonòmics), pp. 2358.
30. Requejo Coll, F. (2011) Reconnaissance Politique et Autonomie Nationale (1979-2010). L’Action nationale, 101(6-7), pp. 143167.
31. Requejo Coll, F. (2015) Secession and liberal democracy: the Catalan case. Oxpol: The Oxford University Politics Blog, 17 March. Available at or
32.Partido Socialista Obrero Español (2017) Un nuevo pacto territorial para una sociedad plural. Available at or
33. Moreno, L. and Colino, C. (2010) Kingdom of Spain. In: L. Moreno and C. Colino (Eds), A Global Dialogue on Federalism Volume 7: Diversity and Unity in Federal Countries (Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press), pp. 288319.
34. Moreno, L. (2001) The Federalization of Spain (London: Frank Cass).
35. See, for instance, Pierre Fougeyrollas, whose 1968 Pour une France fédérale. Vers l’unité européenne par la révolution régionale are close to Desmond Fennell’s proposals for a federal Ireland: see P. Fougeyrollas (1968) Pour une France fédérale. Vers l’unité européenne par la révolution régionale (Paris: Éditions Denoël). The more direct influence on Fennell’s proposals was Yann Fouéré’s 1968 book L’Europe aux cent drapeaux (Paris: Presses de l’Europe), published in 1980 as Towards a Federal Europe: Nations or States? (Swansea: Christopher Davies). Fennell mentions Fouéré (a Breton nationalist who went into exile in Ireland after being accused of collaboration during the Second World War) many times in his writing, especially in his (1985) book Beyond Nationalism: The Struggle Against Provinciality in the Modern World (Dublin: Ward River). Fouéré’s schema, though, is more explicitly ethnic in basis; one section of his chapter ‘L’Europe des régions’ is titled ‘Vers des régions-Etats monoethniques’.
36. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (2010) Higher Education in Regional and City Development: Catalonia, Spain (Paris: OECD Publishing.
37. Pi-Sunyer, C.V. and Creus, M.G. (2016) The Catalan Parliament’s contribution to the consolidation and development of self-government and the defence of Catalonia’s national identity. In: G. Laforest and A. Lecours (Ed.), The Parliaments of Autonomous Nations (Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press), pp. 1033.


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