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National Deadlock. Hot Nationalism, Dual Identities and Catalan Independence (2008–2019)

Alejandro Quiroga
1,* and
Fernando Molina
School of History, Classics and Archaeology, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7RU, UK
Department of Contemporary History, University of the Basque Country, 48940 Leioa, BI, Spain
Authors to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Genealogy 2020, 4(1), 15;
Submission received: 16 December 2019 / Revised: 21 January 2020 / Accepted: 22 January 2020 / Published: 30 January 2020
(This article belongs to the Special Issue New Perspectives on Nationalism in Spain)


The article explores the transformations of Spanish and Catalan national identities and the growth of the pro-independence movement in Catalonia following the 2008 global recession. It argues that the Great Recession provided a new historical context of hot nationalism in which Catalanist narratives of loss and resistance began to ring true to large sectors of Catalan society, whereas the Spanish constitutionalist narratives seemed increasingly outdated. The article also shows the limits of the process of mass nationalization by both the Catalan and the Spanish governments and the eventual ‘crystallization’ of an identity and political divide between pro and anti-independence supporters which split Catalan society down the middle and led to a sort of national identity deadlock.

1. Introduction

In the evening of 10 October 2017, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont addressed the Parliament of Catalonia. The stakes could not have been much higher, as many expected Puigdemont to proclaim independence. Nine days earlier, Puigdemont’s government had organized an independence referendum, which the Spanish Constitutional Court had declared invalid. According to the Catalan authorities, almost 90% of the voters supported an independent Catalonia. The Spanish government dismissed the referendum and accused pro-independence leaders of subversion. In the Catalan parliament, Puigdemont told MPs that the 1 October referendum had proven that the “people’s will” was to break away from Madrid. For the Catalan President, the reasons for this desire for independence lay in history. Following the death of dictator Francisco Franco, Catalonia wanted to build a democratic and decentralized Spain, so it took a central role in the establishment of the 1978 constitutional system. Over the years, however, the Spanish governments’ persistent attacks on Catalonia and the implementation of “a programme of aggressive and systematic recentralization” had driven the Catalan people towards the “rational conclusion” that the creation of an independent state was the only way to save “our values as a society”. On top of this, Puigdemont explained, Spain “forcedly” took 16,000 million Euros from Catalonia on a yearly basis and repressed those Catalans advocating the right of self-determination. Although Puigdemont claimed that the 1 October referendum had given his government a mandate to create a sovereign republic, the Catalan president added that he would not immediately push ahead with independence from Spain. Puigdemont proposed “the suspension of the effects of the declaration of independence for a few weeks, to open a period of dialogue”. After all, Catalans had “nothing against Spain or the Spanish”.
President Puigdemont’s address to the Catalan Parliament epitomized the pro-independence narrative. This discourse presented Catalonia and Spain as two incompatible nations. The former was portrayed as democratic, freedom-loving and tolerant. The latter was often associated with authoritarianism, centralization and economic and political oppression. Fostered by politicians, journalists and academics, this account of the incompatibility between Catalonia and Spain grew to be dominant in Catalan society in the early 2010s. Nevertheless, as the pro-independence narrative of incompatibility become hegemonic in the public sphere, a majority of Catalans continued to express dual identities, showing affective ties to both Catalonia and Spain.1 Thus ‘mononational’ narratives coexisted with forms of dual identification (Catalan and Spanish). This led to a certain contradiction between how most Catalans experienced their dual identities and the dominance achieved by the pro-independence discourse in the public sphere. This article explores the construction of a hegemonic pro-independence discourse and the persistence of dual identities in the period 2008–2019.
The existence of dual identities can be partially explained by looking at the competing nationalization projects undertaken in Catalonia in the last four decades. Since the early 1980s, Catalan and Spanish regional governments promoted a number of opposing national narratives and nationalization policies. Additionally, conflicting nationalization processes took place outside the realm of government. Families, friends, sports clubs, cultural associations and some mass media have acted as alternative institutions to the official ones in a ‘bottom-up’ nationalization process.
Our analysis is supported by two theoretical propositions. The first is that of the three spheres of nationalization. According to this theory, the processes of nationalization take place in three interconnected spheres. The public sphere is where state and sub-state official institutions operate. The nationalizing agents that operate within the public sphere are the education system, the military and public services, such as the postal service, the legal system and transportation. Private collective institutions, including political parties, trade unions, cultural, religious and sports associations, social movements and non-governmental organizations act in the semi-public sphere. Finally, the private sphere is where individuals socialize with friends and family (Quiroga 2014).
Secondly, we understand national identity as a ‘narrative experience’, as a story that is told by individual and collective agents, in the above-mentioned spheres (Wodak et al. 2010, pp. 14–15; Archilés 2013). The narrative experience links the individual to the nation. This ultimately involves understanding the historical nature of nationalization processes. Put it in a different manner, national identities are historical products transformed according to changing nationalization contexts.
This article argues that Spanish identity gradually reduced its presence in the public and, to a lesser extent, semi-public spheres in twenty-first century Catalonia. This process was influenced by a series of historical factors, including the growing strength of the Catalanist narratives and the nationalizing weakness of the Spanish state. Both factors were to be exacerbated following the 2008 economic crisis. Within this framework, the growth of the pro-independence movement in the period 2008–2018 can be partially interpreted as the result of a successful mass nationalization process led by the Generalitat, the Catalan government. Still, this article shows the limits of vertical nationalizations as social engineering processes and highlights the importance of the historical context when determining the success of nationalist narratives. In this respect, this research shows that in ‘cold nationalism’ contexts dual identities thrived relatively unchallenged in Catalonia, whereas mononational identities increased their presence and influence in ‘hot nationalism’ milieus.2

2. Democracy and Nation Building in Catalonia (1980–2008)

In the period 1980–2008, the Catalan autonomous governments propelled a Catalanist-leaning nationalization of the masses. The governing conservative coalition Convergència i Unió (CiU) led the process of nationalization form above in the period from 1980 to 2003. Later, from 2003–2010, the progressive coalition government of Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya (PSC), Esquerra Rebublicana de Catalunya (ERC) and Iniciativa per Catalunya Verds- Esquerra Unida i Alternativa (IC-Verds) conducted the Catalanist nationalization process. This phenomenon of nationalization in pre-economic crisis Catalonia has been approached from several different angles. We have solid academic studies on the nationalizing role of the Catalan media, institutional collective memory and the so-called “linguistic normalization policies” in the educational system (Lo Cascio 2016; Hierro 2015; Garcia 2013; Castelló 2007; Lacalle 2007; Jones 2007; Clua i Fainé 2017; Molina 2018; Barrio and Barberà 2011). Overall, what this research shows is the Generalitat’s strength in its ability to nationalize the Catalan public and the weakness of the Spanish state in this particular process.
Underlying the Catalan governments’ policies of nationalization was a double narrative of resistance and loss. The ‘resistance’ story presented Catalonia as a region that had historically defied the centralising pressure of Spanish governments. This resistance narrative was complemented by a ‘story of loss’. Following this nationalist story line, the Catalan people had been historically deprived of their identity (symbolised in their language) and their freedom (through the loss of self-government in the 1641 Reapers’ War and, eventually, the 1701–1714 War of Succession). These ‘losses’ stimulated resistance throughout the centuries and fed the demands for the restoration of ‘historical rights’ during the transition to democracy in the late 1970s. The 1979 Statute of Autonomy reflected this narrative of ‘loss’ in its regulation of the Catalan language, which had to be ‘normalised’ (restored) and of its self-government as a ‘historical right’ that was being reinstated (restored). In this sense, Catalan nationalists’ narrative transformed historical ‘loss’ into a present day ‘debt’. Catalonia was imagined as a national collective that had been dispossessed for centuries, a community to whom Spain owed a debt that needed to be repaid. Devolution was thus presented as a historical pay-back where Spain was merely returning a portion of what it had once ‘stolen’ (Molina and Quiroga 2019).
Resistance and loss were complementary ideas that gave meaning to the big central plot of the national institutional narrative: dispossession. This narrative figure was at the core of the “national reconstruction” strategy deployed by Catalan governments, reflected in the institutional rhetoric of the “plundering of Catalonia” by the Spaniards (Alonso 2014, pp. 222–25). The narrative of dispossession was widely shared not only by conservative Catalan elites, but also by left-wing parties, from ERC to the Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya (PSUC) and the PSC. They all gave their support to the so-called “linguistic normalisation policy”, which symbolised an attempt to correct the damage inflicted by centuries of dispossession. They all carried out nationalization policies founded upon the same Catalan nationalist narratives (Miley 2007; Canal 2018, pp. 98–101).
For three decades conservative and progressive Catalan governments ran a series of nationalizing agencies in the shape of schools, public mass media, museums and art centres. In the period 1980–2007, the Generalitat’s institutions were strong enough to compete with those of the state in the public sphere and carried out an intense process to nationalize society. As shown in Table 1, dual identities remained the prevalent option, while exclusively Spanish identities fell significantly in this period.
The figures in Table 1 give us valuable information about top-down nationalization processes. Probably, the new powers in education devolved by the state to the Generalitat did have some influence on the increase in exclusive Catalan identities between 1980 and 2007. Still, the persistence of a majority of dual identities can be partly explained because a significant percentage of the population did not fully internalise the stories of loss and resistance fostered by the nationalizing agencies of the Catalan government. Surveys in the early 1990s showed that only 15% of Catalans had a correct understanding of the historical significance of 11 September 1714; while only 5% knew who Rafael Casanova was; and just 3% had extensive knowledge of the Reapers’ War. In 2001, less than 40% of Catalans considered that Catalonia was a nation (González Calleja 2005, p. 159; Martínez-Herrera and Miley 2010, p. 20).
In a way, some Catalans reacted against what they considered excessive ‘social engineering’ by the regional government. Survey data show an upturn in dual (Spanish and Catalan) identities since the mid-1980s, in what has been interpreted as a reaction by Spanish-speaking Catalans against what they considered to be aggressive education and language policies used by the Catalan government (Martínez-Herrera 2002, p. 443). Thus, the figures in Table 1 demonstrate the limits of the top-down nationalization processes and reinforce research showing that familial identities (particularly that of parents) and the neighbourhood (or the local space that individuals grow up in) are fundamental factors when determining their national ties and loyalties (Hierro 2015, p. 479; Aspachs et al. 2008, pp. 434–44).
Between 1980 and 2007, the private sphere had a significant nationalizing role and moderated the impact of national identity transmission processes in the public sphere. As a matter of fact, dual identities remained hegemonic throughout the entire period. In these years, support for Catalan independence remained between 10% and 15%, roughly the same percentages of Catalans with Catalan-only identities. Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, many Catalan youngsters and large sectors of the upper and upper-middle classes began to normalize a Catalan nationalist framework for the political and social interpretation of reality that turned the reference of Catalonia into a national community separate from (and alternative to) Spain (Bartomeus 2017; Burg 2015). Unsurprisingly, it was among these demographic and social sectors where the largest support for Catalan independence was to be found in the 2010s.

3. Nationalizations in Times of Economic Crisis (2008–2019)

The 2008 financial crisis transformed the national debate in Catalonia. Support for independence rose from 17.4% in November 2008 to 36.7% in November 2019, with a peak of secessionist fervour reaching 48.7% during the last months of 2013.3 How can this spectacular growth in the number of pro-independence citizens be explained? A change in national identity during recent decades has been put forward as a hypothesis. Luis Moreno has suggested that the sociological increase in voters who identify as exclusively Catalan in regular surveys carried out since the end of the last century has necessarily reinforced secessionist demands (Moreno 2014). Moreno compares figures from 1985, when just 9% of the population considered themselves to be only Catalan, to those in 2013, when the number had risen to 29%. Moreno deduces that the growth of an exclusive, mononational Catalan identity has had a direct impact in strengthening secessionism. This theory points to a successful nationalization by regional institutions in their effort to ‘make Catalans’. There is no doubt that the increasing support for independence is linked to the rise in Catalan only identities. Yet this premise does not give us the whole picture, as support for independence increased faster than the number of citizens with mononational Catalan identities during the 2010s. If we compare Table 2 and Table 3, we can see how the percentages of pro-independence citizens clearly surpass the percentages of those who only identify as Catalan. This means that many Catalans with a bi-national identity chose to support the project of an independent Catalonia. Political options, such as the intention of creating an independent state, are more volatile than national identities themselves.
Recent research has shown that the relationship between identity and support for secession changes according the spatial and social context in which individuals interact. The language and the ideas of the individual’s family and friends were key elements when it came to support secession. This was especially the case of dual-identity Catalans as they were particularly affected by their immediate surroundings. Thus, the probability to vote in favour of independence among dual-identity Catalans substantially grew when the percentage of people speaking Catalan in their family and friends’ milieus increased. Furthermore, citizens’ interaction in like-minded networks modified the relationship between identity and secession. Again, the disparity between national identification and support for independence was stronger among Catalans with dual identities. This group was six times more likely to vote for pro-independence parties when having only pro-secession close contacts, as compared to having none (Rodon and Guinjoan 2018). Diverse social and spatial contexts explain why some Catalans identified with Spain and still wanted an independent Catalonia.
Table 3 also shows that the rapid increase in the support for Catalonia’s independence is a phenomenon that took place after 2010. That year, support for the secessionist project was at 19%, rising to 46% in 2013. Such a rapid growth in secessionism over such a short period of time questions the monocausal interpretations that reduce the increase in pro-independence positions to a mere consequence of years of nationalizing policies by the regional Catalan government. This type of mono-linear reading, more political than academic, was defended, among others, by the Minister of Education and Culture of Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government, José Ignacio Wert, who blamed the rise of secessionism on ‘Catalanisation’ policies.4 However, this interpretation ignores that these same nationalizing policies had been in operation during three decades in which support for independence was always below 20%. When secessionism rose abruptly from 2010 onwards, it did so in all age groups and across the ideological spectrum.
The reasons behind the spectacular growth of secessionism can be found in the particular context created by the 2008 economic crisis. The stories of loss and resistance recited by the institutional nationalist narrative remained unchanged after 2008. The novelty was that the context of crisis favoured its ‘verifiability’ in the eyes of many Catalans, in particular as the financial crash created a situation of social alarm. ERC’s old slogan, Espanya ens roba (Spain robs us), became a common theme in the Catalan public debate after 2010. This leitmotif was brought back in 2010 itself, at the start of the economic crisis, by a small pro-independence electoral coalition, Solidaritat Catalana per la Independència and later used by the CiU government itself (Bolaño 2015, p. 84). The slogan not only offered an easy way out for a Catalanist political elite that was involved in many corruption cases and had helped exacerbate the effects of the crisis by implementing austerity policies, but it also provided a simple explanation for a very complex economic and social situation (Vidal-Folch 2013, pp. 139–41).
In the past, the idea that Spain was economically exploiting Catalonia was ignored by most Catalans. At the end of the day, Catalonia was one of Spain’s wealthiest autonomous communities. However, the economic crisis facilitated the connection between a taxation system that was portrayed as unfair and the problems derived from the crisis. As the CiU government (2010–2015) implemented a number of cuts on Catalan public services, president Artur Mas demanded the creation of an independent Catalan taxation system in 2012. The Spanish government rejected the proposal and the right-wing Catalanists decided then to join the pro-independence movement. According to CiU, it was time to break with a “subsidised Spain who lived out of productive Catalonia”.5 In 2013, the backing for secession by the Catalan government coincided with a 10-point growth of pro-independence support (Table 3).
In a context of economic crisis, the old Catalanist narrative of dispossession, fitted well with a renewed discourse of political oppression. In 2010, the Constitutional Court of Spain declared the new Catalan statute of autonomy to be partially unconstitutional and invalidated its consideration of Catalonia as a sovereign nation. The new Catalan statute of autonomy had been passed by the Catalan Parliament in September 2005 and by the Spanish Parliament in May 2006. In June 2006, the Catalan people approved the new statute in a referendum, but the Spanish conservative party, Partido Popular (PP) filed an objection of unconstitutionality before the Constitutional Court. The tribunal’s 2010 ruling was followed by large mobilisations, which brought thousands of citizens out on the streets behind the slogan ‘We are a nation. We decide’. The Constitutional Court’s verdict was interpreted by many Catalans as a setback for their aspirations of self-government and as the last episode in a long history of assaults on their identity (Burg 2015, pp. 290–93). As we can see in Table 3, 2010 was precisely the year when many Catalans started to consider independence as the only feasible political option.
For all the importance of the Constitutional Court’s ruling, the key to date and explain the secessionist process lies in the economic crisis, which led to a bailout of the Catalan financial system by the central government in August 2012 and gave new meaning to a discourse of lamentation about the historical and economic mistreatment of Catalonia. In the end, the crisis functioned as a ‘late’ context of opportunity for the secessionists. By late we mean that between the financial crash of 2008 and the massive celebration of the National Day of Catalonia on 11 September 2012 there was an initial phase in which the economic crisis seems poised to act as a driver for change through the so-called 15-M movement. In 2011, the 15-M anti-austerity movement rallied millions of protesters all over Spain against high unemployment rates, welfare cuts, global capitalism, the bailouts of banks and political corruption (Antentas 2015). In Catalonia, the 14 and 15 June 2011 popular protests in front of the Catalan Parliament were a turning point. The anti-austerity protesters heckled and shoved regional MPs as they entered the Catalan Parliament to vote on new cuts to public funding. The President of Catalonia, Artur Mas, had to access Parliament from a helicopter to avoid demonstrators. These massive protests against cuts to social expenditure lacked any national symbols and prioritised the social agenda over identity and equality over patriotic messages. Following the 15-M protests, Artur Mas’s regional government became increasingly radicalized in nationalist terms. In September 2012, Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya, the bigger partner in the CiU coalition positioned itself as the leader of the secessionist movement (Amat 2015; Barrio et al. 2018). By activating the pro-independence message, Artur Mas’s regional government sought to ‘vampirise’ the social unrest by using national identity as a counter-mobilisation tactic (Alonso 2015, p. 325).
The conversion of Convergència to secessionism was a textbook case of counter-programming through sublimation: social conflicts were distilled into ethereal, identity-related essences. This explains why, despite being extremely hard-hitting, the Catalan government’s neoliberal policies did not elicit the same social backlash as that experienced by other European governments (including the Spanish government), which also implemented considerable cuts to public services. Between 2012 and 2013, support for independence rose from 29% to 46% following Convergència secessionist turn. While in 2001, 40% of the population saw Catalonia as a nation, in 2017 this percentage rose to around 80% (Martínez-Herrera and Miley 2010, p. 20; Centre d’Estudis d’Opinió 2017).
The rise of the independence movement was not, however, a simple matter of mobilisation orchestrated from above on behalf of Artur Mas’s government. In fact, the secessionist mobilisation began years before Convergència’s ‘conversion’ to backing independence and was organised by associations within civil society. After the 2008 crisis, three forms of civil protest and disobedience centred around the independence mobilisation, which ended up converging with the demand for a referendum concerning self-determination. First, the consultations within several municipalities concerning independence put forth from 2009 with the motto “poll the people” made the desire of some sectors of Catalan society to create an independent State visible. In a complementary fashion, the campaign against paying highway tolls in 2012 added a touch of civil disobedience to the independence movement. Third, the electoral growth of Candidature d’Unitat Popular (CUP) demonstrated the promulgation of an anti-establishment nationalism seeking independence in open confrontation with the Spanish constitutional system. Finally, the growing work of the Assemblea Nacional Catalana, nonpartisan and transversal on the left-right ideological axis, served to carry out a very significant mobilisation within Catalan civil society that simultaneously worked to establish connections to link diverse strands of the independence movement (Casals 2013; Downling 2017).
The combination of action from above (institutions) and from below (civil society) in a context of crisis that conferred credibility to the narrative of “dispossession” generated a counter-mobilisation dynamic that favoured the passive assimilation of the pro-independence message printed in the local media, institutional policies and civil society. The accumulation of nationalizing instruments fostered the mobilisation of citizens with a strong sense of Catalan nationalist identity and demobilized Catalans with robust Spanish identities. The institutional control over the public discourse concerning identity and pro-independence social mobilisation managed to turn certain narratives about the Catalan nation into canonical accounts within broad sectors of the population. By 2012, this hegemony of the independence movement’s discourse had worked to shape a congruent reality that undermined the visibility of Spanish identities in the Catalan public sphere (Alonso 2016, vol III, pp. 655–86).
The Catalanist nationalizing process facilitated the de-politicisation of some Castilian-speaking collectives of immigrant origin in industrial areas. These groups were placed outside the so-called Catalanist consensus led by the native, urban and semi-urban middle classes, who were the electoral base of CiU and ERC and where much of the ruling elite of the PSC came from (Miley 2006; Garcia 2010; Herrera and Miley 2016, pp. 210–18). In the case of the PSC, although its sociological base was in working class neighbourhoods, its political strategy and discourse, established by its Catalanist-leaning elite, acted as an effective channel to integrate its voters within the Catalan nationalist consensus before the economic crisis of 2008 (Roller and Van Houten 2003). Public opinion surveys have shown the existence of a significant part of society that somehow felt left out of the political debate due to not identifying with Catalan nationalism. It is no coincidence that all surveys published by the Generalitat’s Centre d’Estudis de Opinió between 2014 and 2019 revealed linguistic and social inequality in citizens’ involvement in the pro-independence movement, as well as a strong correlation between income level and education, number of Catalan surnames and involvement in the separatist movement.6 In other words, Catalans with a high income and education and Catalan surnames tended to support secession, whereas poorer, less educated citizens with Castilian surnames were, in the main, against independence.
The rise of the Catalan pro-independence movement has to be understood within its European context. In the past decade, the so-called ‘nationalism of the rich’ has become a crucial political factor in some Western European countries, including, Belgium, Italy and the United Kingdom (Dalle Mulle 2019, pp. 11–14). This nationalism advocated the construction of a prosperous ethnic community that overcame deficiencies of the welfare state in the context of economic crisis. As a secessionist discourse, the nationalism of the rich promoted the existence of a virtuous national community founded on capitalist criteria of excellence in business entrepreneurship and work capacity. In order for the national reconstruction project to come to fruition, guaranteeing the happiness of the virtuous community and its capacity to generate a shared wealth, the nationalism of the rich insisted on the cultural sidelining of those social sectors that did not fit in its model of the nation. For Catalan nationalists, these groups that did not fit in with the myth of the entrepreneurial and working nation were largely lower-income workers and people of immigrant origin with a strong Spanish identity. In a context of austerity with severe cuts in social services and support from an important part of the Catalan middle and upper classes, this nationalism of the rich was articulated politically by ERC and, above all, by Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (Dalle Mulle 2019, pp. 35–39).

4. The Spanish National Identity Crisis

In the first years of the 2010s, there was an ongoing drift of Catalan national identities towards secessionist positions and a sidelining of Spanish national identities to the private sphere. This transformation of identities was partially the result of a gradual conversion of the public and semi-public spheres into ‘comfort zones’ for the expression of pro-independence sentiments. In a context of ‘hot nationalism’, everyday life was increasingly permeated by Catalan nationalism, which became the dominant force in politics, society and culture. From football stadiums to local festival parades, together with art exhibitions, folk fairs and institutional events, pro-independence symbols and expressions became increasingly recurrent in the public and semi-public spheres. This signified a profound change in Catalan nationalism. In the 1990s, different forms of ‘banal nationalism’ were generated by Catalan institutions, in competition with the ‘banal nationalism’ of the Spanish state. In a context of economic growth and political stability, Catalanism went thought a process of ‘cooling’ and dual identities remained strong (Crameri 2000). After 2008, in a context of austerity and challenges to the political system, institutional and civil society mobilisation created a new milieu of ‘hot nationalism’ where demands for independence rapidly expanded and dual identities slowly eroded.
Beginning in 2013, the Convergència governments led pro-independence demonstrations, together with traditionally secessionist parties such as ERC. These mobilisations were carried out with institutional initiatives from above that insisted on Catalonia’s right of self-determination and demanded referendum of independence. Adding to these pro-government mobilisations was the repeated occupation of public space by sectors of a new civil society that were clearly in favour of independence. This new civil society had a constant presence in the streets through repeated festive demonstrations in demand of self-determination and the display of independence flags hung from thousands of windows and balconies throughout Catalonia. Indispensably, the Assemblea Nacional de Catalunya and Omnium Cultural, two civil society organizations with close ties to the Generalitat, acted as a link between broad sectors of the Catalan citizenry and political elites to coordinate and channel the independence movement (Kubiaczyk 2018, pp. 247–48; Garcia 2016, pp. 241–44).
The hegemony acquired by the pro-independence movement in the public and semi-public spheres was accompanied by a displacement of Spanish identities to the private sphere. This displacement was closely related to the shortcomings in the building of a Spanish nationalism that could appeal to large sectors of Catalan society. The reinvention of Spanish national identity after the Franco dictatorship was conditioned by the mythification concerning the period of transition to democracy. The new democratic political culture turned the transition period into a sort of “zero hour” in the history of Spain (Archilés 2011, p. 254). Consequently, the period of transition to democracy that began with the death of the dictator in 1975 and closed with the 1978 Constitution was turned into “the Transition”, a master narrative that reconfigured itself as the founding myth of the nation. The myth was symbolized with two key concepts: political consensus and national reconciliation. These concepts that articulated a new language of understanding that emerged from the agreement between Francoist reformists and the anti-Franco opposition. The myth, furthermore, required a third underlying concept, that of amnesty, which for many also meant forgetting Franco’s crimes (Desfor Edles 1998, pp. 41–62).
The conversion of the “Transition” into “zero hour” blocked any tradition in which the new democratic nation could resort to as a model for a discursive formation. The Second Republic (1931–1936) could not serve as a reference because it was presented as partially responsible for the Civil War, following a twisted logic that distributed blame equally between democrats and Francoists. The new constitutional regime of the late 1970s was thus devoid of a “clear foundational myth” and, for this reason, its political architects improvised its mythification. Connotative figures such King Juan Carlos I and the 1978 Constitution were eventually converted into national symbols. Likewise, all of the events that defined the democratic process were exalted in the course of an epic narrative elaborated in the 1980s and 1990s. This epic narrative contrasted the success of the Transition with the failure of the Franco dictatorship and the Second Republic (Aguilar and Humlebaek 2002, pp. 144–52).
Consensus and reconciliation required forgetting of the recent past, the equation of executioners and their victims during the time of the dictatorship and a reversal of guilt not towards specific individuals, who were still alive and had a public presence, but towards the Spanish people characterized as unique and tragic. Forgetting the dictatorship and the national homogenization practices that it promoted meant ignoring the nation itself in whose name the violence had been practiced, in addition to denying existence of the Republican nation against which the Francoist terror had been directed. In some respects, this is why the reshaped Spanish nation lacked solid channels of explicit diffusion. Neither the political elites nor civil society were inclined to promote the new Spanish nation openly, perhaps with the exception of its banal side in the shape of sports, cinema, television and local fiestas (Archilés 2018, pp. 224–34). At a symbolic level, the Spanish national flag and anthem were not profoundly changed during the transition to democracy. As a result, both the Spanish flag and the national anthem retained strong Francoist connotations in the eyes of large sectors of the population (Moreno and Núñez 2018).
The mythologisation of the transition to democracy as a landmark in the Spanish nation’s memory started to be seriously questioned when the economic recession became a social and political crisis. In the early 2010s, PP and PSOE, the main political parties identified with the myth of the exemplary transition, saw themselves affected by numerous corruption cases (Rodríguez 2015). Political and social criticism of the 1978 Constitution thus contributed to the deterioration of the Spanish national imaginary. The Spanish Magna Charta went from being represented as a key element of democracy and modernity to being an empty legal text incapable of protecting the most vulnerable members of society, while condoned a political and economic class extensively involved in corrupt practices. During these years of economic crisis, the Spanish public and semi-public spheres witnessed how the two main foundational myths of the nation, the Transition and the 1978 Constitution, were questioned in films, theatre, literature, mass media and academic studies. (Kornetis 2014, pp. 86–91; Martínez 2012; Gustrán and Quiroga 2019).
The narrative of modernity and pro-Europeanism that characterised institutional Spanish nationalism in the 1990s and the early 2000s lacked meaning in a society on the brink of economic collapse and with a major loss of legitimacy of the main institutions (judiciary, political class, business class and the monarchy) due to the corruption scandals that emerged during the crisis. At the same time, the cuts implemented by an already weak Spanish welfare state affected its nationalizing dimension. As in other European countries, the provision of state welfare served a nation-building purpose, promoting solidarity across social classes as well as across territories in different countries (Dalle Mulle 2019, pp. 170–72; Lepsius 2004; McEwen 2002). Before the 2008 crisis, in Catalonia and in the rest of Spain, many citizens had an emotional attachment to a Spanish nation imagined as a solidarity community, with a powerful public healthcare, education and pensions system (Beramendi and Rivera 2017, pp. 23–24). The austerity policies implemented first by the PSOE and later by the PP were a frontal attack on that Spanish identity created via the welfare state (Ruiz et al. 2015). To put it another way, the imposition of neoliberal policies to tackle the economic crisis ended up seriously eroding a Spanish identity based on a concept of national solidarity created by the welfare state. The economic crisis encouraged an experience of sentimental abandonment of Spain among the working classes by gravely affecting the national narratives that gave them identity, channelled through the myth of the Transition and ideograms such as ‘Europe’ and ‘modernity’, and of the perception of the ‘imagined community’ through the policies of the welfare state.
In Catalonia the attack on the welfare state was twofold. First, the widespread cuts put forth by the central government had an erosion effect on Spanish identity, as in elsewhere in the country. Second, the extensive austerity measures imposed by the regional government in education, health, and social services were presented by President Artur Mas as the inevitable result of an unfair situation in which Catalonia gave the state more than it received. This justification of the cuts on behalf of the Catalan right fed the idea of Spain’s economic abuse of Catalonia and, with it, the growing discomfort in large sectors of the Catalan population. This perception of abuse was channelled by the old narrative of ‘dispossession’ and articulated through the myth of Catalans as working citizens that unproductive Spaniards take advantage of. The motto of one of CiU’s 2013 posters, “subsidized Spain lives off productive Catalonia”, sums up this idea perfectly. This narrative aimed to erode the idea of solidarity between Spaniards and Catalans, by presenting cuts in social spending not as a political decision of the central and regional governments, but as the result of the attack from one people, the sponger Spaniards, to another, the hard-working Catalans. As in the case of other places with dual identities, such as Belgium and Italy, in Catalonia the issue of fiscal balances and the dismantling of social services were reinterpreted as inter-territorial conflicts, leading to calls for ‘social closure’, with regard to welfare arrangements, around the national community (Dalle Mulle 2019, p. 172). Consequently, the austerity policies that CiU promoted, supported by ERC on numerous occasions, their narrative justification and the reporting of fiscal imbalances encouraged the growing mismatch between a majority dual national identity in recession and a minority, albeit rising, mononational identity in the early 2010s.
Despite the undeniable success of Catalanist narratives, the context of economic crisis also facilitated the growth of two political parties that articulated anti-separatist alternatives in Catalonia in diverse ways. Created in Barcelona in 2006, Ciudadanos positioned itself since its founding as the bulwark of ‘unionism’ in Catalonia. The party claimed Spanish national sovereignty and denounced what it considered to be a suffocating social environment created by Catalan nationalism. Although in its beginning the party enjoyed modest results, the rise of the independence movement and the crisis of the Spanish bipartisan model turned Ciudadanos into one of the main parties in Catalonia and Spain from 2015 onward. In the Catalan regional elections of September 2015, Ciudadanos became the second most powerful political force and went on to lead Spanish nationalism in Catalonia. In December 2017, Ciudadanos won the regional elections with 25% of the votes and became the largest party in the Parliament of Catalonia.7
While Ciudadanos defended clearly conservative postulates concerning social and economic matters, the rapid growth of the party in Catalonia can be explained in terms of its ability to capture votes to the left and right of the political spectrum. The party’s firm anti-Catalan nationalist discourse and their defence of the Spanish nation served to attract part of the traditional PP voters in Catalonia. At the same time, Ciudadanos was able to capitalize on part of PSC’s votes beginning in 2015, as some of the Socialists’ former followers felt abandoned by the party’s lukewarm response to the advancement of the independence movement (Senserrich 2018). In a panorama of political polarization, Ciudadanos knew how to project the party as the primary defender of unionism and politically mobilize sectors of Catalan society that identified fundamentally with Spain (Rodríguez Teruel and Barrio 2015).
The creation of Podemos in 2014 significantly altered the political arena in Spain and Catalonia. Founded at the Universidad Complutense in Madrid by a group of political scientists, the party asserted the legacy of the 15-M movement, demanded the end of austerity measures and defended a Spanish patriotism that extolled social and popular values (Iglesias 2015; Olloqui Redondo 2016). The party’s success was almost immediate. Podemos managed to win the Spanish general elections in Catalonia in 2015 and 2016 through their conciliatory discourse with respect to the claims for Catalan sovereignty. In relation to the Catalan independence movement, Podemos proposed a comprehensive reform of the 1978 Constitution, advocating for a new republican and multinational Spain that would keep Catalonia within its borders (Rodríguez Teruel et al. 2018; Pi 2016).
In Catalonia, Podemos ended up situating itself in the constellation of parties grouped together for the electoral coalition En Comú–Podem, which made up a large part of the left in opposition to the independence movement. The party in Catalonia defended a posture of “popular Catalanism” that recognized the national character of Catalonia and the right to call a referendum concerning independence as long as it was previously agreed upon with the State. This positioning with respect to the independence movement left En Comú–Podem in a sort of no man’s land where secession was not directly supported nor openly opposed (Domènech 2017). In a society that became increasingly polarized around the issue of independence, in a territory with a high degree of ‘hot nationalism’, the interest of En Comú–Podem to prioritize the social agenda over the national did not always reap benefits at the polls. In the November 2019 general elections, the coalition became the third force in Catalonia behind ERC and PSC.
As noted above, during the initial years of the 2010s, Catalanist identities became hegemonic in the public sphere. Still, the production and reproduction of Spanish identities in Catalonia did not disappear. They moved to the semi-public and private spheres. These processes of nationalization took place in spaces of leisure and informal sociability and were channelled by different mass media. A reflection of these nationalizations were the massive celebrations of the Spanish national football team’s victories during the 2010 World Cup and the 2008 and 2012 Euro Cups. In these contexts of patriotic celebrations, Catalonia witnessed a widespread display of Spanish flags (Quiroga 2013, pp. 152–53). Nevertheless, the absence of a uniform nationalist narrative and ritualised popular celebrations made the experience of ‘Spanishness’’ mostly a private matter, with sporadic public manifestations in Catalonia.
Furthermore, the fact that tabloid talk shows and magazines and trash TV in general were mostly in Castilian had a negative impact on the image of Spain in Catalonia. These types of programmes were active communication channels of a Spanish nation that was presented as lower class, Castilian-speaking and ignorant of the cultural and linguistic diversity of Spain. As in other autonomous regions, tabloid talk shows and trash TV were consumed massively in Catalonia and almost invariably produced by public and private media corporations from Madrid.8 Thus, in Catalonia this entertainment culture was associated with Spanish culture and with the Castilian-speaking, lower-class social groups which were supposed to consume it (Roman 2014). It is no accident that these Spanish speaking lower classes were the social groups least inclined to support the pro-independence movement (Miley and Garvía 2019). In June 2017, a survey of the Centre d’Estudis d’Opinió showed that only 29% of Catalans earning between 900 and 1200 Euros per month wanted an independent Catalonia, whereas support for secession reached 54% among those earning more than 4000 Euros per month (Llanera 2017).
Despite the pro-independence movement hegemonic position, in recent years the Catalan public sphere witnessed increasing demonstrations of Spanish identities. In 2014, Societat Civil Catalana was founded to promote “Catalan culture as an inseparable part of a common Spanish culture”.9 This association sought to mobilise those anti-secessionist sectors of Catalan society who until then had remained quiet on the issue. In this field, Societat Civil Catalana was fairly successful, as it organised massive demonstrations in defence of a “Catalonia integrated into a plural Spain” and the 1978 Constitution.10 Crucially, these rallies were backed by all non-secessionist parties, with the exception of En Comú–Podem. Ciudadanos, PP and, to a lesser extent, PSC also took part in the celebrations of the Fiesta Nacional de España (12 October) and Constitution Day (6 December), contributing to the active promotion of Spanish identities in the Catalan public sphere.
The symbolic war was waged in balconies and windows too, as thousands of Spanish flags were displayed in opposition to the exhibition of pro-independence emblems in homes all over Catalonia. The political confrontation in the public space increased in 2017 following the celebration of the 1 October referendum and the imprisonment of pro-independence leaders in November. Yellow ribbons were then displayed to demand the release of the prisoners in the facades of official institutions, squares, streets and private houses. Those in favour of the ongoing unity of Spain, in turn, removed them—in some cases in an organised and systematic manner (Kubiaczyk 2018, pp. 250–59). In this dispute over the symbolic control of public space, the Catalan police took legal action against some of the organised groups removing the ribbons, while both Ciudadanos and Societat Civil Catalana accused regional premier Quim Torra of repressing dissent.11
Notwithstanding the comeback of Spanish identities to the Catalan public sphere since 2014, the truth of the matter is that Catalanist identities still dominated the scene both in terms of symbols and popular mobilisation. Spanish nationalism in Catalonia was fundamentally rebuilt as a reaction to the secessionist movement, yet it lacked a strong epic narrative and was weakened by the unionist parties’ different perceptions of the Spanish nation. Unlike Convergència, ERC and CUP, who shared a number of myths and narratives about the Catalan nation, Podemos, PSC, Ciudadanos and PP have profoundly different concepts of the Spanish nation. Still, the domination of the Catalanist narratives, symbolism and mobilization was not accompanied by a similar supremacy in electoral terms. The pro-independence parties reached a bit less of 50% of the vote in the regional elections of September 2015. Two years later, amid the celebration of the 1 October 2017 independence referendum, Carles Puigdemont’s declaration of independence, the Spanish government suspension of Catalan autonomy and the imprisonment of Catalanist politicians, the pro-independence parties obtained very similar results (48% of the vote) in the December 2017 regional elections. In the 10 November 2019 Spanish general election, a month after pro-independence leaders were handed lengthy prison sentences by the Supreme Court and violence erupted in Barcelona for some days, secessionist parties took 43% of the vote in Catalonia.
In the period 2014–2019 Spanish identities found a renewed space in the Catalan public sphere and consolidated their representation in the Catalan Parliament. The creation of Societat Civil Catalana, the celebration of pro-unionist demonstrations, the public display of Spanish flags and the electoral success of Ciudadanos are instances of this revival. Interestingly, very few changes in terms of identities were to be registered in the period 2014–2019 (Table 2). Politically, backing for independence declined slightly, from 45% in 2014 to 37% in 2019 (Table 3); but pro-independence parties still got approximately 50% of the vote in the regional elections and a majority of MPs in the Catalan Parliament. For all the political turmoil, identities and political choices seem to have crystallized in the years 2014–2019.

5. Conclusions

Since the early 1980s, Catalan patriots promoted stories of loss and resistance, while Spanish nationalists fostered narratives of modernity and democracy. These patriotic narratives did not change over time, but to a large extent their impact depended on the historical context. Thus the idea that Spain was exploiting the Catalan people had a limited impact before the economic crisis, but this became much more powerful after the year 2008. Likewise, the Spanish national myths of the model transition to democracy and the exemplary 1978 Constitution were fairly successful until 2008, yet their resonance dramatically dropped to the changed political and social scenario produced by the economic crisis. The economic and subsequent political crises led to the emergence of a new context hot nationalism. Confrontation over the nation moved to the front of the political agenda.
Despite the profound political transformations in Catalonia and the surge in secessionism, it is worth noting that Catalans’ national identification did not change accordingly over the last decade. Dual identities remained the most widespread option, although exclusive identification with Catalonia increased moderately, yet tellingly, since the start of the economic crisis. This continuity shows us the limits of state and regional institutions in shaping the national identities of their citizens in the public sphere. The education system, the mass media controlled by the Spanish and the Catalan governments and public administrations were fundamental nationalizing institutions, though they were far from being perfect tools of social engineering. Still, the limits of the nationalizations from above were not an obstacle for a historic secessionist surge, which increased during the first years of the crisis far more than the drop in multinational identification (Catalan and Spanish) among Catalans. Many citizens identified with Spain but nonetheless advocated for an independent Catalonia. Catalans with dual identities were more incline to support independence if their first language was Catalan and their family and friends backed secession. Furthermore, support for secession was, generally speaking, greater among high-income earners. Ethnicity and social class pretty much determined Catalans’ backing for independence in the new context of hot nationalism.
In the first years of the rise of the pro-independence movement, 2008–2014, the there was a displacement of the spheres of public national affection to private spheres. The private sphere provided a space where dual identities could coexist with certain ease. Spanish identities, in particular, found a comfort zone of sorts within it. Informal nationalization processes related to football, popular music and television fostered affective ties linked to a sporting and folkloric Spain. However, these Spanish nationalization practices lacked a powerful narrative that could challenge that of Catalan nationalism. In addition, this displacement had a strong social class component, as the lowest social classes tended to identify with Spain more than the middle and upper classes.
The hegemonic position of the pro-independence movement was somehow challenged by Spanish nationalists in the period 2014–2018. The creation of unionist associations, the rise of anti-secessionist parties, the public display of Spanish symbols and the direct intervention of the central government were all part of a revival of Spanish nationalism in Catalonia. This nationalism presented itself as the champion of dual identities and criticised the Generalitat’s representation of Catalans as mononational individuals. For all its fragmentation and weaknesses, in recent years, the unionist camp gathered the support of roughly 50% of the Catalan population, as opposition to independence remained stable both in opinion polls and the ballot box. Following a period of rapid political changes and increasing support for independence, the situation in Catalonia reached a point of crystallization of national identities and opinions with regards to secession. The context of hot nationalism shaped by the economic and social crises ended up producing a national identity deadlock among Catalans.

Author Contributions

A.Q. and F.M. conceived the article, analysed the data and wrote the piece. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This research was funded by Research group IT-708-13 and MINECO HAR2017–83955-P research project.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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In 2015 Ciudadanos obtained 40 MPs in the Spanish general elections. In June 2016 the party led by Albert Rivera got 32 MPs and facilitated the PP-led minority government of Mariano Rajoy. The electoral fortunes of Ciudadanos dramatically changed Spain-wide in 2019. In the April 2019 Spanish elections Ciudadanos got 55 MPs their best result ever. Yet when Spaniards went back to the polls in November 2019 Ciudadanos dramatically dropped to 10 MPs.
Peris, “La nación española”, pp. 239–42.
Table 1. National identification in Catalonia 1983–2007. Percentage of answers.
Table 1. National identification in Catalonia 1983–2007. Percentage of answers.
Only Spanish16111813107
More Spanish than Catalan8968712
As Spanish as Catalan494635434338
More Catalan than Spanish192122232525
Only Catalan71015121415
Doesn’t know112-11
No answer122113
(Number of people asked)21012900100791135711500
Source: Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas. The percentages have been rounded off.
Table 2. National identification in Catalonia 2008–2019. Percentage of answers.
Table 2. National identification in Catalonia 2008–2019. Percentage of answers.
20082009201020112012201320142015201620172018 2019
Only Spanish447533564585
More Spanish than Catalan444423555485
As Spanish as Catalan424445434235313935354138
More Catalan than Spanish282725272828262224221821
Only Catalan191817192129292529292226
Doesn’t know111112111313
No answer221121233233
Source: Baròmetre d’Opinió Política. Centre d’Estudis d’Opinió. The percentages have been rounded off.
Table 3. Preferences with respect to the relationship between Catalonia and Spain 2007–2019. Percentage of answers.
Table 3. Preferences with respect to the relationship between Catalonia and Spain 2007–2019. Percentage of answers.
Independent state15182119252946453942404337
Federal state inside Spain35333530323122202621221922
Autonomous community37393538332821232427272628
Doesn’t know5434455756536
No answer2122121221122
Source: Baròmetre d’Opinió Política. Centre d’Estudis d’Opinió. The percentages have been rounded off.

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Quiroga, A.; Molina, F. National Deadlock. Hot Nationalism, Dual Identities and Catalan Independence (2008–2019). Genealogy 2020, 4, 15.

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Quiroga A, Molina F. National Deadlock. Hot Nationalism, Dual Identities and Catalan Independence (2008–2019). Genealogy. 2020; 4(1):15.

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Quiroga, Alejandro, and Fernando Molina. 2020. "National Deadlock. Hot Nationalism, Dual Identities and Catalan Independence (2008–2019)" Genealogy 4, no. 1: 15.

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