About a week ago, I was sat having a beer outside a bar in a well-heeled street across from Madrid’s Retiro Park.
At the table next me were three Spaniards, two women, and one man, all of whom were probably around retirement age and had an air of not being too economically troubled.
They were discussing Catalonia within the wider context of the general elections coming up on Sunday, 28 April.
“I don’t know, I think Pedro Sánchez isn’t that bad, he’s good-looking!” one woman said, addressing the man, who I believe was the partner of the other woman.
“He’s a son of a bitch traitor,” came the retort.
“Well you’re not telling me you’re voting for Vox, are you?” the woman asked.
“No, but who can I vote for?”
“I suppose we need some sort of a dialogue with the Catalans, this thing goes back years – whether or not they want to be in Spain – maybe just let them decide,” she said.
Through a screen of smoke billowing up from a graveyard of Marlboro butts in the ashtray that made for the centerpiece of their table, even I could see she was not exactly enrapturing her audience.
“Don’t fuck yourself like that, seriously, don’t fall for their fucking trap, they’re a bunch of bastards, Catalonia is Spain,” he said, voice rising to the point where things were becoming a bit socially awkward.
His partner, the source of most of the smoke, chipped in, trying to lighten the mood.
“Anything other than politics?” she chuckled.
They moved the conversation on, so I stopped listening.
It’s a touchy subject. I sometimes find myself tip-toeing around it in conversations at work or with people I’ve just met for the first time.
Outside of Spain, the reaction to seeing Catalan separatist leaders go on trial to face hefty charges, including rebellion, in a process broadcast live on TV in lieu of having international observers, has been one of muted indifference – whether that is tongue-holding or otherwise – or of cautious condemnation.
As an outsider in Madrid, admittedly one who openly feels uneasy watching the trial at work day-in, day-out, it can be hard to find common ground on the subject, even with people who share most of your political convictions.
“They broke the law, what do you expect? You have to uphold the law or else it’s meaningless,” is a frequent go-to.
Push too hard on the topic and someone might kindly remind you that it is not really your issue to worry about anyway, all the while drawing comparisons with Scotland’s own independence push.
They are right in a way. It is a very Spanish issue. In fact, it has consumed the nation.
The debate is often vitriolic, not only among friends outside bars near the leafy Retiro Park but also at the highest political levels.
Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera, Madrid. Photo: Jake Threadgould
In February, I went to cover the pro-Spanish unity rally in Madrid’s Plaza de Colon (nothing to do with bowels, it means Columbus Square).
It starred Pablo Casado, leader of the right-wing Popular Party, Albert Rivera, leader of the center-right Citizens (Cs) party, and featured Santiago Abascal, the frontman of Vox, the far-right group whose heady rise can largely be attributed to the Catalan independence bid.
The demonstration was called to pressure the prime minister, the aforementioned “good-looking” Sánchez, leader of the Socialist Party (PSOE), into slating early elections – which he did a few days later – but it also acted as a preach-to-the-choir moment of it’s ok to be proud of your flag.
A compère standing by the huge monument at the back of the square kicked things off with: “Let me see your flags held high, I want to see them.”
And so the flags were hoisted high, red and yellow atop a crowd gathered under the largest Spanish flag in the world.
“Yo soy español, español, español, español” rippled through the audience.
Other people held up signs saying “coup-plotters to prison,” in reference to the Catalan separatist leaders, and “Sánchez = traitor.”
The events in Catalonia back in October 2017 rocked the whole of Spain and, as if prodding a sleeping dragon, revitalized a latent nationalism that blossomed in Madrid’s streets in the form of Spanish flags, which emerged by the thousands on the city’s balconies.
The response from the Spanish right has been reactionary and based heavily on legal arguments drawing from the 1978 Constitution which, as the date suggests, was drawn up as the country transitioned into democracy after Franco’s death.
For many on the Spanish left, such overt displays of nationalism still reek of Franco.
Many people gathered at Plaza de Colon back in February, however, felt their identity was under threat. As if those in Catalonia wanting to tear away from the rest of Spain were forcibly stealing something that did not belong to them.
But that fear often manifests itself as loathing.
“Golpistas,” loosely coup-plotters or putschists, has become a well-accepted epithet for Catalan separatists among those on the Spanish right-wing.
Traitor is a heavy word so lightly thrown.
And yet, standing in the crowd that day under a small sea of Spanish flags, the impression I got was not one of national triumphalism over a political class seeking to breakaway or unilaterally alter the definition of what it is to be Spain, or Spanish, but rather a sense of fragility.
The possessiveness is such that removing Catalonia from Spain would be akin to yanking a block from an already leaning Jenga tower.
In this instance, we cannot forget that Spain’s modern democracy is only as old as the movie Grease.
Spain’s right-wing politicians, backed by favorable coverage in a number of widely-read dailies, have instilled this fear and hatred and have tried to capitalize on it.
The PP, Cs and Vox have therefore positioned themselves as the defenders and saviors of Spain’s geopolitical integrity all the while claiming that the PSOE would allow for it to be destroyed.
However, when the time came for the politicians to address the crowd on the day of the rally, both Casado and Rivera insisted that they could not share a stage with Abascal.
They instead gave short addresses to the press just off to the side of the main stage.
Abascal’s presence loomed in his absence.
Pushing through the crowd to the press pit, I saw a visibly excited woman on her phone.
“I just saw Santi (Abascal), honestly, yeah, he just walked by the stage, yeah I saw him!”
Leader of the Popular Party, Pablo Casado, Madrid. Photo: Jake Threadgould
“Well you’re not telling me you’re voting for Vox, are you?”
Free from any sort of track record in government and proudly spurning political correctness, Vox looks set to become the first far-right party to enter the national Parliament since the end of the Franco’s fascist military dictatorship with his death in 1975.
Vox proposes a simple solution to the Catalan issue – end all autonomy across Spanish regions and centralize powers in Madrid.
Ironically, this would be unconstitutional, but it is the kind of constitutional change Vox supporters would not mind.
Although careful to keep a distance from imagery harking back to Franco, Vox shares some overlapping rhetoric, with its ideas of a grand nation united under one flag, its push to rid the country of “illegal immigrants,” to downgrade LGBT rights and neutralize feminism.
Abascal also sees himself as the Christian defender against the “Islamification” of Spain and even posed for a photo dressed as a reconquistador, although the helmet he wore was actually from the wrong century.
Like Salvini, he has harnessed social media to amplify his message and play the victim of a wider conspiracy against his party, pushing the idea that his supporters are unfairly shamed or made to feel scared to openly admit they support Vox.
All this not only plays well in the minds of those who feel nostalgic for Franco’s regime but also, and perhaps more importantly, it chimes well with traditional PP voters looking to jump what appears to be a sinking ship.
Whether or not they agree with Abascal’s other policies, they certainly feel at home with his hawkish position on Catalonia.
Casado knows this and has left the door ajar to the possibility of collaborating with Abascal in the future – like the PP did when Vox broke onto the scene taking 12 seats in the Andalusian chamber last year.
Spain’s public research body CIS has tipped the party to take around 11% of the national vote on Sunday but – and this is where this article becomes pretty bloody subjective – based on conversations I have had with people whose ears are pressed to right-wing circles, Vox looks likely to take more.
Pro-Spanish unity supporter, Madrid. Photo: Jake Threadgould
I would hazard a guess at around 17% (this is a guess based entirely on instinct but so what, it’s my blog – also, bet your grandparents on it).
Should this come to pass, Spain will have three major right-wing parties in parliament, spanning the center-right (Cs), right (PP) and far-right (Vox).
Most pollsters predict the country is on track for another hung parliament although Sánchez’s PSOE, which has campaigned on a message that it is the only party that can stop an unholy trinity of right-wingers, is tipped to take the most votes.
Spain’s left-wing parties, which includes the progressive Podemos, hope to sway the roughly 10 percent of undecided voters if they want any chance blocking a Frankenstein right-wing executive.
Alternatively, Cs might break with its election promises and strike up a conversation with the incumbent PM.
Perhaps the most logical coalition would be between PSOE and Podemos, although Pablo Iglesias’ grassroots formation looks set to be dealt a blow in Sunday’s ballot.
So, the make-up of the future Spanish government looks uncertain.
What is clear, however, is that hordes voters will be heading to the polls with a belly full of rage and Catalonia on their mind.
At a time when emotions are running high and when friends are arguing over their beers outside Retiro, Vox is waiting in the shadows to use the disgruntled right-wing as a springboard to national decision making and beyond.
The tip-toeing around conversations at work is far from over, although with Vox few people mince their words.
“Anything other than politics?”