Catalan Nationalism and the Pioneers of Accountability

A recent deportation case in Spain has reignited debates over a potential referendum for Catalan independence. Nourredine Ziani, a Spanish-Moroccan was served deportation papers, amidst claims that he is a “threat to national security”. Ziani vehemently denies charges of collaboration with extremist Muslims or that he is a spy for the Moroccan government. Importantly, Ziani is a director of the New Catalan Foundation, an organisation that helps immigrants integrate into Catalan society. The foundation is pro-independence and consequently Ziani’s dubious deportation has been highlighted as an effort by the Madrid-based government to stifle a potentially troublesome voice.

Catalonia has always retained a strong regional identity, like most of the Spanish states. The recent push for independence from many Catalan quarters stems from the perceived misrepresentation of the region by the Madrid politicians. Catalonia pays a disproportionate amount of taxes and contributes significantly to the Spanish economy and yet the politicians continue along the lines of financial mismanagement and austerity measures within the province.

Catalan independence rallies intensified last year
Catalan independence rallies intensified last year

For the people of Catalonia, the lack of accountability from the government is unacceptable and this region of Spain is particularly well-imbued with such sentiments. Whilst medieval European societies remained dominated by powerful monarchies and noblemen, the Crown of Aragon (incorporating the domains of Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia) was setting an historical benchmark.

The Cortes, comprising representatives of the nobility, clergy and townspeople (the three estates), were particularly well developed in the territories of the Aragonese Crown. As early as 1283 in Catalonia, laws could only be created or amended with the express permission of both the monarchy and the Corts. This prevented a dictatorial monarchy. Furthermore, in Aragon, Justicias were appointed to prevent individual noble houses from acquiring too much influence within the Corts, to ensure that no royal officials broke the laws of the land, and to guard the individual subjects against any exercising of arbitrary power.

The Cortes of the Aragonese Crown were a rare medieval expression of democratic representation
The Cortes of the Aragonese Crown were a rare medieval expression of democratic representation

In 14th century Catalonia was developed the institution of the Diputacio. This consisted of three Diputats to represent each of the three estates of society and each Diputat was limited to an office term of three years. The Diputacio organised the payment of fair and reasonable subsidies to the Crown and the Diputats also became guardians of Catalan liberties. Royal officials overstepping their authority were brought into line with the withdrawal of subsidies and severe repudiations were handed out. Similar institutions would be established in Aragon and Valencia.

The three estates were therefore free from encroachment by the Crown as long as the Diputacio functioned effectively, a phenomenon alien to the rest of Europe at the turn of the 15th century. Writing in 1406, a representative of the Catalan Corts asked:

What people is there in the world enjoying as many freedoms and exemptions as you; and what people so generous? 

An allegiance oath to the Aragonese king in the 16th century is rumoured to have proceeded:

We who are as good as you swear to you who are no better than we, to accept you as our king and sovereign lord, provided you observe all our liberties and laws: but if not, not.

Where else would you hear words such as this in late medieval and early modern Europe? The people equal to their sovereign? Before Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau espoused the virtue of a social contract between a ruler and his people, the Aragonese and Catalan people had entered into one with their king.

Such a process of accountability was a cornerstone of stability for the Aragonese Crown, allowing it to build a prosperous mercantile empire in the Mediterranean, with the acquisition of Sicily and much of the Italian peninsula. Political appointments made by the Crown to colonial outposts entered into similar contracts with the colonists, prohibiting their misrule.

Simultaneously, the Castillan (Madrid) model was one of unchallenged monarchical power and the favouritism bestowed on particular noble houses. For the Catalan people, lack of accountability for the ruling elite was unacceptable. When their liberties were challenged by a united Crown ruled from Madrid in the seventeenth century, the Catalans revolted to the extent that part of their territory was ceded to France.

The Catalan Revolt (1640-1659) challenged the authoritarian rule of the Spanish Crown
The Catalan Revolt (1640-1659) challenged the authoritarian rule of the Spanish Crown

With this history behind them, the people of Catalonia will not give up their quest for accountability, independence and, ultimately, control over their own destiny.

Source: J H  Elliott, Imperial Spain, 1469-1716