In the last two decades, the Spanish political scene has been characterised by convulsion. Among the many variables that shape this reality, one of them is the confrontation between the centre – Madrid – and the peripheral areas, some of which have their own distinct identity.
In Spain there are different nationalisms, including Catalan or Basque nationalism. There is also a Spanish nationalism of Castilian origin. This nationalism has been deeply rooted in Spanish politics from the time of the Restoration in the second half of the 19th century.
In fact, allusions to peripheral nationalisms and their claims are constant, while there is hardly any reference to Spanish nationalism.
Does this “invisibility” mean that in Spain there is no feeling of identity to the whole nation that opposes regional nationalisms? To discover the answer to that question, we just need to review a little history.
In the fifteenth century, the Kingdoms of Aragon and Castile had been unified and the process of expansion to America, led by the Crown of Castile, had begun. At that time, we can only identify a certain “pre-national” identity that is more related to loyalty to the Spanish Monarchy and to the Spanish Empire than to a line of thought having to do with a national concept of Spain.
When did the idea of Spain as a single nation arise?
It was in the nineteenth century when a school of thought that promoted the unity and identity of Spain as a single and indivisible nation really emerged. This came about in a context of social unrest after the domestic Peninsular war and the traumatic loss of the American colonies. It was put forward by figures such as Spanish politicians Antonio Cánovas del Castillo and Juan Donoso, among others.
Ideas of centralism and the territorial unity of Spain were a significant part of this ideology. Patriotism and the defence of the nation were also central, as was Catholicism and traditionalism, reinforced by an opposition to more liberal currents that promoted the modernisation of Spain. These were perceived as a threat to Spanish identity and traditionalism.
This feeling of Spanish identity was reinforced during the Franco dictatorship of 1939-1975. Francoism used the ideological concepts of Spanish nationalism to justify its authoritarian and centralist regime, as well as harsh repression against any form of political dissent or claim for regional autonomy.
As was to be expected, during the transition to democracy (1976-1982), there was a strong resurgence of regional identity in Catalonia and the Basque Country. This demanded greater amounts of autonomy and self-government. In opposition to this, there wasn’t a significant reaction by Spanish nationalism, which had been weakened by its ideological proximity to Franco’s regime.
However, the consolidation of democracy and the overcoming of the Franco dictatorship – starting in the 1980s – entailed the strengthening of new political currents. These began to claim the national identity and territorial unity of Spain more vehemently, doing so in opposition to the peripheral nationalist movements.
Is nationalist sentiment always right wing?
Among the political parties that defend Spanish nationalism with great intensity is the People’s Party of Jose María Aznar, as well as several extreme right-wing groups.
But it is important to point out that Spanish nationalism is not an exclusive phenomenon of the political right. There are nationalist lines of thought on the left that also defend the identity and unity of Spain. However, they do it from a broader perspective of dialogue.
Aznar’s tenure (1996-2004) was characterised by placing Spanish nationalism at the centre of the political scene. His government implemented initiatives that entailed a substantial change in the Spanish political context.
Among the most noteworthy is the breaking, by the Spanish government, of the balance established by Title VIII of the Constitution, which set different levels of competence between historical autonomous communities (Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque Country) and the rest of the Spanish autonomous communities. The Constitution of 1978 differentiated between those communities that had a statute of autonomy prior to the Spanish Civil War and those that did not. And gave these three more power to decide over their territories.
But the application of article 152 culminated in a policy of transfer of power that practically equated the competences of all communities.
Likewise, some other political initiatives have brought about a feeling of unfair treatment and contributed to a spiral of demands by the Catalan and Basque governments, which wish to maintain special status within the Spanish autonomous framework. These initiatives include the consolidation of a Spain that spreads in a radial manner out from Madrid, the tax policy of the Community of Madrid – more lax than in other communities – and the lack of investments in the Mediterranean region.
Finally, starting in 2010 and coinciding with the Constitutional Court’s ruling on the Catalan Statute, a very turbulent stage of Spanish politics began, characterised by strong political confrontation between the various nationalisms.
The feeling of identity of recent years
The “Procès” (Catalan Process for Sovereignty; 2010-2017) became a spiral of confrontation between Catalan nationalism and Spanish nationalism. The first one wanted to be recognised as a political player with the right to self-determination. Whereas the second one denied any possibility of negotiation, using all the State’s mechanisms available to prevent the referendum being held on October 1 2017.
It is within this context of “response to the Catalan independence movement” that we must note the significant growth of a feeling of Spanish identity in recent years. The implementation – from Spain’s right-wing conservative, liberal, and radical parties (PP, Cs, and Vox) – of policies and campaigns aimed at confrontation with peripheral nationalisms were also born after that event.
They intend to reinforce the principles of centralisation, national identity, and territorial unity – principles so typical of Spain’s sense of identity.