Picking at Scabs: We Need to Talk (Not Only) About Catalonia

Dylan Moore says that secessionist struggles around the world should give us pause for thought, not fuel for fire

If you Google ‘picking at scabs’, the world’s most useful search engine discharges the following advice: ‘You definitely should not pick at any scabs that form over cuts or scrapes on your skin. A scab is your body’s way of telling you that the cut has not totally healed. When you pick away the scab, what you are doing is exposing all of the new, delicate skin cells that are forming underneath before they are ready.’ It seems the world is determined to ignore such advice.

The world’s scabs – otherwise known as borders – have largely been created by the crude unasked for surgery of various franchises of imperialism: war and conquest; purchases; treaties and agreements. Sometimes geography plays a role, but in the age of globalisation (which began, lest we forget, in 1492 at the latest) it is rare that nation states directly coincide with hermetically sealed ethno-linguistic identities.

And national borders, like our delicate bodies, are constantly in flux; one of the most fascinating and instructive videos on the internet is a simple time lapse depiction of how Europe’s borders have constantly altered over the last millennium. Music underscores the drama, but the brightly coloured maps cannot begin to hint at the complex lives of hundreds of millions of Europeans down the centuries and the constellation of multifarious identities we have ascribed to ourselves.

Keep your eyes on Wales in the early centuries and for a brief flowering in the fourteenth century before its principalities are snuffed into England by an iron ring of castles, and how, in the same period, Catalunya clings to its Pyrenean corner as does Cymru in Snowdonia. But observe too just how long Castile and Aragon remained separate crowns while Wales entered its long period of ‘See England’.

Catalonia is a beautiful country that is also one of the continent’s most celebrated unpicked scabs. Not only has Barcelona’s popularity as a city break destination etched the city and its Gaudian landmarks indelibly in the consciousness of many Europeans, but Catalonia has long been a leftist cause celebre. Spain’s civil war might have passed, just about, out of living memory, but Catalonia is a nation that is very clearly covered in wounds that are only just beginning to scab over. For decades, tensions have simmered beneath the surface in the proxy war of football rivalry. Now the itch has been scratched, and blood has spilled.

As the Guardia Civil brutally repressed demonstrators and would-be voters in the streets of Barcelona, I was sharing a meal with friends to mark Irreecha, the Oromo thanksgiving festival that celebrates ‘the wholeness and deep magnificence of nature and culture’. My fellow diners have fled repression far worse than that witnessed in Catalonia. Last year, in what the Ethiopian regime (and its Western backers) claimed was a ‘tragic stampede’ (caused by the firing of live bullets and tear gas on a crowd of two million), a large number of people were killed at Bishoftu, 50km south-east of Addis Ababa (known by Oromo as Finfine). The government claim it was 55; opposition groups reported a total death toll of 678.

Although the Irreecha meal hosted in Brecon was a celebratory occasion, it was underscored by a deep sadness. A minute’s silence was held to commemorate not only the victims of Irreecha 2016, but also the recent suicide of a man from the community who had been living destitute in Swansea following the refusal of the UK Home Office to grant him asylum. Between Bishoftu and Brecon, countless others have died in the desert or drowned in the Mediterranean.

Wales is now home to significant numbers of refugees who have fled the ravages of conflict elsewhere in the world, and in the wake of the Catalan (non-) referendum, it is worth remembering the sheer number of these conflicts that have roots in the violent repression of secessionist movements. In turn, the scabs and open sores that afflict these nations have roots in colonialism and the clumsy carve-ups of the Scramble for Africa (1881-1914) and the Sykes-Picot line in the Middle East (1916). Drawing straight lines across maps might have suited the European Powers, but for people living on the scar tissue of the earth, life has now been too painful for too long.

In Cameroon, longstanding tension between the anglophone minority and francophone majority have spilled into sporadic violence and more despotic doublethink (Paul Biya, president since 1982, has said that ‘it is not forbidden to voice any concerns in the Republic’ but has condemned ‘verbal excesses’). Pictures emerging from Buea, the largest town in the anglophone south-west region, show lifeless bodies covered with blood. Widely shared on social media, it is doubtful these images will make the mainstream news; as in Ethiopia, the divisions in Cameroon are unlikely to become causes celebres for leftists and nationalists in the West, despite that the roots of the conflict can be attributed to the British-French carve up of the former German colony of Kamerun after the First World War.

In the Middle East, again it was the British and French who drew the line, this time between modern day Syria and Iraq, stranding Kurdish minority groups in four separate countries. The recent referendum in Kurdish northern Iraq, returning a 92% majority in favour of independence is as clear an argument as you can get for a people’s right to self-determination.

Nationalists in Wales have their own reasons for playing up solidarity with Catalonia; in the absence of traction for the independence movement here, such wilful brutality (and self-defeating stupidity) on the part of Mariano Rajoy’s People’s Party government is an opportune moment to adopt the flag of a fellow sub-state nation and pepper your (absolutely fair enough) pro-democracy argument in the language and imagery of the Spanish Civil War.

Last year, I joined with many others in signing a petition to put a stop to the incredibly stupid plan to place an iron ring next to Flint Castle, an idea that – even without having been actualised – has raised faint spectres of centuries-old resentment about colonial repression. The furore raises an important question about how we reappropriate history, not only for tourist consumption, but also as iconography in our own culture. The whole world is pockmarked with castles – instruments of military occupation – that have been reimagined as symbols of the nation.

Our own border, Offa’s Dyke, is more scar than scab: ‘a mark left on the skin after a wound or injury has healed.’ According to NHS Direct, ‘Scars are a natural part of the healing process. Most will fade and become paler over time, although they never completely disappear.’ Wales and England are perhaps more distinct now than at any time since 1536. While it is hard to imagine Welsh people in large numbers demanding independence or the Metropolitan Police beating people up in the streets of Cardiff, times are changing fast and, of course, such events are not without precedent.

As we look around the world, and our own generation of wise and foolish dreamers man the social media barricades with a heady mix of idealism and received opinion, we should be very careful to think hard about secessionist movements. History contains innumerable lessons that mankind is almost never willing to learn, and in this age of political polarisation each side will only ever want to hear its own voice. There is a narrative that says Gandhi led India to peaceful independence from the British Empire. The British withdrew from south Asia without having their own blood spilt, true, but look at the carnage they left behind. And the plight of the Rohingya shows that it’s not over yet.

But today’s conflicts will not be solved by apportioning blame to people in the past. We who are living now must take responsibility too. The way forward must surely be through dialogue and diplomacy; nation states must be prepared to accept that they exist to serve the people who live in them, not the other way around, and nationalists must be prepared to accept that not everybody cares too much what flag they live under, as long as it is not soaked in blood. And if people cannot agree, there is always the ballot box – although in this age of 52/48 (and 50.3/49.7), it must be recognised that even referenda can exacerbate rather than solve intractable issues.

Wherever one stands on the argument that David Cameron was the ‘worst Prime Minister since Lord North lost America’, his ultimate legacy will undoubtedly be shaped by his decisions to give people the chance to decide. Unlike Rajoy, Cameron at least offered Scots the chance to break away from the UK if they had wanted to. The ripple effect of that decision – with people from Kurdistan to Cameroon, and Catalonia to Oromia pressing for plebiscites to decide the fate of their nations – could yet turn out to be more momentous than Brexit. Scotland said no, but we now live in a global age of secession – and repression.

At present, Wales (as ever, it seems) is peripheral to the world’s problems. Lucky us, you might say. All around us, various bandwagons roll. We need to exercise caution picking at scabs, other people’s or our own.

All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Dylan Moore is Editor of the welsh agenda. He writes this in a personal capacity.