I’M sitting on the Ramblas with colleagues and friends. It is the night before the independence referendum. O-1 in Catalan media shorthand. The evening is warm and humid as only Barcelona can be. But the air is so tense you could cut it with a blunt knife. That may have something to do with the Spanish fascist youth parading with flags amid the bemused foreign tourists.

What these tourists don’t appreciate is the history of this town. Sure, they’ve been to Gaudi’s exotic Sagra Familia. Or rather what’s left of this masterpiece of architecture now sadly ruined by an ill-advised attempt to finish it in the absence of Gaudi’s blueprint (which went to the grave with him). What we have now is a Walt Disney wedding cake in stone.

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No, here on the Ramblas, the British hen parties in pink tutus, the nouveau-riche Chinese hunting designer labels, and middle-aged Europeans tired after a day’s sightseeing are all oblivious to the political symbolism of the chanting, glassy-eyed youths marching down the Ramblas with huge Spanish flags. Young democrats protesting the supposed illegality of the Catalonia referendum, perhaps? No.

The red caps are the giveaway. Crimson, blood red. A uniform not seen on the Ramblas these past 40 years – and certainly not on the head of a teenager. For this is the headgear of the Spanish fascist Falange. Suddenly we are back not just 40 years but 80. For the ghost of Franco has returned from the grave and in the unexpected form of a new generation of thugs, bullies and screaming sycophants ready to combat the decadent evils of democracy, Catalan self-determination and Barcelona as a free capital of a free people.

Earlier in the day I was at the Catalan Government building in St James Square. They claim, with some justification, that it is the oldest democratic seat of government in Europe. Coming out of this Gothic confection, I ran into a couple of hundred chanting, volatile Spanish nationalists. A passerby made the mistake of shouting “we will vote” and was instantly set on. Fortunately the local Catalan cops were on hand to effect a rescue.

My observer’s badge saved me from a similar fate and allowed me a few conversations with the demonstrators. One posh Spanish nationalist – a smooth-talking lawyer – explained that the referendum was being forced through by “immigrants and not real Catalans”. I took great pleasure in interrupting one elderly Spanish nat who was explaining to a passing Dutch tourist (in English) that the pesky Catalans were breaking the law by trying to secede from Imperial Spain. I intervened to explain that, in which case, the good folk of the Netherlands had broken the law when they also seized independence from Spain.

I went off to lunch in George Orwell Square and ruminated on the fact that Labour in the UK had stayed stolidly silent on the attempt by the Spanish state to crush Catalonia’s right to vote – at least till the paramilitary Guardia Civil started bloodying heads on referendum day. I’m not surprised. In fact, the Labour leadership has a sorry track record regarding democracy in Spain.

Back in the thirties, Labour at first refused to oppose the Chamberlain Tory government ban on sending weapons and aid to the elected Republican administration in Madrid, after Franco’s coup d’etat. Sadly, Mr Hitler had a different view on the definition of neutrality. A terrific campaign by the trades unions and local constituency parties eventually forced a vote at the Labour conference mandating a change of policy. This was duly ignored by the leadership. Any thoughts, Mr Corbyn?

Meanwhile, back in St James Square, the little fascists had got bored chanting and decided on some vandalism. They began climbing on to buildings and tearing down banners calling for the right to vote. I know pulling down banners is not the same as shooting people or staging a coup. On the other hand, fascism starts in the streets with the violent suppression of dissent. And that is where we are in Spain 2017.

In Madrid on Saturday, the proto-fascists were less reticent. Perhaps it had something to do with their proximity to the Rajoy Popular Party (minority) government. The PP is the direct linear descendant of the old Franco regime. It is the PP that is bending every democratic and legal convention possible to thwart Catalonia’s right to self-determination. Where Prime Minister Rajoy leads, street thugs follow.

So in Madrid, the smiling fascist youth took to the streets with arms outstretched in the Falangist salute – borrowed from their Nazi friends. They sang the Falangist anthem: “Onwards, squadrons, to victory. A new day dawns on Spain. Spain united!” Words not heard since Franco’s day. And you ask why the Catalans want their own democracy? Fie only any elected politician in Scotland, the UK or Europe who refuses to come out publicly for Catalonia’s right to recover its own democratic state – crushed by the fascist jackboot in1938.

We review the events of the day, sitting on the Ramblas watching the Falangist youth returned from the dustbin of history. I ponder why these young have re-embraced this foul creed. Remember, Spain has suffered mass youth unemployment of more than 50 per cent since the 2008 Bank Crash. Maybe therein lies the answer. These bewitched 15- and 16 year-olds are seeking a role and meaning in life. Most Catalan youth have found this in the independence movement. Alas, for some others (mostly bussed into Barcelona) it is the sinister image of the storm trooper that has captured their ignorant imaginations.

We are sitting only a few doors along from the Hotel Falcon, headquarters of the left-wing POUM during the Civil War. Here George Orwell and the grave Scottish volunteers from the Independent Labour Party came to defend free Catalonia. Their ghosts are abroad this warm evening. Orwell stood guard here. He stands guard still. Who will stand with him?


IT is pouring at 7am as I make my way to the local school I have been assigned to as an observer. Students, teachers and parents have been in occupation since Friday, to stop the police sealing off the school as a polling station. The atmosphere is joyful and festive – not the somber ritual we have in Scotland. Voting starts at 9am – everyone is amazed we start voting in the UK two hours earlier.

There are more than a thousand people waiting to vote. The elderly are first in the queue. They have waited all their lives for this. I see people in tears as they put their envelopes into the big plastic box.

I see a complete cross-section of Barcelona – by age, sex, occupation. Certainly they are mostly Catalan native speakers – but not all. As in Scotland, many foreign immigrants have embraced the freedom and community spirit that is Catalonia. I meet one Scot voting who has lived here for 20 years.

The ballot paper asks two questions: do you want Catalonia to be independent and do you want it to be a republic? The word republic has a deep meaning here. It says: we were a republic once until Franco. We will be a republic again. The republic stands for democracy.

Our phones are showing the police attacking and beating voters across Catalonia. History is back with a vengeance, all right. But this time I am certain the ending will be different. No pasaran!