Miquel Strubell: “Spain has poured countless resources into demonizing Catalonia’s pro-independence movement”

An interview with the sociolinguist and ANC founder who has recently published a book in English on the lies spread by Spain about Catalonia

Photo: Miquel Strubell i Prat
Martí Estruch Axmacher
03.06.2021 - 10:39
Actualització: 03.06.2021 - 12:39

Miquel Strubell i Trueta is a familiar figure when it comes to Catalan affairs, though he keeps a low profile and has no desire to be in the limelight. He operates with a constructive spirit, through which he contributes knowledge, sensibility and composure, presumably a product of the apocryphal British stiff upper lip. When it comes to his temperament, it is apparent that he inherited most of the sensibility, while the fiery passion went to his brother Toni. As a result, he is to be found involved in countless organisations and groups related to Catalan culture and language, as the president of the Fundació Congrés de Cultura Catalana and as one of the four founders of the ANC [the Assemblea Nacional Catalana, or Catalan National Assembly].

Born in Oxford in 1949, he is the grandson of the eminent physician and surgeon Josep Trueta, who went into exile in London in 1939, a member of the Catalan National Council and author of The Spirit of Catalonia (1949). Strubell holds a degree in Psychology and Physiology from the University of Oxford, an MA in Educational Psychology from the University of London, and a degree in Psychology from Catalonia’s Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. He has conducted research into bilingualism at school and within the family, he is an expert on language policy and planning and was head of the Catalan government’s Language Normalization Service in the 1980s.

An author of numerous books, Strubell has recently published Lying for Unity: How Spain Uses Fake News and Disinformation to Block Catalonia’s Independence. It explores the lies and the misinformation campaigns which Spain has employed as a means to discredit the Catalan independence movement. And he is already mulling over his next book, featuring the same protagonists, revolving around the current judicial war. I took advantage of the publication of Strubell’s new book as an excuse to interview him on a video call.

—You’re the grandson of Josep Trueta, the illustrious doctor. How has your family influenced you?
—I met my maternal grandparents, who were Catalans, in the country in which they lived in exile, England. My paternal grandparents died before my parents met. Their Catalan home in Oxford was a hotbed of Catalan culture. Some of my earliest knowledge of the history of Catalonia, such as Ulloa’s writings on Columbus, was thanks to my grandparents, my grandfather in particular. I’m also grateful to my mother for introducing me to the Catalan language and culture. And I’m grateful to my father, above all, for teaching me democratic values ​​and the importance of doing a job well.

—Your grandfather had a method for treating bone infections which was widely used during the Spanish Civil War. Did he come up with it himself?
—He developed it mostly from his experience with work-related accidents involving open wounds and, later, during the Spanish Civil War, where he managed to drastically reduce the incidence of gangrene. The method was probably devised by the American surgeon Winnett Orr, based on the belief that the body has a great ability to heal wounds, as long as certain conditions are met, of course.

—Why did you decide to study psychology?
—I decided to do it on a whim, just before the university entrance exams. I didn’t want to be constantly compared to my grandfather, and I chose a career that was also experimental, involving physiology, biochemistry, psychophysiology, etc., which was compatible with my baccalaureate in science.

—Does the fact that you’ve studied psychology help you to better understand the world, or this corner of the world that is Catalonia?
—Indeed! Catalonia and also Spain! The prejudices, attitudes, tolerance and intolerance, social behaviour and habits, the study of statistics and the scientific method… These have all given me a different view from that of a philologist, for example.

—We finally have a pact to form a government and to install a president and a new cabinet. Are you pleased with it?
—Yes. I’m one of those who went on social media to try to counter the sense of despair felt by many. From the outside I was able to appreciate the complexity of the negotiations between the parties involved, although they obviously made mistakes and abrupt changes in strategy, which presumably we could have been spared. A failure to reach an agreement leading to new elections would have meant a setback for independence at the ballot box. As a result, I was convinced they were playing a game of brinkmanship, as we say in English, in which one party tries to get the other to give in before disaster strikes, like Buzz, in Rebel Without a Cause, who ends up trapped in the car and drives off the cliff.

—Brinkmanship aside, it’s apparent that there has been no agreement between the pro-independence parties to unite following the events of October 2017. Can you understand why?
—Don’t forget that we’re doing something that’s unheard of in Western Europe in the twenty-first century and much of the twentieth century too! We’re exercising a right as a people, recognized in various UN treaties ratified by the Spanish state, against Spain’s wishes. What differentiates the parties in their national aspirations, as I understand it, is that some believe that Spain will allow us to exercise this right, or that it will acknowledge our decisive victory on 1 October. But Spain will continue to pursue our leaders in the justice and injustice system, such as Spain’s Court of Auditors. Meanwhile, the fact that the major players are out of action, being either in prison or in exile, makes everything that much more difficult. At the end of the day, political parties are still groups of people, each with their own desires and fears…

—What would you like to see the new government do?
—I’d like them to have a second meeting in Waterloo [where president Puigdemont is currently based]. It would be a great gesture and an unequivocal announcement to the world of our intentions, never mind the fact that we have to act like the government of an autonomous region, controlled from above and always on the verge of bankruptcy.

—Do you think the political parties are capable of making such gestures? Or that they have the will?
—Aside from the day-to-day running of the Generalitat and its resources, I would like to think that the leaders, even more so than the members of the government, appreciate the need for the parties, rather than the government, to agree with the main social agents as to the roadmap which will lead us to the independence we voted for.

—Does this roadmap mean getting other countries to put pressure on Spain to accept a referendum?
—The “just cause” of defending the right to declare independence requires us to compile a solid dossier containing evidence of repression, with and without violence, be it economic, political, judicial, cultural, social or involving the security forces. Armed with such evidence, we ought to declare that our survival as a people is in grave danger and that this situation has been going on for a long time. With a well drafted document, we will be in a position to call for other bodies, supranational rather than state-level presumably, to force the Spanish state to recognize the 1 October result or to agree to a binding referendum with significant international oversight.

—Up until 2017, an organization you helped found, the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), played the role of setting objectives and applying pressure on the government. Why did they stop?
—The Junts pel Sí coalition, in my opinion, has a place in history alongside the Solidaritat Catalana of 1906-1909. Without the ANC, and Òmnium, I don’t think it would have been possible.

—So it’s down to the subsequent failure of the coalition which made the ANC stop pushing in this direction?
—No, I think it is rather the immediate effects of state repression. The White Paper on Catalonia’s National Transition made it clear that the state would oppose what happened in Catalonia, but it didn’t foresee the level of repression that we saw. This means that strictly democratic approaches have taken a backseat. It’s very hard for an organisation which has two of its former presidents in prison to handle such a situation. In any case, the confusion on both sides is public and plain for all to see.

—Indeed, in a November 2020 article, you were highly critical of the role of the ANC and even predicted its demise. How do you see it six months later, now that a new roadmap has been presented?
—That article [text in Catalan] was a wake-up call from a sizeable group of former members of the national secretariat. We were expecting a much more ambitious roadmap for 2021 than the previous ones. I think a lot of our demands have been met.

—You recently published Lying for Unity: How Spain Uses Fake News and Disinformation to Block Catalonia’s Independence. Can you give us a quick rundown?
—I have many foreign friends and acquaintances who can’t believe it when I tell them what the Spanish state has done, and what it is still doing, with the almost unanimous help of the media, to try to repress and finish off Catalonia’s pro-independence movement. I often find they doubt what I tell them as they think it’s incompatible with the behaviour of a democratic country, in which a political problem is solved politically rather than by trying to wipe out your opponent, like one would do against an enemy in a war. Meanwhile, the Spanish state has done whatever it can to poison the well in diplomatic circles, in Europe and beyond. And make no mistake: it’s a powerful state which spends millions on crockery and landscaping their embassies, while also buying the silence of countries like the Baltic states. In the book I try to explain, with numerous concrete examples, how the different agents have acted to demonize our movement, in an attempt to prove that independence is governed by non-democratic criteria, that we discriminate or marginalize part of the population of Catalonia.

—Is it all about repeating a lie over and over until it rings true, isn’t it?
—Exactly, the idea for the book comes from a lecture, subsequently published, given by a Spaniard living in London, who claimed that the pandemic would help the independence movement! The state has devoted considerable public resources to publishing and disseminating, in various languages, what it sees as lies and errors in the pro-independence discourse, as well as trying to prevent our story from reaching universities and think-tanks around the world. When it thought it was necessary, it banned the presentation in the Netherlands of a historical novel written in Spanish and set in the eighteenth century. They just went ahead and banned it. In the book I always avoid the more questionable rumours, such as the claim that Spain held up the plane carrying President Mas to the United States in 2014. I don’t hide the fact that I’m pro-independence, but I try to present the facts as they are, which is something that we Catalans struggle with.

—The book’s written in English. Who’s it aimed at?
—I want it to be read by foreigners who know about Catalonia. Nevertheless, Professor Henry Ettinghausen, a retired English academic, has written a long, detailed introduction in which he tells our story succinctly yet clearly, which helps to put the rest of the book into context. I hope it’s bought by Catalan, Hispanic, Journalism and Political Science university departments. It’s difficult to reach such audiences and I’d be delighted if Catalan clubs and the ANC’s overseas offices would lend me a hand.

—Will it also be published in Catalan?
—At the moment, the English edition has been self-published thanks to the generous support of Cookwood Press, but promoting a book is very expensive. People have asked me about a version in Catalan or Spanish and I tell them that if any publisher interested, I’d be delighted. In fact, many of the texts were originally written in Catalan.

—Let’s get back to the subject of the book: is it all about controlling the narrative on the international stage?
—When we finally ratify the declaration of independence, it will be even more important for us to be immediately recognized by an initial group of countries, both small and large, rather than having certain statehood structures. You could say that the Spanish state has done us enormous “favours”, such as the police violence on 1 October, which made headlines across the world, or their failed attempts to secure the extradition of President Puigdemont and the other exiled members of his cabinet.

—It’s clear that with the tools of hard power, Catalonia would be helpless in a hypothetical confrontation with Spain. With soft power however, like information and propaganda even, we’d have more options, don’t you think?
—Indeed. But we have to be careful with the language we use. We can’t go around saying “Spain is a fascist state” in a simplistic manner. We need to reach out to allies both in Spain and in the rest of the world. Keep in mind that we won’t be the only ones doing this: the ​​Spanish will also be reaching out to their contacts in these countries, institutions and individuals.

—How would you define Spain to a foreigner?
—I’d tell them that the post-Franco democratic transition was not as idyllic as it was made out to be for many years and that sectors which are vital to a democracy, such as the judiciary and law enforcement, have not been reformed in keeping with a modern, multi-nation, democratic state.

—And the constant harking on about a fully-fledged democracy?
—To the extent that there are instruments of the state which are not under political control, obviously, no one can claim that Spain is a fully democratic state. Nonetheless, I doubt if any international indices of democracy and justice include our exiles and political prisoners in their calculations.

—Although Spain sometimes behaves like Poland or Turkey, to name but two examples, it doesn’t get treated in the same way by the European Union.
—People ought to talk about this more and Catalans should emphasise that point. Recently I was thinking of writing a second book on the judicial war in Spain, the notorious lawfare. It’s another aspect of the crackdown, this misuse of legal tools to try to resolve a political problem. The We Report website lists some 30 flagrant cases, but we need to focus on the courts and police forces that are responsible for them. We need to publicise what Madrid’s National High Court has done and what its origins are, what particular chambers of the Supreme Court, the High Court of Justice, the Constitutional Court, the so-called Court of Auditors have done, and list the state institutions which repress the Catalan cause. Once again, if any publisher is interested, do get in touch!

—Let’s change the subject. You were head of the Generalitat’s Language Normalization Service. Have you ever been offered a ministerial job?
—[Laughs.] There have been hundreds of heads of the service, past and present, and very few have become ministers! No, they never offered me the job! Besides, as a civil servant I felt, in the English tradition, that it prevented me from promoting or “adhering” to one particular party.

—As an expert in language policy and seeing the wide range of opinions, I can’t help but ask you for your opinion on the state of Catalan.
—It’s a very delicate situation. As I outline in a fascinating book led by Professor Carme Junyent, the demographic issue is the main problem, in my opinion. The birth rate among Catalan speakers is very low and, therefore, in order not to become a demographic minority –which also means electorally!– we need to “recruit” non-Catalan speakers to use of the language actively and on a daily basis. In fact, there are many new Catalan speakers, but in general their efforts aren’t helped by the linguistic behaviour of the vast majority of Catalan speakers, who often switch to Spanish when there’s no need. This attitude is detrimental in that it puts off potential learners. Nevertheless, there are many excellent initiatives, such as language volunteers and language partners, or the magnificent work of individuals such as Rosario Palomino and the No em canviïs la llengua [Don’t switch language] initiative.

—Are you one of those who always speaks Catalan with everyone from the start?
—Yes. In general, everyone takes this as perfectly natural, as long as you’re not in the Spanish police station in Sant Feliu de Guíxols, for example. But there are few instances when you won’t be understood in Catalan. Obviously, with a tourist, I try to communicate in other languages, too. Otherwise, the hardest part is picking up and maintaining the habit, since habits are unconscious and therefore they can be hard to change. Years ago, at a conference in Vic at the end of a Catalan course, the students were extremely grateful to me for insisting that Catalan speakers were partly to blame. Anyone who “looks foreign” and is trying to learn finds that Catalans are constantly switching languages with them. We’re not really aware of the importance of the language, we talk more about les segadores [in a reference to Els Segadors, the original version of the Catalan national anthem which was recently performed with female pronouns at the president’s inauguration ceremony] than about this topic, which is critically important.

—There was a moment during the independence process in which there was an idea, I don’t know if it was held by the majority but it was quite widespread, to give Catalan and Spanish equal footing in a future independent Catalonia to protect the linguistic rights of Spanish speakers. What’s your opinion on the matter?
—We ought to keep reminding ourselves that Spanish isn’t an official language in Catalonia in order to “protect the linguistic rights of Spanish-speakers”, nor thanks to the number of speakers, but rather it is imposed by the Spanish constitution. Spanish is also an official language in a village tucked away in La Garrotxa, where there’s not even a single Spanish-speaker. I’m in favour, as is the Cercle 21 group, of not talking about an official language in an independent Catalonia, which is also an important concept. It must be left as the national language, or our own language, period. People need to be educated so they understand that it doesn’t make sense for a Panamanian immigrant to be granted language rights which are denied to a Portuguese or French immigrant. And it may be necessary to propose a transitional article which solely covers individuals who are resident in Catalonia on the day the rule comes into force.

—A final question. You’ve been working and campaigning around Catalonia for many years. Are you tired? Do you ever feel like giving up?
—Never, even though now I’m being distracted by fortnightly chemotherapy sessions! I want to see independence and to dedicate it to my family members who passed away before they had a chance to see it.


[Lying for Unity is available from the VilaWeb Store]

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