Of all the countries of Europe, there are few that provide such tantalising parallels with the United Kingdom as Spain. With an imperial past, and internal boundaries of language and competing national identity, it offers the best examples of the construction of nations-within in Europe and a potential pathway to the future. Wales has long understood this. Journalists looked carefully at Spain in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in order to understand Home Rule, nationalism, and economic stagnation. And in more recent times, nationalists have turned their gaze to Catalonia where the language thrives and the construction of the Catalan nation has reached the point of independence. What lies behind this success? For commentators in the 1890s it was symptomatic of the Catalan attitude to idleness. Writing in an official report, the British Consul in Barcelona wrote that ‘in Catalonia idleness is considered by everyone, high and low, a disgrace’. Two themes emerge most clearly from the Welsh press’s view of Catalonia in these crucial decades: methods of devolved government and labour-state relations. These are, invariably, very Welsh concerns.

Writing in the Cardiff Times in 1890, William Abraham MP (Mabon) observed that ‘the labour question is essentially international’. His gaze turned towards Spain. There, he noted, the labour movement was progressing. ‘At the present moment’, he wrote, ‘Spaniards have unpleasantly awakened to the existence of a labour movement and of Socialist agitation […] despite all the bars put in their way by reactionary government, and by ill-advised legislation, the working classes in Catalonia […] have shown a strong disposition to improve their condition by combination and co-operation’. But this was Mabon, whose distaste for more radical socialism could not be disguised even in a column about another country’s labour movement. ‘The purely labour movement’, he insisted, ‘does not inspire the same uneasiness as the more radical movement set on foot by the Socialists and the Anarchists’. He might as well have been writing about Wales, and in many ways he was. There can be no doubt that Mabon looked on the rising tensions within 1890s Catalonia with some trepidation – could this happen in Wales too?

Historians of the Catalan nationalist movement and the Catalan labour movement have noted that the agitation of the early 1890s enabled a new generation of labour leaders to emerge. This generation, similar in very many respects to that which emerged in South Wales in the aftermath of the labour wars of 1910-1914, emphasised class war and some not inconsiderable hostility to Catalan nationalism: as Angel Smith has suggested,

they disliked what they saw as his [Josep Maria Vallès i Ribot] moderate electoralist strategy […] and were sceptical that his concern with the Catalan language and culture had anything to do with improving the lot of the dispossessed in society […] they favoured the usage of Castilian […] to write in Catalan, they argued, weakened their ties with republicans from other parts of Spain.

As nationalism moved right and labourism moved left, it was republicanism that captured the minds of labour and as a consequence a kind of ‘unionism’ (to adopt the British constitutional sense of the word). Smith writes, ‘there was a growing identification between Catalan nationalism and “reaction”’. This remained broadly the case until the outbreak of the First World War – during which Spain was neutral – when the process of middle-class liberal-nationalists moving left began providing a vital intellectual link between ‘oppressed workers’ and ‘oppressed peoples’. Together with a group of like-minded Socialists, they began to formulate an understanding of Spain not as a nation but as a capitalist machine, which needed to be broken up. This mirrored, of course, the linking of nationalism and socialism in the politics of James Connolly, Lenin, TE Nicholas and SO Davies, and myriad others across Europe. Home Rule took on a rather different, liberationist meaning. By the 1920s, the dominant party of Catalanism, the Catalan Republican Left, was firmly of the left. There they have remained.

Remarkably, Wales’s most engaged twentieth-century Hispanophile, the novelist Gwyn Thomas, never quite got to grips with the shifting dimensions of Catalan nationalism. In his mind, nationalism was reactionary. He looked at Plaid Cymru in the same way as Catalan labourites looked at Catalanists. But why? Of the novelists born in Wales, and who made Wales the subject of the majority of their work, none had the same fundamental attachment to Spain as Gwyn. Its language and literature provided the basis of his undergraduate degree, as well as the subject he taught at secondary school; and its twentieth-century experience profoundly shaped his politics. Indeed, Gwyn never did get over the Spanish Civil War and the way in which it crushed the politics of hope in Europe. In Franco – and the forces of reactionary Spanish nationalism that drove him – was the model of nationalism that Gwyn so recoiled from. We can, I think, see Gwyn nodding away in agreement with these words by the French novelist Albert Camus:

It was in Spain that men learned that one can be right and still be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own reward.

Given his own politics, his own leftism, his blindness towards the alternative autonomist nationalisms of the Basque Country and of Catalonia, which evidently chimed with his leanings, seems all the more remarkable.

Gwyn arrived in Spain in early April 1933. The voyage had not really been his own choice. It was, as he recorded in his autobiography, a requirement of the language degree he had started at Oxford the previous year. ‘Had it not been’, Thomas wrote, ‘I would not have stirred’. The twenty year old from Cymmer in the Rhondda was in the midst of ‘spinning alienations’ having been thrust poor and ill into an environment of privilege, abundance, and gowned scholarly rituals for which he had no taste. ‘I met no one who could sing in tune’, he remembered in typically metaphorical fashion, ‘and the lack of close harmony hurt like hunger’. The landscapes of Spain, particularly the glimmering Guadarrama mountains, which entranced him, made up for the ‘eroding humanity’ he claimed to have found at Oxford by bringing Gwyn into direct contact with a people and a landscape he considered to be much like his own.

Perhaps crucially for his understanding of the country, Gwyn travelled to Madrid rather than to Barcelona. The streets of the Spanish capital were not, of course, free from snobbery and looks-down-the-nose, nor were they all that safe. Two years before Gwyn arrived, the country had, as Arthur Koestler put it, ‘shaken off the nightmare of the Middle Ages’ and declared itself a republic. Right-wing opinion steeled itself against the new government believing that its destruction, along with its leftist and liberal supporters, would be necessary in order to restore the country to its true Catholic purpose. Sat at a table in a a café on the Calle de San Jerónimo in the city centre, Gwyn Thomas experienced a full blast of this rhetoric and incitement to violence. ‘Of course it will have to be destroyed’, thundered a Spanish army captain, ‘this peasant government, this system of ideas … cataclysmically destroyed … [by] the guns that won South America’. The words left the young Welshman in no doubt about what was going on around him: ‘I could have anticipated’, he later reflected, ‘all the explosions from Madrid to Stalingrad in the conversation of this man’. This, I think, is what Gwyn took for nationalism, Spanish style.

Gwyn’s reflections on his journeys through Spain as a student are, typically of him, quite guarded. Of his time in Barcelona, for instance, he merely recalls getting drunk and going to watch American films. The only Basque nationalists he meets double up for religious preachers when they’re bored, warning of impending floods. Perhaps the only region of Spain which genuinely excited him was the Asturias. As he walked around the mining countryside near Oviedo, Gwyn felt as though he was entering villages in the Rhondda. ‘You had the same warmth, same kindliness, but above all the same marvellous intensity’, he recalled, ‘they realised that they had been living intolerable lives for a long, long time, and tolerance was running out’. The following year, the Austrian miners’ strike broke out – one of the most serious industrial disputes in modern Spain – later to be crushed by the Navy and Franco’s Moorish troops. For Gwyn, then, the suppression of this ‘revolt of the common people’ marked the beginnings of a conflict which led him ultimately to write in despair in the early 1940s. ‘The Wales of my childhood, the libertarian noon, was intelligent, altruistic, passionate, aglow, a place of strong-voiced dreamers and comedians. All gone’. But this, too, was the Spain that he had encountered. For when Gwyn looked at Spain, he saw Wales; when he saw strikers suppressed in the Asturias his mind was drawn to events in his native valleys; and yes, when he heard the right-wing Catholic ideas of Saunders Lewis his mind painted the portrait of Franco and his like.

It’s easy to dismiss this as the misguided thinking of a mid-twentieth century Labour ‘unionist’ but that would unfair. Gwyn’s politics were libertarian, socialist, and steeped in a genuine sense of intolerance about the intolerable conditions into which ordinary people were thrown. He believed strongly in the vibrancy of ordinary people, their cultural and social vitality, and their political earnestness. In his political model progress lay in the setting aside of differences and the forging of equality. Spain held this attraction for Gwyn – after all, it had seemingly thrown off hundreds of years of oppression and turned towards a better future. And yet we may speculate that had he, at the moment of his own political awakening, lived in Barcelona rather than Madrid and absorbed the autonomist sentiments of Catalan leftists rather than the republican unity of Castillian ones, he might have come to view his own land differently. But then I suspect he might also have wanted to start an left-autonomist party for the Valleys.

And yes, I think I would have joined.

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