The October 8th was a day of flags and is understandable that it had caused some unrest to anyone with historical awareness: collective disasters where no flag was raised are rare. But there are reasons to ask if the flags we saw last Sunday in Barcelona belong to that category. Needless to say, flags, as many other symbols, have the meaning we want to attribute to them. All flags are not equal, neither suggest the same at different historic moments, nor have the same affective charge for different groups or individuals. Consider the confederate flag vs the US flag, the French flag during Vichy regime, the German flag for an East German. Flags have the particularity of being reductive symbols (since they simplify plural complex realities) that nevertheless keep its meaning open (since it changes through history and public debate). This is also true for the Spanish flag.
Strongly conditioned by its historic association to Franco’s regime, the Spanish flag has had a minor role in our democracy’s sentimental repertoire. So it is understandable that many citizens, specially those who got to live under dictatorship, see a metaphoric remainder of Francoism in it. That soft spot was exploited by peripheral nationalisms —to which the healthy enlightened prevention against patriotic displays were not applied, apparently. By contrast, last Sunday, the Spanish flag had a central role. Certainly, we can discuss if it would be more desirable that people take to the streets brandishing the Complete Works of John Stuart Mill. But it is not easy to defend constitutional patriotism in times of emotional unease, so any symbol available is always welcome when that happens —for better or worse.
However, something unprecedented has happened. Because the estelada, the starry independentist flag, has been opposed not only with the Spanish flag, but also with the twinning of the Spanish, Catalan and European flags. In his vibrant speech, Josep Borrell even declared that his estelada was the European flag. From an optimistic perspective, that simultaneous celebration would have freed the Spanish flag from its Francoism reminiscences, converting it into a democratic inclusive symbol linked to the European project, while it reminds us that those distinct identities are, like so many others, perfectly compatible. That is what pluralist democracy is about.
It is true that Borrell called to demonstrators to not behave as a Roman mob when they were demanding jail for separatist leaders. Politics works best without crowds. But do not forget that it was Catalan nationalism which betted on them. In fact, the demonstration in Barcelona does not appear to be the comeback of the old Spanish nationalism as much as the citizens’ response to an aggression perpetrated by the pro-independence movement against the democratic frame of coexistence —one lesser evil to counter a greater evil. For this reason, the political demand most impeccably expressed in Barcelona did not came from Mario Vargas Llosa or Josep Borrell, but to a representative from Sociedad Civil Catalana, who defended “a one citizenship” in opposition to the nationalist “a one people”.
Finally, it is possible that with this mobilization “the process” has lost —loyals aside— the legitimacy it had left. If this were the case, we should not rule out the possibility that this massive civic response puts Spain at the forefront of the political combat that Europe is presently fighting against nationalist-populism. It is too early for such optimism. But that is a good use we can make of the flags of our fathers.