One hundred years ago a British traveler described Barcelona as “combining the business of mill and shop, of warehouse and dock…of Liverpool and Manchester in one.” The comparison was in fact a compliment to the Catalan city, for its port was smaller and less efficient than Liverpool’s while its factories could not compete with Manchester’s: indeed, they survived only because Spain had the highest tariffs in Europe.
Such a comparison now, however, would be regarded as a terrible insult to Barcelona. Its textile mills may be old-fashioned (although so now are Manchester’s) but other features of its economy keep the place growing while the Lancashire cities have been losing jobs and inhabitants for decades. During the last hundred years Barcelona has suffered from a civil war, two dictatorships, and long periods of political and industrial violence. But it has acquired some marvelous architecture (almost all of it before 1936), much cultural prestige as well as political status, and a population about double that of Liverpool and Manchester combined. In addition, its application to host the Olympic Games succeeded, while Manchester’s has failed (so far).
Barcelona is arguably the finest “second city” in Europe and should have little to complain about. But whereas such a title would delight Birmingham or Lyon, Barcelona could never be satisfied with a designation that placed it behind Spain’s first city, the capital. To be deputy to a metropolis like London or Paris might just have been tolerable to the Catalans, but to be run by Madrid has for centuries been considered an injustice and a humiliation.
History massages Catalan grievances. In the Middle Ages, when Madrid was a meager provincial town, Barcelona was the center of a Mediterranean empire which included Sicily, Sardinia, and Majorca. In the nineteenth century, when Madrid was perhaps the most backward and corrupt capital in Europe, Barcelona led Spain’s industrial revolution, while today it is the largest city anywhere on the Mediterranean. Only bad luck and, in Catalan eyes, fiendish inequity could have determined that the greater city should have had to serve its inferior. The historical “ifs” proliferate from the fifteenth century: if Isabella of Castile had married the Portuguese king instead of the Aragonese heir, if the dynastic union had not happened when Castile was unnaturally strong and Aragon was unnaturally weak, if Philip II had not abandoned Toledo in 1561 or if he had made Lisbon his capital after 1580, if Valencia and the Aragonese hinterland had backed the Catalans in the 1640s—if any of these things had taken place, Barcelona would have been spared submission to Madrid. The most favorable opportunity to escape presented itself in the seventeenth century when both Portugal and Catalonia rebelled against the weakened Castilian state. Portugal managed to secede permanently from Spain, but Catalonia was reconquered. Barcelona was captured by a Castilian army in 1652 and again, after another lengthy war, in 1714. As its inhabitants are well aware, only a historical toss …