Tag Archives: Britain

Catalonia and the Splintering of Europe

Secession is something of a dirty word in these parts.

My readers know that the United States dealt rather dramatically and thoroughly with the question of secession during the Civil War in the 19th century, meaning that the issue of whether a country could break apart is something which does not often cross our minds on this side of the Atlantic.  True, our media has done a great deal of reporting on the occupation of Crimea by Russia, but mainly because that action raises a number of strategic concerns for this country.  Somewhat less attention has been paid to the question of independence for Scotland, although it is reported on from time to time for the two-fold reason that the people there speak English, and Americans are fascinated by just about anything that goes on in Britain.

However in other parts of Europe, the possibility of break-up is being actively considered, yet remains outside the common knowledge of most Americans.  Consider the recent referendum in Venice for example, on whether to leave Italy and become an independent republic again, as it was before Italian unification in the 19th century.  The story received scant attention on these shores, but the referendum passed with a staggering 89% of the vote, accompanied by a huge turn-out: of the 3.7 million eligible voters, approximately 2.4 million voters took part, and of those over 2.1 million people voted in favor of declaring independence from Italy. Another example is the question of independence for Catalonia, an issue which is now starting to come to a head, but which is not being analyzed very much in American news outlets either.

As the reader may know, if he is a regular visitor to these pages, Catalonia is the northeastern region of Spain along the Mediterranean, of which Barcelona is the capital.  The Catalan people have their own separate language, flag, and culture, distinct from the rest of Spain, a fact which, at various points over the past few centuries, has caused them to try to gain independence.  Economically speaking, Catalonia is one of the most powerful of Spain’s 17 component regions, producing between 1/4 and 1/5 of the entire output of the Spanish national economy, depending on whose figures you believe.

Because of this, Catalan yearning for international cultural recognition has, in recent years, been joined with something resembling economic libertarianism.  The perception, rightly or wrongly, among the Catalans that they are paying far more into the central Spanish economy than they are getting out of it, has fostered a widespread call for less centralized control by Madrid.  This development of a greater desire for self-determination based on economic policy, not just cultural preservation, has appealed to a broad swath of Catalan voters, and led to an upcoming referendum which could lead to Catalonia declaring independence from Spain…or maybe not.

Back in January of 2013, the Catalan Parliament adopted a resolution that Catalonia had a right to hold a vote on whether to declare independence from Spain, as a sovereign legal and political entity.  This was temporarily suspended by the Spanish Constitutional Court in Madrid in May 2013, pending judicial ruling on the matter.  The resolution was rejected yesterday by the court, declaring that “within the framework of the constitution, a region cannot unilaterally convoke a referendum on self-determination to decide on its integration with Spain.”

While this was making its way through the legal system last year, the major Catalan political parties did not wait to see what Madrid would decide.  In December 2013, the Catalan government announced that a referendum would be held on November 9, 2014, in which two questions would be placed before the electorate.  First, voters would be asked whether they wanted to declare Catalonia a state; if so, the voters would then be asked whether that state should be independent of Spain.  The central government in Madrid has already declared that any such vote would be illegal under the Spanish Constitution, a position strengthened by yesterday’s court ruling.

Keep in mind, there are two very important differences with respect to the way the Scottish and the Catalan independence referenda are proceeding.  In the case of Scotland, the vote will only ask one question: whether Scotland should be an independent country.  In Catalonia, the two-part question means that, in theory, a majority of voters could declare that Catalonia is a state, rather than simply a province or a region, and yet those voters could also decide that they do not want to be independent of Spain.  Additionally, while the Scottish vote is taking place with the blessing – if not the approval – of the British government, the Catalan vote, if it happens at all, clearly will have no such approval nor be recognized, whatever the outcome.

Yet interestingly enough, Tuesday’s ruling may not prove to be a defeat for the Catalan referendum after all.  Not only was this court result expected, but it may actually galvanize Catalan voters to go ahead with their vote anyway, in defiance of Madrid.  If it does, Catalonia may be betting on the fact that the current Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, and the conservative Partido Popular which he heads, are now unpopular.  The Spanish economy remains something of a basket case, with around 26% of Spaniards still unemployed, and economic growth this year predicted to be only around 1.2%, according to figures released today by the Bank of Spain.

Given that Spain has been in the economic doldrums for several years, this growth rate is actually comparatively good news, but it is not winning Sr. Rajoy or his party many votes.  Recent polls suggest that in the upcoming EU Parliamentary elections in May, the Partido Popular is likely to lose to the Socialists and other leftist groups.  And since national elections must take place in Spain in 2015, Catalonia may be betting that Sr. Rajoy will not want to risk being seen ordering the police or armed forces to arrest and prosecute those trying to organize the referendum.

Of course, if Catalonia decides that it is a state within a state, this may prove almost more confusing within Spain’s patchwork system of government than if it simply declared independence.  Unlike the United States or Germany, Spain does not have a federal system of government, with a clear division of powers between the various state governments and the national government.  Rather, individual relationships were negotiated between the central government in Madrid, and the component regions of the country, which over the years have occasionally been re-visited and renegotiated.

Thus, even if full-on independence does not pass in Catalonia, Spain could be looking at a major constitutional crisis.  Other wealthy, culturally and linguistically separatist regions in the north of Spain, such as the Basques or Galicia, could decide that they, too, want to hold such referenda.  Some might want to stay within Spain; others might go for full-on independence.  The end result could be an evisceration of the Spanish Constitution, something which Madrid absolutely does not want.

In a wider European context, Brussels is clearly concerned about what the fracturing of nation-states means for the future of the European Union.  Paradoxically, it is the greater degree of self-determination brought about by membership in the EU which has helped to bring about these resurgent independence movements, but there is no guarantee that a newly independent Catalonia, Venice, or Scotland would be permitted to join the EU.  Their “parent” states could indefinitely prevent their accession, for example.  These would not be friendly annulments, as occurred in the breakup of Czechoslovakia, nor bloody, drawn-out divorces, as occurred in Yugoslavia, but something altogether new, which Brussels will have a very difficult time dealing with.

Stay tuned.

Pro-Independence Rally in Downtown Barcelona September 11, 2012

Pro-Independence Rally in Downtown Barcelona
September 11, 2012

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Surprise! Richard III Was Catholic

Hearings before a panel of three judges continued today at the High Court in London, over what to do with the remains of King Richard III.  The re-discovery of his tomb has set off a fury of argument in the UK about where the king ought to be re-buried, which has led to the current court case.  Yet much of the legal wrangling underway over where to put him seems ridiculous, because it overlooks the fact that Richard was a Catholic.

One of England’s most important and famous historical figures, further immortalized by Shakespeare, Richard III was the last of the direct line of the Plantagenet family dynasty to rule England.  He was killed in 1485 during the Battle of Bosworth Field, by troops led by his cousin Henry Tudor.  Henry subsequently took the throne as King Henry VII, and established the Tudor dynasty.

Richard III was buried rather quietly in the church of the Franciscan friary located in the city of Leicester, rather than with pomp and ceremony with other English kings in Westminster Abbey; Henry VII himself paid for a carved alabaster tomb for the man whom he had dethroned.  Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry’s son Henry VIII during the Reformation, both the Franciscan church and friary were destroyed, and Richard’s tomb was lost to history for over 400 years.  Until recently, a parking lot stood over the site of his grave, but in 2012 excavations on the site led to the re-discovery of his remains.

Historians still debate whether Richard III was the villain portrayed by Shakespeare, or whether he was the victim of calumnies spread by his opponents that passed into the popular consciousness.  Yet wherever the truth lies, one question can be answered clearly and unequivocally: Richard was born, lived, and died a Catholic.  He endowed Catholic institutions, received the Catholic sacraments, and worshiped in the Catholic faith of his fathers.  Being a Catholic who was buried in a Catholic church in the charge of a Catholic religious order, we can reasonably assume that Richard also received a Catholic burial.

Nevertheless, court arguments currently underway are apparently in a different realm of thought altogether.  One group wants Richard III to be buried in York Minster; another group thinks that he should be buried at Leicester Cathedral; a third group is arguing that he should be interred in Westminster Abbey.  While all of these medieval buildings were originally Catholic of course, today none of them are.  And unfortunately the Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Nottingham, where Richard’s remains were rediscovered, has simply left the debate entirely to others.

To re-bury Richard III in a Protestant church using some sort of cobbled-together, ecumenical banner-waving exercise, or mock-approximation of what a 15th century Catholic service for the dead *might* have looked like, would be ridiculous.  It would be like disinterring the Protestant Woodrow Wilson from his tomb at the Protestant National Cathedral here in Washington, and re-burying him in the Catholic Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on the other side of town.  Unfortunately however, it appears fairly certain that whatever the High Court decides, Richard III’s remains are going to have to go through something like this.  It is a pity that he is being treated more as a political football and potential source of tourist revenue, rather than as an opportunity to show respect for the deceased.

Facial reconstruction of what Richard III may have looked like based on his remains

Facial reconstruction of what Richard III may have looked like based on his remains

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A Decidedly French Bonfire of the Vanities

If you are collector, then you know how it feels to discover that the object you purchased is a fake, a copy, or a reproduction.  Once, an art dealer friend grew very excited about a painting he bought at an estate sale, thinking he had discovered an original 19th century work for a song, only to be told – by me – that it was in fact a rather so-so copy of a portion of a fresco by the 16th century Venetian Renaissance painter Paolo Veronese.  Since then, he tends to gives me a jingle when he is considering purchasing a painting that he is not 100% sure about.

We should of course draw a distinction between the three categories described above, at least insofar as these terms apply to the art world.  A fake is an object created with the intent to deceive.  Copies and reproductions on the other hand, are made for various reasons.  For example, artists whose work was very popular in their own lifetime would sometimes paint copies of their own paintings, or have their assistants do so for them.  Later artists will often copy works by earlier artists, trying to study and understand the techniques that were employed.  Reproductions do not come from the original artist’s studio, but are made through a variety of methods, for the sake of making a popular image available to a wider audience.

So one cannot help but feel some pity for British businessman Martin Lang, who purchased a painting which he believed to be by the prominent Modern artist Marc Chagall.  Not only has a committee of experts in Paris decided that the painting is a fake, but under French law Mr. Lang will probably not get his painting back.  Instead, Chagall’s heirs have the right to insist that the painting be burned in front of a French judge.  As an example of ridiculous French jurisprudence – though I repeat myself – this result is rather unfortunate, to say the least.

However it is so not for the reasons pointed out by art expert and BBC presenter Philip Mould, who in effect unintentionally created this mess for Mr. Lang by sending the painting to Paris.  The issue of whether or not the painting is determined to be genuine now or at a later date is almost beside the point.  It is a pity that Mr. Lang will have to suffer the loss of a bad art investment, but the old warning of “caveat emptor” applies when it comes to all commercial transactions, whether one is buying a home, or a second-hand car, or a (purported) Chagall.  Sometimes there are recourses available to the injured purchaser, and sometimes not.

Rather, the stink to be raised here has to do with the question of property rights in general, and the reasonableness of the remedies available to both parties in this dispute.  In the case of the Chagall estate, the argument is that the existence of a fake dilutes Chagall’s legacy, much in the way that the fellow selling fake Louis Vuitton bags on the pavement outside the Metro station dilutes the value of the LVMH corporation.  Chagall’s reputation as an artist is deemed to suffer as a result, and although no one seems to be mentioning it in the press I have read so far, of course the prices of Chagall works would, in theory, go down as well, thus negatively impacting the income of his estate.  By contrast, all Mr. Lang will lose in this dispute is face, since it is embarrassing to find out you have been swindled, as well as the money he originally plunked down for the painting.

Yet as is usual in French history from 1789 onward, the solution to the dispute is so completely out of proportion with common sense, so ignorant of possible other, more civilized ways of addressing the problem, that it quite rightly makes the Anglo-American mind reel.  In the interest of protecting the property rights of the Chagall estate in France, the French are perfectly happy to violently interfere with the property rights of a man in England, who was acting in good faith.  Surely there must be other ways of making sure that this painting does not mistakenly gain the Chagall imprimatur and negatively impact the Chagall “brand”.

I am not suggesting, necessarily, that one grab a big Sharpie and write “FAKE” all over the back of this picture in permanent ink.  The point I am trying to make is that whether or not this is a Chagall (and assuming, arguendo, that it is not), the penalty imposed on the purchaser of such an item is so extreme as to be outrageous.  The decision on what to do with a fake of this kind ought to be the owner’s, as the bona fide purchaser for value, and not that of a committee located in another country; while the Chagall estate has a legitimate interest in protecting and preserving the intellectual property rights of the artist, the mere existence of a copy of a Chagall painting ought not to automatically consign that piece to the flames.  Such an attitude betrays the fact that the real motivation here is not to protect the integrity of a dead artist’s work, but rather to continue to line the pockets of his heirs, until all residual ownership rights are finally exhausted.

Don’t believe me? The Louvre, among many other museums in France – and indeed as is commonplace throughout the art museum world – is full of paintings which bear labels such as “Attributed To”, or “Circle of” or “After” world-famous, dead artists.  These works are exact copies, near approximations, or variations on the works of other painters, though not believed by experts to come from the hand of those original painters.  Whether the creators of these works intended them to be fakes, copies, or reproductions, we do not know.  Yet they continue to hang on the walls, rather than go to the scrap heap, because no one is complaining about them being a source of lost revenue.

Using the line of thinking employed here under French law, when Mr. Lang’s “Chagall” is taken out and burned – presumably on the Place de la Concorde, where countless other French legal injustices have taken place – I challenge French art institutions to be honest, bring out their own fakes, and burn them as well.  No more fake Leonardos, no more pseudo-Rubens, heave another mock-Poussin on the fire, boys. Let’s just have a big bonfire of French vanity for all to enjoy, and toast our marshmallows over the demise of common-sense property rights in jurisprudence.

The painting in question.

The painting in question, supposedly by Marc Chagall c. 1909-1910


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The Legacies of Christian Britain at the CIC in Washington

Last evening I attended “The British Isles & Christianity: From the Past to the Present” at the Catholic Information Center here in the Nation’s Capital – a city which, yes, is still rather basically functioning today despite the government shutdown.  The presenters on behalf of the Christian Heritage Center in Lancashire, including Royal Patron The Lord Nicholas Windsor, son of the Duke of Kent and 1st cousin to Queen Elizabeth II; Chairman The Lord Alton of Liverpool; and Curator Janet Graffius gave an excellent overview presentation on how Christianity had changed in Britain over the last 500 years.  During the course of the evening they discussed what happened to Catholic heritage during the violent iconoclasm of the Reformation,  and the story of the remarkable survival of a number of important objects closely tied to both the history and the devotional practices of centuries of Catholics in Britain and beyond, which are now housed at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire.

Lord Nicholas began by noting that the iconoclasm of artistic culture and craftsmanship which took place during the Reformation left the British people with their cathedrals and parish churches in most cases stripped bare of everything which had been a part of Christian life in local communities for centuries.  The process left bare structures with little or no art left to fill them.  What he described as a “thorough attempt by the state to change a culture” was an effort that went on for centuries.  The state wanted to ensure that as little as possible of the historical memory of what Britain was before the Reformation would survive.

With British Catholic families smuggling out much of what was left of their heritage to the Low Countries and France for preservation, when anti-Catholicism became particularly violent in Britain, many remarkable objects were saved.  Rare things like St. Thomas More’s hat, likely embroidered by one of his daughters, to original vestments made for use in Westminster Abbey on order from the Crown, eventually found their way into Jesuit hands, and thereby into what became the nucleus of the collections of Stonyhurst.  Once Catholics were able to come back into public life in Britain in a limited way in the late 18th century, and more so with the Catholic Revival that began to take shape there in the 19th century, these objects became better-known, and yet are still comparatively unknown to many in the UK and elsewhere.  The hope of the Christian Heritage Center is to change all of that by bringing these amazing objects to a wider audience, and creating a place where people can not only come to see them, but also to study, to go on retreat, and to pray with others interested in the history and legacies of Christianity in Britain and throughout the world.

Thus the presenters brought with them several objects for the audience to examine, including a crucifix owned by St. Thomas More, which were an excellent sampling of some of the remarkable items in the school’s collection.  As an American and a Georgetown alumnus, one of the pieces I most enjoyed seeing was a book owned first by John Carroll, the first Catholic Archbishop of the United States, and then by his cousin Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.  Both were sent as boys from America to study at Stonyhurst, and the school retains one of the textbooks which they used.

The frontispiece to the book of poetry in question features the signatures of both Carrolls, and the dates when each was using this particular book at the school.  It also features an engraving of the muses, gesticulating in semi-undress as muses are wont to do.  One of the Carroll boys – whether the Archbishop or the Founding Father, we do not know – decided to deface the illustration by drawing tobacco pipes in the muses’ mouths.  This is going off on a slightly different and more destructive sort of tangent from my blog post yesterday about writing in books, of course, but there you are.

Curator Graffius explained how these are not museum objects per se, but rather living, speaking objects, which the Center hopes to allow more people the chance to communicate with.  They are things which allow the viewer to understand how as Catholic Christians, they come from centuries of Christians before them, including oftentimes many examples of those who had to suffer great persecutions to hold on to their faith.  As Lord Alton added, they remind us of the sacrifices that were made, not only in Britain but indeed in America,  for the privileges of religious and personal freedom which we enjoy today.  “Knowing who you are matters,” Lord Alton pointed out,  “and people are forgetting who they are.  We need to convey these stories to those who come after us.”

Those of my readers who will be able to attend these presentations as the group makes their way through DC, Baltimore, and Boston, should be certain to let others know of the good work being done here, particularly in the face of a secular society which is becoming more and more increasingly militant in its opposition to the worship and practice of faith.  In the end, the Christian Heritage Center at Stonyhurst in the UK is not simply a museum complex waiting to be built.  Rather it is really a place for all Christians to look more deeply into our heritage of 2,000 years of faith.


Attendees at the CIC examining some of the objects brought by Curator Jan Graffius


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What Direction Britain?

Over the weekend while I watched what I knew was coming on the season finale “Downton Abbey” – and no, there will be no spoilers for those few of you who don’t know yet – I was struck by how a costume drama from the Mother County could so enthrall American audiences.  There has always been that so-called “special relationship” between Britain and America despite what they might term the unpleasantness of the Revolution and the War of 1812.  However I wonder how much of that affinity remains at present, or whether we are simply mutually basking in the reflected glow of something now past.

Watching as the current British Prime Minister stumbles his way along through one misguided policy after another, it is hard for an American conservative to fathom that Mr. Cameron happens to be the head of Britain’s Conservative Party.  As recently as the Thatcher, Major, and Blair years, there seemed to be a greater affinity between the two nations with respect to a number of policy issues, regardless of whether it was a Conservative or Labour government.  Yet increasingly under Gordon Brown and now under David Cameron, there is a sense that Britain is going irreversibly in one direction and America in another.

Others of course would argue that Britain is simply ahead of the curve, and that eventually here in the US we will end up something like the UK writ large.  One certainly hopes that this is not the case, and I say that as a life-long Anglophile who has had the good fortune to live in Britain twice.  Though once senses that the mutual values we held of how to achieve mutual prosperity seem to have been eroding rather dramatically.

When we look back to the first half of the previous century, such as the time in which the fictional Crawley family are operating, we notice that there was a healthy fusion of British belief in hard work with an American sense of getting the job done creatively.  British aristocrats married American money to save their houses, and British businessmen went into partnerships with American firms, recognizing that there were natural affinities and mutual needs that could be met through adaptation and change.  After all, what saves Downton Abbey financially is putting a middle-class young man in charge of things, once he gets the backing of his American mother-in-law to persuade her husband.  And lest we forget, like Ladies Mary, Edith, and Sybil Crawley, Sir Winston Churchill himself was half-American.

Yet it must be said that among the Britons whom I regularly interact with, as much as they may love their country, privately they recognize that there are not as many opportunities left for them there, and many of them want to move here.  They see fewer chances of really succeeding on merit in a country which has become so increasingly dependent on government subsidy, and merely surviving rather than thriving.  What Napoleon once referred to as a “nation of shopkeepers”, seems to be increasingly a “nation of victims”.

Now before any of us over on this side of the Atlantic start patting ourselves on the back, or contentedly saying to ourselves, “There but for the grace of God…”, we, too continue to see more and more dependence upon centralized government taking over even the most basic aspects of our lives.  Fortunately our federal system allows for a greater deal of fight-back than we see in Britain, though that requires eternal vigilance, and more often than not the use of the courts, as we see in the current fight over the present Administration’s HHS Mandate.

For all of our complaints about divided government in our unusual American system of government, there is something very good indeed about a weakened Executive Branch in particular.  Among other things, it makes it much harder for any one person or philosophy to absolutely dominate domestic policy.  Thus while he was able to pass Obamcare thanks to his party controlling both the White House and Congress, today Mr. Obama could huff and puff all he wants, but if he were to introduce a bill that Republicans could not support, it simply would not pass.

What the future holds we do not know.  We can be sure that it will be a less prosperous one for both nations, thanks to factors such as short-sighted budget policies more focused on present consumption than future growth, or promoting population control as a way to reign in costs while simultaneously gutting future benefits.  In the end one does not fear for America so much, since she changes regularly throughout her history, but one wonders what will become of dear old Blighty once it is little more than a cog in the European socialist machine.  And that is something which the British will have to answer for themselves.


Cousin Matthew out for a spin on “Downton Abbey”

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