• Print

Provincial Councils in constitutional Spain (19th century)

Cover of the first edition of the Political Constitution of the Spanish Monarchy. Cádiz, 19 March 1812

aCover of the first edition of the Political Constitution of the Spanish Monarchy. Cádiz, 19 March 1812

Despite their initial historicist approach, the Provincial Councils set up under the Constitution of Cádiz quickly fell under the influence of Jacobinism, which in fact validated the absolute monarchy’s trends toward centralisation and uniformity. While the Councils respected the external limits of the Principality of Catalonia, they brought about a new set of territorial divisions that eliminated the Principality as a political entity by dividing it into four provinces. Furthermore, following the model of Napoleon, the theory and practice of the Spanish Government gradually shifted toward the subordination of collective bodies under the supervision of individual officers that made up a hierarchical chain including everything from the head of government in Madrid to the ministers (especially those from Governance), the provincial political leaders (also known as civil governors) and the mayors. These posts, starting with the chairperson of the Council of Ministers under Isabella II, were often militarised, helping to reinforce authoritarianism, which was increased in Catalonia and Barcelona by the frequent declaration of a state of emergency and the suspension of constitutional guarantees.

Even so, the provincial and municipal representative bodies frequently voiced demands on behalf of a society that had its own brand of dynamism and a model quite distinct from that of Spain. These differences became even more pronounced when the industrial revolution got into full swing in the mid 19th century. Catalonia, and especially the city of Barcelona, took on a significant and often central role in manoeuvring the liberal Spanish regime toward the left in order to decentralise the state or thoroughly re-examine the federalist model. In these perpetually unstable yet highly creative times, such as the Two Progressive Years (1854-1856) and the Six Democratic Years (1868-1874), the Provincial Councils of Catalonia—especially Barcelona—became a strategic political scene.

Hopes for reforming the liberal Spanish regime were repeatedly crushed. During the restoration, frustration favoured the search for solutions on the fringes of state institutions and the birth of nationalism. However, in the early 20th century, the Spanish Government ultimately recognised Catalonia’s distinct personality by uniting the four Provincial Councils in a Commonwealth. This experience, which lasted from 1914 to 1925, is the most recent precedent for the Government of Catalonia as we know it today.

The crisis of the Bourbon monarchy and Napoleon’s occupation in 1808 created a power vacuum at the state level that prompted the self-organisation of the different provinces of Spain. The Principality of Catalonia did so by establishing a Superior Assembly as a temporary seat of power aimed at leading the emerging resistance. In 1810, the Congress of Tarragona, chaired by the captain general, brought together the Superior Assembly and representatives of all of the magistracies and the church. The participants swore to uphold “the laws, exemptions, privileges, good practices and customs of the Principality”. Meanwhile, the French occupiers—especially Marshal Augereau, who was governor-general of Catalonia from January to May 1810—were using political and economic promises to try to attract the Catalans, but ultimately the Principality was directly annexed to the French Empire in 1812 and became a department.

In Spain, the Central Assembly, made up of resistance elements, held sessions in the city of Cádiz. These meetings were characterised by the marked historicist influence of the medieval Courts—especially those of the Crown of Aragon—and signalled an attempt to compensate for the centralising trends caused by the inertia of the absolute monarchy and new Jacobin and Napoleonic ideas. Because of this historicism, manifested in the Constitution of 1812, the new liberal regime renamed the interim regional Assemblies using the traditional name for the political institutions of representation and government of the historical kingdoms (“Diputació”, or Council). Under the authority of Captain General Lacy, the Superior Assembly was replaced by the Provincial Council of Catalonia, which was formed on 30 November 1812. One year later, the Council demanded that the Spanish Courts return its symbolic Council House. Ferdinand VII returned in 1814 and absolutism was restored. He dissolved all of the institutions created by the Constitution of Cádiz, including the Provincial Council of Catalonia (although it was restored in 1820 at the beginning of the Three Constitutional Years).

An internal debate ensued between the historicist and Jacobin schools of thought within the Courts of Cádiz, with the latter coming out ahead. In 1813, a project was implemented to divide the country into provinces in such a way that the new districts were dissociated from the memory of the former kingdoms. The project produced around forty provinces, three of which corresponded with the territory of the Principality: Barcelona, Tarragona and Urgell. Another project in 1821 produced 47 provinces, including the new province of Girona, and changed the name of the province of Barcelona to Catalonia. During a parliamentary debate in 1822, the number of provinces was increased to 52, and Catalonia was divided into the four provinces we know today. However, with the return to absolutism in 1823, the definitive quartering of the Principality was postponed until the decree of 30 November 1833, which divided the country into 49 provinces and, broadly speaking, validated the previous division of Catalonia into four provinces.

In 1833, Spain was divided definitively into provinces. A government representative (later called civil governor) was designated as the political leader of each province. Provincial Councils were not organised, however, as they were not envisaged in the Royal Statute of 1834. Revolution broke out in the summer of 1835—in keeping with a habit of self-organisation that was born and legitimised during the struggle against the French invaders, lasted until the end of the revolutionary cycle in 1842 and would also reappear later—and a revolutionary assembly formed in Barcelona began operating throughout Catalonia and sought to coordinate with similar assemblies in Zaragoza and Valencia. On 25 September 1835, Mendizábal’s government established the Provincial Councils by decree. They would be elected indirectly by those who paid the most taxes and chaired by the political leaders. They were definitively added to the design of the constitutional regime in 1836.

However, the outbreak of the First Carlist War set in motion another mechanism that was equally characteristic and recurrent in 19th-century Catalonia. Under the authority of the captains general—of which there was still just one for the entire former Principality (Espoz y Mina, in this case)—citizen assemblies were created. These organisations spanned Catalonia, operated better than the Provincial Councils, and were capable of imposing extraordinary taxes and issuing currency. Constitutional logic led toward unification and centralisation, much like it did under the New Political Order regime. However, the pragmatism of the captains general led in the opposite direction, toward a practical understanding with Catalan civil society and a brand of authoritarianism that was detached from the directives of Madrid and often arbitrary, yet more permeable than the ordinary channels for dealing with those in power. Shortly after the law of 9 January 1845 (a defining law of the moderate regime) reduced the Provincial Councils to the status of advisory committees to the civil governors, Captain General Manuel Pavía joined the four Catalan Provincial Councils to form the Assembly of Highways of Catalonia. The Assembly imposed extraordinary taxes to fund these public works and was quite effective for twenty years, until the revolution in 1868.

The Two Progressive Years (1854-1856) fleetingly restored the political model that had been abandoned in 1843, which theoretically gave greater prominence to provincial and municipal bodies. It was during the Six Democratic Years (1868-1874), however, that the shift toward decentralisation became more pronounced. Although the law of 20 August 1870 maintained the civil governors’ blockading powers, it also expanded and guaranteed the jurisdictions of certain Provincial Councils. The members of these Councils were to be elected by universal suffrage and select a president from among their ranks. The accumulated problems and instability made normal political operations impossible, but the Provincial Council of Barcelona became a strategic political scene: On 9 March 1873, diehard federalists incited the Council to declare a Catalan state. The fleeting Republic included these concerns in a thwarted constitutional draft that would have given regional states the power to maintain or alter the provincial division of 1833.

In fact, in 1876 the first legislation of the restoration returned to the moderate model. However, the amendment to the provincial law of 1882 partially reverted to that of 1870, calling for formulas to make sure all judicial districts were represented in the provincial body and guaranteeing internal presidential elections and extended suffrage. Universal male suffrage was restored in 1890. However, the establishment of dynastic succession, fraudulent elections and perpetually centralist government practices created an environment favourable to the emergence of Catalan nationalism. Nationalists not only demanded changes to the operation of existing institutions but also built specific alternatives for political self-organisation in Catalonia, from the federal constitutional draft of 1883 to the Manresa Bases of 1892. In a message dated 11 November 1898 addressed to the queen regent, the presidents of five Catalan institutions demanded a general council for Catalonia with a financial arrangement akin to that of the Basque councils. The Provincial Council of Barcelona made the same request the following year to the new Silvela government.

The introduction of universal male suffrage in 1890 and the unification of the plains of Barcelona, which created a municipal entity of a half million people, substantially changed the political scene in Catalonia’s capital and, indirectly and progressively, the rest of Catalonia. After the clean municipal elections held in 1901, the dynastic parties found themselves cornered and the structure of a specific party-based system came into view for the first time, with the Regionalist League and the republicans emerging as the dominant forces. Following this electoral victory, which was repeated in 1903, the Provincial Councils, previously reviled by regionalists, became a target of conquest. After the city of Barcelona, the Councils became the second most important platform for reconstructing the political personality of Catalonia.

In 1903, Minister Antoni Maura presented a project for local-government reform that called for “municipal commonwealths”, which would provide services of common interest. In 1904, representatives of the League presented an amendment to Maura’s project that requested that the right to form commonwealths be extended to the Provincial Councils in order to offer technical, agricultural and commercial education; create libraries and museums; preserve monuments; promote reforestation; carry out public works of all sorts; and create other institutions to encourage exportation. Catalan Solidarity was formed in 1906, the year of the first general assembly of the Provincial Councils of Spain. At this assembly, Enric Prat de la Riba presented a design for provincial commonwealths that would give them authority over public works, communications, public welfare and university education and provide them with the tax money needed to carry out these activities. Catalan Solidarity scored a major victory in the provincial elections of 10 March 1907, giving Prat de la Riba the post of president of the Provincial Council of Barcelona. He was re-elected repeatedly until his premature death in 1917. One of Prat de la Riba’s first decisions was to create the Institute of Catalan Studies, which was located at the Palace of the Government of Catalonia. The new version of Maura’s project presented to the Courts in June 1907 recognised the right to form provincial commonwealths. In fall of 1911, the four Provincial Councils of Catalonia agreed on the conditions for forming commonwealths. Prat de la Riba presented these conditions to Prime Minister José Canalejas as “the most solid, irresistible proof of a people’s ability to aspire to broad self-government functions”.

Solidarity’s crisis in 1908, the Tragic Week, caused the downfall of Maura’s government. Canalejas was assassinated in 1912. These and other obstacles delayed and finally thwarted the approval of the law on local-government reform. However, since 1911 the project for a Commonwealth of Catalonia had become detached from the overall reforms. That same year, Rovira i Virgili declared that the new organisation should not be called a Commonwealth (“Mancomunitat”, which was considered a Spanish archaism), but rather “Generalitat”, a word that connoted a desire for autonomy. On 12 December 1913, Eduardo Dato’s government finally issued a decree granting the Spanish Provincial Councils the power to form commonwealths to deal with shared administrative needs. Only the Catalan provinces—Barcelona, Girona, Lleida and Tarragona—seized this opportunity. As a result, Catalonia flourished once again as a political entity within Spain.

The assembly, which was made up of representatives of the four provinces (36 for Barcelona and 20 for each of the others), elected Enric Prat de la Riba, leader of the Regionalist League, as president of the Commonwealth on 6 April 1914. In addition to the assembly and the president, the Commonwealth included an eight-member Executive council. Two members came from each province, and together they represented the political range of Catalonia. Even though the state transferred only those powers and resources held by the Provincial Councils to the Commonwealth, the relative weight of the new organisation and the political unity of the Catalan nationalists under the strong leadership of Prat de la Riba made it possible to take major steps in public works, welfare services, education and culture with exemplary and long-lasting effects. When Prat de la Riba died in 1917, the presidency went to Josep Puig i Cadafalch. The second president of the Commonwealth tried to stabilize the institution’s positive action in an increasingly strained economic and social context, which ultimately prompted the League to support Primo de Rivera’s coup d’état in 1923. The dictator dismissed Puig and replaced him with the monarchist Alfons Sala, the Count of Egara, and proceeded to abolish the Commonwealth on 20 March 1925.

Enric Prat de la Riba, the first president of the Commonwealth (1914-1917)

Enric Prat de la Riba, the first president of the Commonwealth (1914-1917)

Josep Puig i Cadafalch, president of the Commonwealth (1917-1924)

Josep Puig i Cadafalch, president of the Commonwealth (1917-1924)

Update:  23.06.2014