The beginning of Puig i Cadafalch’s commitment to politics could be dated to 1886, when Puig enters the Centre Escolar Catalanista [Catalanist Student Centre], a veritable nursery of important politicians from the years to come, including Prat de la Riba and Cambó.
He would serve as President during the 1889-90 academic year. In fact, however, his patriotism had already been seen by age 16 in the poems he published in El Semanario de Mataró.
In 1892, he was delegate for the municipality of Mataró to the Assemblea de les Bases de Manresa, convened by the Catalanist Union, which was presided over by the architect Domènech i Muntaner.
We know that in 1893 he was already a member of the League of Catalonia, within the section of Literature and Fine Arts.
Between 1890 and 1900, Puig frequently wrote in La Renaixença from where he criticized political despotism and advocated the study and enhancement of the archaeology and architecture of Catalonia, as way to reach the soul of the country, the essence of the Catalan nation.
In the same direction, Domènech i Muntaner would publish the manifesto Vers una arquitectura nacional [In search of a national architecture] and Prat de la Riba, in the first pages of La nacionalitat catalana [Catalan nationality] (1906) employs similar language—form working for the good of the country as a whole.
In 1901, together with Prat de la Riba, Cambó and others, Puig contributed to the founding of the Regionalist League of Catalonia. The mouthpiece of the new party will be La Veu de Catalunya [The Voice of Catalonia] that, driven by Prat de la Riba, will defend a much more interventionist attitude in politics than did La Renaixença. Puig i Cadafalch will be one of the regular contributors. The language used by Puig is forceful; as when he writes, “…the Catalan question is not one of good or bad administration; it is not about administrative morality, it is not only good or bad government, but it is a matter of being or not being.
The Catalans want to be better governed, better administered; but first and foremost, we want to be Catalans with everything that a people needs to exist…”
In 1901, he was elected Councillor of the City Council of Barcelona, a position he held until 1905.
The new councillors were expected to change the corrupt functioning of this institution and provide technical and professional expertise. And this is what Puig promised in an article in La Veu de Catalunya in January 1902. In any case, L’Esquella de la Torratxa published a caricature in which Puig is made to say, ”The task is colossal / but I will not back down. / Of this ill mansion / must not remain stone upon stone.”
In 1906, Catalan Solidarity was created, as a reaction to the activities of ¡Cu-Cut! and La Veu de Catalunya, as well as to the Law of Jurisdictions.
The electoral success of Solidarity allowed Puig i Cadafalch to be elected Member of Parliament for Barcelona in 1907. In his opening speech Puig will be, as always, direct. Enric Jardí cites this fragment:
…“before this outdated State, before this State that is not the appropriate organ of the variety of citizens; before you, representatives of the end of that centralist state, we come, the representatives of collective freedom”…
He will remain in this position until 1910, intervening primarily in favour of culture, infrastructures and the transfer of services.
In 1913, Puig i Cadafalch enters the Barcelona Provincial Council, which allows him to work side by side with Prat de la Riba, in a task that will become more evident with the creation of the Commonwealth in 1914. Puig will be re-elected Deputy until 1923.
After the death of Prat de la Riba, in August 1917, Puig i Cadafalch, who was already one of the eight members of the Permanent Council of the Commonwealth, was elected President by closely defeating his opponent, Joan Rovira i Agelet.
Collaboration with politicians of diverse ideology, initiated by Prat de la Riba, was continued by Puig i Cadafalch. On the one hand, because both had been required to make a virtue of necessity, given the political complexity that was reflected in the Permanent Council itself and, on the other, because it was a propitious moment in which there were numerous politicians who chose to put themselves at the service of building the country, above any other partisan interest.
In any case, Puig continued and concretized Prat’s project in a way so identical, that actions are confused and often attributed to one or another protagonist, without distinction.
Puig i Cadafalch was re-elected as president in 1919, 1921 and 1923. In 1920, he achieved the transfer of services and resources of the four Catalan Provincial Councils to the Commonwealth, which will allow him—though with a great scarcity of resources—to provide fresh impetus to the budget and projects of the Commonwealth.
Puig’s task as President will have many open fronts. One of the most important was the struggle in Madrid to achieve greater autonomy for Catalonia, with Cambó taking the lead, as he had done during Prat’s life.
The other front was in Catalonia itself, with the radicalization of political parties and, above all, of trade unions. The struggle between unions and employers that degenerated into pistolerisme [hiring of armed thugs] on both sides, the influence of the triumph of the Bolsheviks in Russia (1917), the strikes, etc. will lead to an untenable social situation.
Albert Balcells has studied this period thoroughly, in which the Commonwealth and the President himself were called to arbitrate between the opposing sides, with only meagre success.
This led to the coup of Primo de Rivera in 1923. Puig did not find out about it until only a few hours before it occurred. After Primo de Rivera agreed to meet with the President of the Commonwealth and gave him his guarantee to respect the most essential of rights of Catalonia, the Permanent Council of the Commonwealth issued a statement supporting the general based on these assurances.
None of these promises were fulfilled, and on the same day as the Commonwealth’s press release appeared in the press, the Catalan language was prohibited in public corporations as well as the use of the Catalan flag, among many other humiliations.
The consequences of these events will weigh heavily in the future assessments of Puig i Cadafalch as a politician, despite Primo de Rivera’s clear betrayal of the Commonwealth and its President.
At the end of 1923 Puig i Cadafalch went into self-exile in France to devote himself to research activities in the field of architecture and archaeology.
When Primo de Rivera fell in 1930, Puig again became a member of the Barcelona Provincial Council.
The outbreak of the civil war forced him into exile again in France, from where he returned in 1941. Especially worthy of admiration is his work of keeping the Institute of Catalan Studies alive, presiding over it and meeting clandestinely at his home, and the fact of saving important documentation of the Commonwealth that, discovered many years later, is now well preserved in the National Archive of Catalonia..Puig died on December 23, 1956, at the age of 89, and was buried in Mataró, the city of his birth.
Several historians agree that Puig was more an administrator than a politician. And he himself did not hide from affirming this to figures such as Pla or Azorin and in some of his own speeches. He was convinced that the world of politicians was full of sterile and partisan struggles and he was a man of great practical purpose and with a large portfolio of projects to move forward. He always accepted, however, the positions his party designated for him, convinced, most likely, that despite the obvious shortcomings only political commitment would allow important initiatives at the service of the country to be carried out.
Esteve Mach i Bosch