The Real Spain

A couple of weeks ago, Irene Lozano, head of the Spanish foreign ministry’s España Global department, launched a campaign called “This is the real Spain”. The idea was to try to ensure that outsiders got an idea of the country that was removed from the dark, Francoist vision that has long been presented by the Catalan independence movement. The timing, of course, was no coincidence. A few days later, the trial began of leaders of the failed bid for Catalan independence in October 2017. While the stakes are extremely high for the defendants, they are, arguably, just as high for the Spanish state, which wants to reassure the world that its judiciary – and therefore democracy – are fit for purpose.

Having made a video featuring celebrities, multinational bigwigs and others bigging up the country’s democratic credentials, Lozano starting broadcasting the virtues of modern Spain on social media. Unfortunately for her, those tweets were swiftly followed by a torrent of further tweets, under the same #ThisIsTheRealSpain hashtag, by those whose propaganda she was seeking to counter.

A quick glance at the content of the streams of competing #ThisIsTheRealSpain tweets shows two wildly contrasting ideas of a country. While the government’s version of Spain is a multi-coloured collage of fêted filmmakers, Michelin-star-laden chefs, globetrotting bankers and grinning athletes, for pro-independence Catalans it’s a black-and-white photo of a policeman bashing an elderly lady on the head with a truncheon.

The Catalan issue has colonised the Spanish political arena for a long time and, with the trial, it is doing so even more now. But, as I wade through my Brexit-prompted application for Spanish nationality, I’ve been asking myself recently what “The real Spain” means for me, away from the noise of day-to-day news.

Off the top of my head… orderly queues at supermarket fish counters; crass daytime TV; the Picos de Europa mountains; the matiness of manual workers; the self-righteousness of deskbound civil servants; Paco de Lucía’s Almoraima album; Rafa Nadal’s forehand and off-court modesty; the people and bars of Ciudad Real; the punctuality of the AVE high-speed trains; unnecessarily glazed croissants; noisy late-night children; the lottery of the 10-euro menu del día; a sensitivity to, bordering on obsession with, the opinions of other nations; the diversity of Spanish politics; the tribalism of Spanish politics; tarta de Santiago; irritating pop band names like La Oreja de Van Gogh or El sueño de Morfeo; doing things in big groups; the incomprehensible appeal of Roscón de Reyes; and, lastly, those massive, shapeless, woollen green overcoats that older men wear in the winter and which I find slightly disturbing.

(It’s a pretty haphazard list and if you’d asked me on any other day I would probably have given a very different answer.)

Spain’s people of 2018

Spain’s year began with a hangover from the traumatic recent events in Catalonia and moved into what looked like a semi-permanent state of political turmoil. There was upheaval as the corruption-plagued Popular Party was ousted from power and replaced by the Socialists. But renewed radicalism from both Spanish and Catalan nationalist politicians – and many of their supporters – left the new government in a precarious position. In a year when Spain has been celebrating the 40th anniversary of its constitution, several of its already struggling institutions have taken a further battering, from the judiciary and Catholic Church to political parties and the football federation. The following list is my choice of people of the year from various fields. It’s not “the best people of the year” but rather some of those who have influenced the last 12 months, for better or worse. (To those who object to the fact that I have included a divisive Spanish leader known both for his longevity and authoritarian tendencies, all I can say is: I believe Sergio Ramos deserves to be on the list.)

5) Pedro Sánchez. The prime minister may look like an overly obvious choice, but this year has been the most remarkable in his already incident-packed political career. In late spring, his opposition Socialist Party was languishing in polls, struggling to make its voice heard amid the hysterical clamour of the Catalan crisis. But following a court ruling that confirmed the existence of institutional corruption within the governing Popular Party, Sánchez sprang a surprise attack in the form of a no-confidence motion against prime minister Mariano Rajoy. What looked at first like a rather desperate gambit started to gather strength as other opposition parties joined the initiative, eager not to be seen to be propping up the corruption-plagued government. Even Catalan pro-independence parties joined in, allowing Sánchez to become prime minister. It was quite a feat for a man who had been forced to step down as leader of his own party less than two years earlier. Plenty has happened since the no-confidence motion, with Sánchez performing more U-turns than a drunken forklift truck driver. Meanwhile, his fragile government now hangs in the balance in a country which appears to have shifted to the right, away from his brand of moderate politics.

4) Sergio Ramos.Would you want Sergio Ramos on your team? The knee-jerk response would be “yes”. After all, he’s been one of Spanish football’s outstanding defenders for a decade and a half, his interceptions, tackles and late headed goals making him a huge asset to both Real Madrid and the Spanish national team. Add to that his other quality – taking out tricky members of opposing teams. Just take a close look at how he brought Liverpool’s Mo Salah down to earth early in the Champions League final, with a subtle yet firm armlock that dislocated the Egyptian’s shoulder, removing him from the rest of the game. For Real Madrid fans it was an innocent bit of rough-and-tumble. For those with a less sympathetic viewpoint, there was more to it than that, being, as the Guardian noted, “the kind of thing you spend three years learning to pull off in a camp in the Swiss Alps, along with the blow dart to the neck and the sword-stick umbrella jab.” In the same game, an elbow to Loris Karius’s head arguably contributed to the goalkeeper’s disastrous, match-losing display. Moral qualms aside, most players would embrace the idea of having the weaponised Andalusian in their team, although Sergio Reguilón, from Real Madrid’s junior ranks, might beg to differ. Having lightly brushed Ramos’s nose when going for the ball in a training session, the furious club captain threw a tantrum, swearing and blasting balls at the young player. With teammates like that, who needs enemies? 

3) Franco.“Spaniards, Franco is dead.” So went the announcement in November 1975 after the dictator’s passing. Yet, 43 years later, he’s back in the headlines – and back in our heads. In the summer, the new Socialist government announced a plan to exhume him from the Valley of the Fallen, the fascistic mega-monument where he is buried, and re-inter him somewhere less controversial. But the plan has been beset with obstacles and, most problematically of all, Franco’s grandchildren want to have him re-buried in Madrid cathedral, potentially turning the centre of the city into a pilgrimage site for extremists. As that saga drags on, many are wondering if Franco’s National-Catholic ideology has wafted back into the mainstream with the arrival of far-right party Vox. With its unique cocktail of hostility to immigrants, the left, feminists, moderates, Catalan nationalists and wild boars, Vox has so far only scored one, albeit substantial, electoral success: in Andalusia’s parliament. While more elections are on the horizon, its biggest achievement might end up being an apparent ability to drag two of the country’s big political forces, the Popular Party (PP) and Ciudadanos, further rightward and polarise an already deeply divided Spain. Let’s just say that Franco wouldn’t exactly be turning in his grave.

2) Rosalía. For decades, flamenco music has wrestled with the challenge of reinventing itself for a contemporary audience, sometimes succeeding but often tripping up. Rosalía Vila Tobella is the latest artist to stake her claim and she has done so to enormous critical acclaim and commercial success. Perhaps growing up in Catalonia, away from flamenco’s southern heartland, has helped, adding to her unique perspective on the genre. Her first album, the death-themed Los Ángeles, hinted at her potential (and included a spine-chilling cover of Bonnie Prince Billy’s Then I See a Darkness), but this year’s R&B-infused El Mal Querer brought wider accolades, as she scooped two Latin Grammys and endless gushing reviews. “Maybe we Spaniards undervalue our own stuff,” she said.“But I don’t think we have any reason to envy anyone else’s music from around the world.”

1) Raquel Ejerique & eldiario.es. In March, eldiario.es news site started publishing reports questioning the legitimacy of a post-graduate degree which Rey Juan Carlos University had awarded in 2012 to Madrid regional premier Cristina Cifuentes. The reports focused on the fact that Cifuentes had apparently failed to attend classes or do the required academic work to gain the degree, as well as registering for the course well after it had started. The case soon snowballed. Her attempts to cast it as a political witch-hunt were undermined by her failure – and the university’s – to prove she had done the required work. Eventually, she resigned, but not over her academic scandal. (In a nasty twist a video emerged from mysterious sources of a more personal nature – Cifuentes being questioned after apparently having stolen face cream from a supermarket years earlier – which made her position untenable.) Meanwhile, as if the scandal could hardly get more absurd, the journalists responsible for carrying out the painstaking public service of uncovering the “masters-gate” case, investigative reporter Raquel Ejerique and eldiario.es editor Ignacio Escolar, had to appear in court for allegedly breaking the law in reporting on the story. Unlike so many of the other political scandals which have hit Spain in recent years, this one was not about money yet its impact has been huge. Cifuentes’s degree farce has ended up tarnishing not just her own credibility, but also that of a university, Spain’s substantial masters degree industry and the judiciary, as well as suggesting that the deep state is alive and well in this country. eldiario.es, meanwhile, has come out of the episode with its reputation for exposing falsehoods and wrongdoing at the highest level enhanced. Take a bow, Raquel Ejerique and all the others involved in covering this sordid story.

It’s tough at the top

Imagine you’re an ordinary guy, a writer and editor, say, who has a relatively low public profile but who is deeply committed to a political cause.

Then imagine that one day you are plucked from your life of books and culture and are instantly transformed into a politician, the leader of the very cause you have been supporting for much of your life.

This new job is strange and often unsettling. Firstly, people trawl through all the stuff you’ve ever written and start trying to use it as proof that you’re a hateful bigot and extremist. Then, you actually have to get on with the business of governing.

Sometimes it’s rewarding, as your supporters hang on your every word when you speak and they often cheer you.

But your adversaries are unremittingly hostile and, annoyingly, there’s infighting in your own camp. Then, to cap it all, your own lot, of who you were one not so long ago, start turning on you, telling you’re too timid and weak and should step down. What do you do?

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Quim Torra: looking for the bogeyman.

If you’re Quim Torra, president of Catalonia, you lay down an ultimatum that says the Spanish prime minister has one month in which to accept that he must stage a binding referendum on Catalan independence or else pro-independence parties will withdraw their parliamentary support for him, almost certainly bringing down his government.

The above may look like some kind of political version of a Struwwelpeter fairy tale, but it’s basically what has happened to Torra since he took office in May.

It would be a difficult situation for a seasoned politico to handle, but for Torra, who is entirely new to all of this, it must be a nightmare. Take that ultimatum, for example. It turns out that, before issuing it, he hadn’t consulted with the pro-independence parties involved, leaving them as astonished as prime minister Pedro Sánchez and unconvinced by the idea. As a result, Torra already seems to be gingerly defusing the bomb he had set to go off in early November.

The pressures on him are clear to see, particularly from the more radical factions of the Catalan independence movement, who are agitating for their government to abandon its supposed autonomismo – the acceptance of the existing Spanish territorial framework – and to return to the path of independence. Thus Torra’s panic-laden speech on October 1st, when he praised his “friends” in the Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDR) and the “pressure” they were exerting via direct action.

He has also called on Catalans to “attack” the Spanish state and announced that he is willing “to go as far as president [Carles] Puigdemont went”.

Such rhetoric, along with the referendum ultimatum, would make more sense if aimed at a Spanish government led by Mariano Rajoy. But perhaps the biggest problem for Torra, and the independence movement as a whole right now, is the relative moderation of the administration of Pedro Sánchez.

The secessionist cause has flourished on the premise that the Spanish state is led by a repressive cabal of corrupt right-wing ideologues. Between 2011 and June 1st 2018, the Popular Party (PP) government of Rajoy did plenty to cheerfully feed that notion.

But for the last four months, a different Spanish government has been in place. Its cabinet is dominated by women, it welcomed the Aquarius migrant boat to Spain after it had been shunned by Italy, plans to dig up Franco are underway and the prime minister speaks English, looks cool in shades and goes to Killers gigs.

That’s all just gesture politics, you might say. And what’s more, Sánchez’s government has been beset by scandals, ranging from academic plagiarism to tax evasion and deep state intrigue, and his immigration policy has turned out to be less liberal than initially thought.

Yet his government is genuinely not like Rajoy’s in many respects, above all when it comes to Catalonia. Sánchez has made substantial efforts to restore bilateral ties with the region, to listen to longstanding grievances and generally to tone down the hysteria on all sides.

For the Catalan government this is a problem because it needs a bogeyman in Madrid. Its response has been to play down all the above efforts to improve relations and big up the one thing that Sánchez and Rajoy do have in common: a refusal to consider staging a binding, Scotland-style independence referendum.

When Torra laid down his ultimatum, he already knew the answer would be no; we all did. If Sánchez even mooted the idea of holding an independence referendum, the ensuing national uproar would be deafening, both on the political right and within his own party. Sánchez would probably be out of a job within days.

That’s not to say he has much longer in the job anyway. The current instability in Catalonia means that Sánchez is now looking at bringing the general election forward from 2020. That could feasibly usher in a new right-wing administration: a combination of Pablo Casado’s PP and Albert Rivera’s Ciudadanos, who are currently locked in an anti-separatist arms race. For both those politicians, dialogue has become something akin to a four-letter word and their rhetoric on Catalonia is much more proactive and belligerent than that of the passive Rajoy.

Supporters of Catalan independence might welcome such a dream team, or at least the idea of it. They would expect to thrive against a right-wing regime that is intent on pandering to the basest of unionist instincts.

They may well be right. It would certainly be much easier to unite and mobilise against a prime minister Rivera, say, than a prime minister Sánchez. In such a scenario, support for independence might well tip over that magic, longed-for, 50-percent mark. The problem is, the collateral damage could dwarf the benefits for all involved.

So it might be advisable to be careful what you wish for.

Franco’s Rulebook

A few months ago, production company PBS invited me to contribute to a documentary they were making about Francisco Franco as part of their ‘Dictators Rulebook’ series. The series has now been shown on the National Geographic channel and is well worth watching (and not just because I’m in it).

The Franco episode, dubbed into Spanish, can be seen here:

There’s no place like Rhodes

Has there ever been such a sudden, passionate love affair between a city and a newcomer as that between Madrid and James Rhodes?

The pianist-writer moved to Spain last year with an armful of hit classical albums, two bestselling books and a dodgy command of the Spanish language. A year later, the frizzy-haired musician is the toast of the town. He writes opinion articles in the Spanish press, appears on TV chat shows, has a regular spot on Cadena Ser radio and even has time to play the odd gig.

A couple of weeks ago I watched him perform at an outdoor venue in Madrid. As he took the stage, he announced: “This is my home!” and the place erupted in applause and the odd cheer.

Much of this Rhodes-love can be traced back to an article he wrote in El País in May, entitled: “I have no reason to lie when I tell you that everything is better in Spain”. In it, he sings the praises of his new home and lauds pretty much everything it has to offer: the folksy streets of La Latina, the cheap healthcare, “the unhurried pace of life”, the “delicious” language, the way people insult each other so inventively, and, of course, the croquetas. In one café, he even enjoys the much-maligned Spanish croissant, which in this case “makes you laugh out loud it’s so good”. And he has to be one of the few people in history to deem Spanish TV “gold”.

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The response to that article was instant and overwhelming. It went viral and grateful madrileños effusively thanked Rhodes for saying positive things about their city. A veteran economist, known for his sober analyses, passed the link to the article around his Whatsapp contacts, telling us: “Nobody should miss this.” Another article followed (singing the praises of the Spanish merienda) and Rhodes has now become a sort of ivory-tinkling advert for Spain, bigging up both its virtues and its clichés. He’s like that super-enthusiastic relative who comes to visit occasionally and who can’t help but say “I love Madrid!” – only he’s here all the time.

For those of us who’ve been here longer than a year, it’s all too easy to sneer, I know. And really, I’m not. (After all, the pranksters at El Mundo Today have got there first: “Fascinated by El Valle de los Caídos, James Rhodes writes a defence of Francisco Franco”, read a recent headline on their site.) But I am interested in how such a relationship came about.

“I remember when I used to feel like that,” one British friend said to me, wistfully, after reading the aforementioned El País article. Yes, me too. Maybe I never guffawed over my morning croissant, or gawked at the people walking slowly around central Madrid, but, on first spending time in Spain as an 18-year-old, I was wowed by all the obvious things: the lateness, the generosity of tapas helpings, the kids in the bars, the apparently-rude-but-not-really shoutiness, the liberal use of the word coño, the architecture, the well-dressed old men in town squares and much, much more.

If I squint, I can remember how those things felt when I first experienced them and many of them still retain their sheen, making it a place I, too, love. Inevitably, perhaps, I can now see some of the downsides of Madrid and Spain, whether it’s dog caca in the street, the price of books or how certain men start a monologue with the words “te voy a decir una cosa…”. The last few months, meanwhile, have brought out the worst side in Spanish (and Catalan) politicians, and the most incredible refusal by many ordinary Spaniards to listen to reason or nuance.

Yet that is probably exactly the reason why Rhodes has been embraced so heartily by the city whose bum he squeezes so insistently. Lately, everyone from Catalan separatists and lefty rappers to snide foreign politicians and sniping journalists has been having a go at Spain —  and “Madrid”, as shorthand for the country – complaining that it’s backward, repressive, or even run by Nazis. The place’s self-esteem is low. Why else would people feel the need to hang flags from their balconies, wrists and car rear-view mirrors? In the middle of all this Rhodes arrives. He is perfect: not only is he a foreigner, but he’s a famous, young-ish, semi-hip foreigner who swears a lot. Who is going to accuse this dude with the “Bach” t-shirt and the frazzled friendliness of a dope-smoking uni prof of being a fascist? And who cares if he doesn’t know his irregular verbs?

As his harrowing and compelling autobiography, Instrumental, makes clear, Rhodes has been plagued by a deep insecurity and a desperate need for approval. Madrid (or even Spain, if you like,) is in a rather similar state. It’s a marriage made in heaven.

Spain’s ballot box fixation

“You shouldn’t mistake voting for democracy” – Jonathan Bernstein

So, off he goes. Mariano Rajoy, the man nobody could move, Spain’s political pachyderm, has been unseated. During his nearly seven years in power an aura had built up around the Galician: that no matter how bad things got he would survive; that his Jedi-like impassivity would protect him from the tumult all around.

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Mariano Rajoy: an eight-hour lock-in and a shabby legacy.

But that, as the political scientists might say, is complete baloney. In the end all it took was a swift and audacious parliamentary no-confidence motion by Socialist Pedro Sánchez, which ultimately flourished due to the backing of the Basque Nationalist Party.

These have been a chaotic few days. But the developments leading up to the June 1 no-confidence vote that removed Rajoy were a shot in the arm for Spanish democracy at a time when it was looking decidedly ragged round the edges.

Rajoy and his Popular Party (PP) leave a shabby legacy. The economy, in such trouble when he arrived, has been stabilised, although inequality has grown and the social scars of the recent recession run deep; the Catalan issue proved to be beyond Rajoy’s rigid, political abilities, leading to a full-blown political crisis; historical memory has been swept under the carpet; the separation of powers has been assiduously chipped away at as the PP has questioned everything from the credibility of court decisions to the legality of new political parties when it suited; a new climate of legalistic overreaction has been created, cultivated by legislation like the Ley Mordaza; and then there is the corruption.

Before Sánchez announced his bid for the premiership a few days earlier, the notion seemed to have taken hold that corruption was simply a fact of Spanish political life. The scandals mounted up, particularly for Rajoy’s PP but also for others, yet the consequences (and resignations) were few and far between. Rajoy’s ouster challenges that notion.

But during the no-confidence debate there was still plenty to unsettle the onlooker. Apart from anything else, there was Rajoy’s weird insistence on taking refuge in a restaurant for eight hours on the day of debating before the vote, leaving his congressional seat empty, except for a bag.

Even more troubling for me than Rajoy’s marathon lock-in was the following comment he had made during the debate itself: “The PP is not a corrupt party […] Perhaps that’s why voters trusted us in 2011, 2015 and 2016.”

It was an echo of something he had said days earlier, when a journalist had asked him if he felt his credibility had been undermined by the recent high court sentence explicitly linking the PP to institutional corruption. “Who has more credibility?” he shot back. “The leader of a party with 84 seats or the leader of a party with 134?” Those 84 seats, of course, belonged to the Socialists, while the 134 were his.

This fixation with electoral numbers is one of the most unhealthy obsessions of contemporary Spanish politics. It’s a mindset that places enormous emphasis on victory at the ballot box, in the belief that it will bring with it not just political power, but moral righteousness.

Take a look at Valencia, the region that perhaps most robustly represents the excesses, kickbacks, and general pilfering by the political class during Spain’s bonanza years. The recent arrest of former PP Valencia president Eduardo Zaplana for alleged money laundering follows investigations into the activities of his successors, Francisco Camps and José Luis Olivas.

“All Valencians owe me something,” Camps once said when questioned about his suspected links to the Gürtel corruption ring. “They acknowledge my efforts.”

So much sinister baggage is packed into that phrase that you wonder if the state prosecutors shouldn’t use it as part of their evidence in the Gürtel probe.

Camps and his colleague Carlos Fabra, president of the deputation of Castellón before he was jailed for four years for tax fraud, are both credited with another telling phrase: “The ballot box will absolve me.” And who could blame them for saying that? For many years it seemed as if voters, by ticking a certain name on a piece of paper which they dropped into a box, were indeed absolving Fabra, Camps and the PP in general of any wrongdoing in their Mediterranean fiefdom.

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that when defeat came for the PP it wasn’t via elections, but through a parliamentary karate kick.

But it’s important to point out that this ballot box mania is not exclusive to the PP. It is of course at the heart of many of the recent corruption cases involving the likes of Convergència/PDeCAT or the Socialists, in Catalonia and Andalusia respectively, areas where they have managed to hoard power through successive election victories.

Yet the idea that voting is the be-all and end-all, to the extent that other democratic niceties fall by the wayside, has also, arguably been at the heart of the ongoing Catalan crisis.

In 2015, the Catalan government held a plebiscite on independence from Spain, using a regional election as its framework. Pro-independence parties narrowly won a majority in the regional parliament, giving them, they claimed, a mandate to push ahead with a roadmap to independence. Yet it’s not hard to argue that they actually lost the plebiscite, having won only 48 percent of the popular vote (although some secessionists performed extraordinary logistical gymnastics to argue that 48 percent, in this case, did represent a majority).

Then, in September of 2017, pro-independence parties used their majority to steamroller legislation through the regional parliament, laying the groundwork for the October 1 referendum and refusing to allow the opposition, who represented around half of Catalans, to present amendments. No, it wasn’t democracy in action, but the fervour driving the idea of a referendum — the epitome of democracy, many claimed — was too much. The ensuing referendum saw an overwhelming result in favour of independence, but a turnout of only around 40 percent. The Catalan parliament decided, a few weeks later, that this was enough to declare an independent state.

In any democracy voting is, of course, crucial. But there is so much more to it than simply casting a vote. If democracy is a car, then voting is the annual revision, the MOT; but the machine still has to be maintained and cared for, in the same way that state institutions and opposing views have to be respected. Rajoy and the PP didn’t seem to understand, or care for, that fact. But they’re not the only ones.

Between Two Waters

February 25th is the anniversary of the death of Paco de Lucía, the greatest flamenco guitarist of modern times and, for many, the greatest who ever lived. I wrote the following essay a couple of years ago about Paco de Lucía, the modernist and traditionalist tensions in his music and how that conflict can still be seen in flamenco today. Below is an excerpt; to read the whole thing, click here.

Antorrín Heredia stands on one side of the small stage. A stocky, middle-aged man, his black hair tumbles, long and greasy, over his shoulders and his eyes are closed. One hand is holding a walking cane, upon which he is leaning. The other grasps a short metal bar, which he suddenly lifts above his head and swings down onto a blacksmith’s anvil. The noise is surprisingly light and bell-like and Antorrín repeats the action again and again, beating out a complex, stop-start rhythm, before throwing his head back and singing.

This is flamenco, but not as most Spaniards know it. Singing a cappella like this – or a palo seco – is a throwback to the music’s 19th-century origins, when those who performed it frequently worked as blacksmiths, or travelling salesmen and even the accompaniment of a guitar was uncommon. It was a time when life was tough for most Spaniards, with poverty, disease and violence to contend with and flamenco music reflected that.

And yet, Antorrín is in 21st century Madrid, in La Quimera, a small venue which he owns on the edge of the relatively well-heeled Salamanca neighbourhood. Supermarkets, banks and bars are everywhere and a Cash Converters exchange store – that symbol of rampant consumerism – is nearby. Perhaps only Las Ventas bullring, sitting a few hundred yards away next to the Madrid ring-road, distinguishes this area from a middle-class district in almost any European city…. [To read more, click here.]