When I was an English-language teaching assistant in a small town in Castilla-La Mancha in the 1990s, one of the first things students would ask me was: “Do you know Robinson?”. It took me a while to find out that Michael Robinson was an English ex-footballer who had made a living for himself as a pundit on Spanish TV. To my amazement, he had been a striker in the great Liverpool side of the mid-1980s. The reason I, a Liverpool fan, hadn’t heard of him before was that he had been a squad player who rarely got a chance to feature in big games (a couple of players called Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush also happened to be vying for the same position).
Robinson it turned out, was a talented TV presenter and commentator, who was respected for his professionalism and loved for his enthusiasm and warmth, which helps explain the outpouring of feeling when he died of cancer recently, at the age of 61.
“Mr Sánchez, you only care about power and we only care about Spain.” – Pablo Casado.
Another crisis hits Spain and once again the country’s political class responds not with unity, statesmanship and deliberation but with tribalism, conspiracy theories and the airing of old grudges.
When Pablo Casado, leader of the main opposition Partido Popular (PP), promised, soon after coronavirus hit the country, to stand together with the leftist government of Pedro Sánchez it was refreshing news. The country’s politics has been so bitterly divided in recent years that it was easy to wonder if only a mammoth national challenge like this could bridge the chasm.
But the truce has not lasted. To be honest, it never really began. According to the PP and Vox, the second- and third-largest forces in parliament, there are two main reasons why Spain has been so hard hit by Covid-19: Pedro Sánchez and Pablo Iglesias. They would like us to believe the spread of the virus and, in particular, the deaths it has caused are primarily the fault of the prime minister and his coalition partner.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, affording us a view of where the government may have gone wrong. Allowing the massive March 8 Women’s Day marches to go ahead now looks like a mistake, especially as the government itself suddenly changed tack and closed schools just days later, albeit several days before introducing the full lockdown. Like pretty much every European country, Spain was woefully unprepared in terms of equipment and strategy. Sánchez’s communications strategy, meanwhile, has been an unfortunate blend of heavy spin and high-handedness.
A cool-headed look at where things have gone wrong will be needed. However, a rather more pressing issue is how to overcome the crisis. And that is where the political opposition has lost its way, reverting to type as it desperately seeks to apportion blame while refusing to cooperate in the national response.
Casado, for example, has demanded an apology from Sánchez for allowing the March 8 events to go ahead. He has reprimanded him for not wearing a black tie in Congress or hanging flags at half-mast. He has also reminded Sánchez of how, in 2012, his own house was surrounded by angry leftist demonstrators – using this as proof of the Socialist Party’s radicalism. Casado has dismissed Sánchez’s invitation to form a national cross-party pact as “a decoy” aimed at facilitating a change of regime, apparently transforming Spain into Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela.
You may be forgiven for wondering how any of these proposals or outbursts helps Spain overcome coronavirus. Any country at a time like this deserves – and needs – an opposition that can provide constructive criticism and institutional unity (or “loyalty” to use the Spanish phrase). Few would expect the far-right disruptor Vox to offer such things, and indeed it has not. But it still comes as a shock to see the PP, a party which has itself governed Spain for a total of 15 years, behave like this.
Casado’s party is, after all, well acquainted with the difficulties of national crises. When in government in 2002, it mishandled the listing Prestige oil tanker off the Atlantic coast, contributing to an environmental disaster. The following year, it supervised the misidentification of bodies following the death of 62 Spanish peacekeepers in an air crash in Turkey, compounding the grief of relatives.
It’s also the same party which, in 2004, under then-prime minister José María Aznar, told the nation that Basque group Eta had carried out the terrorist attack that killed 191 people in Madrid. It hadn’t, but the belief that it had was fuelled and perpetuated, like a religious cult, by the party and its ideological allies in the media. The outlandish theory was used to cast the Socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero as illegitimate, a variation on the Trumpian “birther” strategy before such a thing even existed.
Sounds familiar? Sixteen years on, Spain has another Socialist prime minister whose legitimacy the right is casting in doubt. This time it is because he has needed the parliamentary support of a Catalan pro-independence party to govern and that his coalition partner is Podemos, a leftist force which in the past has had links to Bolivarian administrations in South America.
It seems to be his parliamentary dependence on Catalan nationalists and Podemos which are the reason why Sánchez is drawing so much criticism from the right, more than his handling of the coronavirus crisis itself. The problem is, this betrays a deeply worrying conception of democracy, one that was neatly displayed recently by the singer and TV personality Bertín Osborne, who posted on Twitter a video of himself quaffing wine, praising healthcare workers and Spain in general, while complaining about the country’s leaders being there only “circumstantially”.
What Osborne doesn’t understand is that whatever you think of those who have been elected to lead you, they have been elected to lead you. Eventually you’ll get the chance to vote them out of office. Yet this fact has been impossible to digest for those who share the entitled approach of Aznar and his political offspring, who have insisted on dragging their bitter baggage into the coronavirus emergency.
This political nastiness is one of many sub-plots to the current crisis and it belongs alongside the sinister weirdos who daub doctors’ cars with insults and send letters to supermarket workers telling them to move out of their apartment block due to contagion concerns.
Fortunately, there has been a much more gratifying side to the emergency in Spain, that of the tireless healthcare workers, the eight o’clock applause, the online humour and solidarity. And the political right has not behaved as one in recent weeks. Inés Arrimadas, the new leader of Ciudadanos, has appeared to drag her party away from the masochistic tribalism it had pursued under Albert Rivera, towards something more sensible, combining “loyalty” with criticism.
But what coronavirus has done is to place under scrutiny the tired old word “patriotism”. Unfortunately, it has become so twisted and curdled in Spain that it is in danger of meaning little more than wearing a red-and-yellow bracelet and barking “España es un país grande” over and over. As it faces the enormous challenges of the months to come, the country could do without that particular brand of national pride.
A recent poll published by El País reflected how politics is swaying people’s view of this crisis. Forty-seven percent of those asked approved of the government’s handling of the situation; 48 percent disapproved. Last year’s two general elections gave very similar numbers in terms of the split between the parties on the left and those on the right. A right-wing voter is probably not going to approve of Sánchez’s handling of this crisis, whatever the prime minister does. A left-wing voter probably will. Far from eliminating tribal splits and uniting the country, coronavirus has become yet another political battleground in Spain.
History may eventually judge Sánchez and his government harshly for how they have handled this healthcare crisis. But right now it might be just as relevant to ask: How patriotic are you being, Pablo Casado?
“…I believe ardently that real memory, not historical and documentary memory but living memory, will be perpetuated only through literature. Because literature alone is capable of reinventing and regenerating truth.” – Jorge Semprún.
In the early 1940s, as Spain settled into a period of grim dictatorship, one of its exiled citizens was embarking on a series of adventures that would make his life one of the most colourful of the 20th century.
Jorge Semprún’s biography would beggar belief if it were a piece of fiction. But the facts of it are there in black and white in Soledad Fox Maura’s excellent biography, ‘Ida y vuelta: La vida de Jorge Semprun’, first published in 2016.
The grandson of former prime minister Antonio Maura, young Jorge went into European exile with his Republican-supporting family as the civil war started. Shedding his Spanish skin, the teenager absorbed France’s culture and language before joining the wartime resistance. Arrest by the Gestapo led to a spell in Buchenwald concentration camp. On his release, Semprún fell in with the Spanish Communist Party, which operated out of Paris. For a decade he was an undercover agent in Franco’s Spain, recruiting militants to the cause and reporting on the state of the country. After splitting with the party in acrimony he took on a new guise, that of public intellectual, and he authored (in French) a string of critically acclaimed books, several of them, such as his début Le Grand Voyage, based on his Buchenwald experiences. He also received an Oscar nomination for one of his screenplays and became a prominent member of the Parisian intelligentsia, forging friendships with the likes of Yves Montand and Costa-Gavras. Semprún’s final incarnation saw him make a long-awaited homecoming to Madrid, where he was minister of culture in Felipe González’s Socialist government in the late eighties and early nineties.
Several figures, including Santiago Carrillo, King Juan Carlos and Adolfo Suárez, are frequently touted as representing the vision and spirit of compromise of Spain’s transition to democracy. But Semprún arguably made a more radical journey than any of them: from Communist subterfuge to the institutional pomp of a government ministry. But many also see him as representing something much bigger: the turmoil of 20th century Europe.
Something else which makes Semprún stand out was his cosmopolitanism. Few people travelled abroad in mid-century Spain, yet his embrace of all things French made him bi-cultural (and, thanks to a sadistic, German-speaking nanny, tri-lingual). In addition, with his bouffant hair, good looks and roll-neck sweaters, he had a grace and glamour that were rare for Spanish men of the time. (Fox tells of how he was told to change his cologne while operating undercover in Spain, because his exotic odour risked blowing his cover).
Europe has had few figures who can be placed alongside Che Guevara, yet Semprún’s life and qualities make it tempting to make the comparison: the privileged upbringing, travels to a foreign land where political awakening was accompanied by armed struggle; further travels in which the protagonist, in disguise, attempted to spread the Communist ideology; and in each case, a reputation was earned for both intellect and action. The comparisons end in mid-life – while Guevara died young, Semprún lived until the age of 87.
Fox Maura, who is a professor of Spanish and comparative literature at Williams College, Massachusetts, offers a fascinating insight into each phase of Semprún’s life. She also questions, in a legitimately insistent fashion, whether his venerated status is always justified. One of the patterns of his biography was a repeated falling out with or alienation from people close to him, including his father, brothers, son and Communist comrades. To Semprún’s annoyance, his brother, Carlos, offered what Fox Maura describes as a “Greek chorus” by publicly undermining and downplaying his heroic deeds. The biography is particularly scrupulous in exploring his life in Buchenwald which, the author finds, was more comfortable than that of many fellow inmates, partly due to his grasp of the German language, but also because of his family connections and rapport with Communist prisoners who played a major role in the camp.
Fox Maura carefully examines both the life and literary output of her subject, to find out where fact ends and fictions begins. For Semprún, the most honest way of writing about the horrors of the Holocaust was not through straight reportage, but rather something more embroidered. This leads him to inhabit the very Spanish genre of the pícaro (or picaresque), Fox Maura concludes.
“Through an ingenious process of self-creation, and thanks to the narrative he weaves out of his suffering and personal woes, the pícaro comes to acquire the social status that has always eluded him,” she writes. “The pícaro is a self-made man par excellence, self-made not through work in the capitalist sense but rather through literary ingenuity.” [My translation.]
This is an account not just of one of the most remarkable Spanish lives of recent times, but of one of the most colourful and intriguing European lives of the last century.
‘Ida y vuelta: la vida de Jorge Semprún’ by Soleded Fox Maura is published by Debate and published in English by Arcade as ‘Exile, Writer, Soldier, Spy: Jorge Semprún.’
In a culture so often dominated not just by winning, but also those other prized skills of ‘owning’, trolling and tooting your own horn, it’s refreshing to find a radically different mindset. I was recently lucky enough to visit Donostia, where eight locals were competing in the Gipuzkoa provincial final of Berstolarismo.
Bertsolarismo is an ancient tradition in Basque-speaking areas, in which verses of poetry are created on the spot and recited, to a melody, before an audience. After almost disappearing during the dictatorship, it has made a remarkable comeback in recent decades, to the extent that 6,000 people attended the Gipuzkoa final in a sports arena.
As a non-Euskera speaker, the linguistic subtleties passed me by throughout the five hours of competition. But what struck me was the comradeship between the competitors, who clapped each other, chatted and sang along to each other’s verses. When the final results were announced, ranking the participants from first down to eighth, there were no histrionics and no tears, either of joy or disappointment. Instead, each berstolari took turns to sing a final verse as a farewell.
The winner, Beñat Gaztelumendi, could barely have been more unassuming. When I met him afterwards and asked him about this collective approach to the art, he mentioned the fact that a football match had been taking place just a couple of hundred yards away from the competition, between Barcelona and local side Real Sociedad. Beñat and a fellow competitor had watched the teams arrive.
“Real Sociedad’s coach arrived and people were clapping and cheering and then Barca’s coach arrived a couple of minutes later and people started booing and jeering,” he said.“And we thought: ‘Wow. These guys are going to compete with each other, but it’s so different to us.’ We want the person we are up against to perform well, to help us, to open the path up, so we can continue along that path.”
As well as playing down its competitiveness he was also keen to demystify bertsolarismo, which can look so intimidating to the outsider. Strict parameters mean that the improvised verses must contain a certain number of lines and each line a certain number of syllables. Also, the judges reward complex rhyming schemes. Try keeping that in your head as you perform before a live audience.
“A lot of people believed that bertsolaris were born with a special talent, that they were chosen ones and only these chosen ones could sing,” Beñat told me. “That’s not true. Anyone can learn to sing verses up to a certain level. It’s very useful to help people learning Euskera or working on their self-esteem. Beyond that, it’s like being a football player. We can all learn to play football, but there’s only one Messi.”
Facha: a Spanish person whose political views place them on the hard-right of the political spectrum.
Chaleco: a garment, usually without sleeves, which is buttoned up and covers the torso, being worn over a shirt.
Few words contain as much sartorial and political significance as the wonderful compound noun fachaleco. My favourite word of 2019, it has been bandied about over the last 12 months as a mild insult laced with humour and class warfare, but its importance should not be underestimated.
The piece of clothing in question is a quilted, padded, sleeveless coat. In the milder months of the spring and autumn it is worn as a stand-alone, usually with a collared shirt and waxed hair; in the colder months the fachaleco is less prominent, being squeezed beneath a sports jacket or blazer.
The general theory is that it reflects a certain socio-economic status on the part of the wearer, who is usually – but not always – male. The fachalequero tends to be either well-paid or of old money. Moreover, he tends to lean to the right. This garment has been around for some time, gradually making inroads in Spanish society for several years. But I would argue that its arrival, el momento fachaleco, if you will, was February 10th, 2019, in Plaza de Colón in Madrid. There, tens of thousands of well-insulated, right-leaning Spaniards gathered to hear the leaders of the Popular Party, Ciudadanos and Vox denounce Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez as a separatist-loving traitor of Spain.
It’s surely no coincidence that the rise of the fachaleco has mirrored that of Vox, with each sitting comfortably on the shoulders of well-heeled misogyny and Trumpian xenophobia.
In an excellent appraisal of the Spanish fachaleco in which she assesses its long cultural journey, via Marty McFly and the Spice Girls, journalist Carmen Mañana wrote: “The downy waistcoat says: ‘I don’t have anything against immigrants as long as they are honest and come here to work’, ‘I’m not a feminist, I believe in equality’ [and] ‘I don’t read any newspaper because they all lie’.”
Many see this is as new, visible evidence of the troubling division in Spanish society between left and right. But amid all the political chaos and polarisation that last year brought, there were encouraging signs. Mañana reports sightings of Pedro Sánchez, the Socialist leader, wearing a fachaleco. Also, Gabriel Rufián, spokesman for the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and bête noir for many Spanish constitutionalists, was seen sporting one.
Some have blithely labelled such use of the garment as yet another example of cultural appropriation. Is no totem of identity safe, they ask, comparing the wearing of this garment by those who are not proud right-wingers as akin to white kids wearing dreadlocks.
But I share the more optimistic view, which is that perhaps the fachaleco could hold the key to healing some of the damaging rifts in Spain. What if the leaders of Podemos wore purple fachalec@s as they raised their fists and sang the Internationale? It could be a statesmanlike stretch across the political divide reminiscent of the transition.
Let’s go a bit further: what if Carles Puigdemont, in his Belgian exile, staged a skype address to his followers in which he put on and zipped up a (yellow) fachaleco. Could such an empathetic move melt some of the frost in unionist hearts?
But, as we enter 2020, I worry about the fachaleco’s future. Like any item of clothing that has enjoyed a meteoric rise, it will be vulnerable to the fickle currents of fashion and perhaps, within a few months, it will have lost its cache altogether. More importantly, it could, along with coastal cities and glaciers, become a casualty of global warming.
So, next time you see a man with tasselled shoes, unnaturally groomed hair, a somewhat entitled air and a quilted waistcoast getting into a double-parked SUV, don’t judge. Instead, ponder all the social and political baggage that is stitched therein and remember that it may not be around that much longer.
This article was amended to include tasselled shoes and a double-parked SUV.
When commenting on his massive CIA novel, ‘Harlot’s Ghost’, Norman Mailer once remarked: “It is a fictional CIA and its only real existence is in my mind…If I have an argument to make then, on grounds of verisimilitude I will claim that my imaginative CIA is as real or more real than nearly all the lived-in ones.”
This typically confident Mailerian claim came to mind recently when I read ‘Patria’, Fernando Aramburu’s novel about two families affected by Eta’s terrorist violence in the Basque Country. There are so many different experiences of Euskadi’s decades of violence, how do you go about writing a novel based on them?
Aramburu’s approach was to write a 600-page, multi-viewpoint story which leaps around chronologically and seeks to represent those on both ‘sides’ of the Basque conflict. The narrative centrepiece is Eta’s murder of el Txato, a businessman whom the terrorist group has harassed for months, above all with threatening graffiti, as punishment for not paying them extortion fees. His death is revealed early on in the novel and its details gradually emerge as the incident is revisited again and again.
But it is the emotional and social fallout from this death that interest Aramburu, with the members of el Txato’s family all dealing with the loss in different ways. After a while, his widow, Bittori, starts spending more time back in the village where the crime took place, unsettling her former neighbours who are in thrall to Eta’s silent tyranny. Their son, Xabier, is overwhelmed by the death which compromises his life and happiness for years afterwards. Xabier’s sister, Nerea, meanwhile, does everything she can to avoid facing up to the fact her father has been murdered.
Yet ‘Patria’ also tells the story of a family from the other side of the divide. Miren and Joxian are a couple who were once close friends of the murdered man and his wife, but as soon as Eta starts to threaten el Txato, the relationship starts to cool until it is utterly broken by the murder. Miren becomes a convert to Eta’s cause, her conviction hardened by the fact that her son, Joxe Mari, has joined “the armed struggle” (and may have even played a part in el Txato’s death). Gorka, her bookish other son, tries to break free of the gravitational pull of Eta and its ideology, while her daughter, Arantxa, is disgusted by her brother’s involvement in the organisation.
Aramburu tells this story in a defiantly artless prose. Early on, a bus which has been set on fire by pro-Eta activists is described as “burning stoically” in the middle of the street. The phrase stands out partly because it works so well, but also because the author rarely employs such ambitiously precise imagery again over the following 550 pages. In fact, in one of several curious literary tics, he often seems so caught between two or more possible adjectives, nouns or verbs that he uses both or all, separating them with a slash and allowing the reader to decide which is the more appropriate. (“She listened and understood everything, and she remembered everything and wanted to speak/answer/protest/ask for something and she couldn’t.”) Often, a character’s voice fleetingly inhabits the third-person narration, sometimes convincingly but other times less so, before relinquishing it again.
While Aramburu’s use of language rarely captivates, his burning preoccupation is thematic: the absurdity of the years of violence, how they divided families, destroyed friendships and cowed many Basques into a labyrinth of hypocrisy. The dilemma el Txato faces once he becomes a target of Eta’s harassment, for no other reason than that he has a successful business, is terrifying. Not only is his life in danger but his friends and neighbours prefer to ostracise him rather than stand by him. It should be hard to believe that Bittori, the wife of a victim of terrorism, is virtually driven out of the town after her husband’s death, with the oleaginous local priest encouraging her to leave. But, sadly, that particular plot development passes Mailer’s verisimilitude test.
Similarly, Joxe Mari’s experiences as a young etarra are often evoked with cinematic clarity. On joining the group as a 19-year-old, he enters a world of safe houses, boredom, restlessness and rigid hierarchy. One of the novel’s most successful moments is when, after days of exhausting worry about being arrested, the police finally break into his flat.
But such action plays a relatively small part in ‘Patria’, which is dominated instead by family and small-town intrigue, and this tends to lack any such tension. Despite all the detail and baggage provided by Aramburu, there seems to be a vacuum at the heart of the novel where characters’ motivation ought to be. This is a major problem, for example, when it comes to Miren. Such an unremittingly caustic and dogmatic character needs some substance so that she can exist as a human rather than a mere hateful caricature. But we never see what lies beyond her awful façade nor what drives her hypocrisy and political extremism, beyond the fact her son is an etarra.
“Between that tea in the café on the Avenida and the next one in the churrería in the old town, my friend Miren changed,” Bittori explains, early on. “Suddenly she was another person. In a word, she had taken the side of her son….Until then, Miren had shown absolutely no interest in politics.”
Miren’s ideological transformation gets no more explanation or illustration than that. Nor do we get any understanding of how Joxe Mari became radicalised. When he or any of the other abertzale characters discuss their political ideas, they tend to sound like brainwashed half-wits, giving the novel a lop-sided feel, despite Aramburu’s apparent intention of providing a more rounded perspective.
I am fully aware that such reservations put me in a minority. ‘Patria’ has scooped a number of Spanish literary prizes and critics have heaped praise on it, with Mario Vargas Llosa comparing Aramburu to Joseph Conrad and André Malraux. A television series is now on the way (perhaps fittingly, given that the novel’s multi-perspective structure and bite-sized chapters seem almost custom-made for small-screen treatment). Yet I can’t help feeling that its success is due more to its politics – which is tilted firmly in favour of Eta’s victims and against Basque nationalism – and those of its cheerleaders than to literary merit. The story of both sides of the Basque conflict could make an extraordinary novel. One day, perhaps, someone will write it.
‘Patria’ by Fernando Aramburu is published in Spanish by Tusquets and in English as ‘Homeland’ by Picador.
I have known Mateo since he was born. Now a bass-playing, Beatles-loving, comic-reading, basketball-playing 16-year-old, you could not meet a more charming teen. Recently, he underwent a six-hour operation to help improve his balance and mobility, which have been affected by cerebral palsy, and having come through his op with flying colours and world-class positivity, he has been updating his brilliant blog, which I recommend you visit: http://meandmybatec.blogspot.com/
Mateo is currently missing several weeks of school as he recovers from the operation. But November 27 will be a big date as he will have his heavy plaster replaced with something lighter.
Like moths to the light, we journalists tend to get drawn towards the dramatic. In the case of politics that can mean dwelling on the extremes: the colourful, the freaky, the radicals. But there are also, of course, characters and opinions that are less eye-catching yet equally important.
Catalonia’s on-going crisis has been so relentlessly divisive that it’s easy to forget that there are plenty of people caught in the middle. They may or may not favour independence, but either way they do not fall into the Manichean confrontation which has made the “Catalan debate” so poisonous.
A Catalan friend of mine describes himself as one of those “in the middle”. He is not an independentista, but he can sympathise with the independence movement’s grievances. His unionism, meanwhile, is a long way from that on display in the form of the Spanish flags hanging from balconies and car rear-view mirrors in so many parts of the country.
“October 1st was tough for me,” he says. “I was against the holding of the referendum, [but] when I saw the police charging I went down to the voting station which was next to my home to give a hug to my neighbours who were terrified.”
“I’m totally against the police action and it seems unthinkable that the interior minister didn’t resign that same morning.”
But he is also critical of the referendum itself, because he believes it was based on Catalan politicians taking their voters “for a ride”:
“I distinguish between the pro-independence base, the people who believed in the [vote], and the independence leaders, who were toying with those people, they toyed with their feelings and they have left my country in a shameful situation. Catalonia is going to take years, or even decades, to recover a degree of normality…Catalonia was okay before because there was a degree of consensus: ‘We’re all different but we all accept each other as Catalans’. But now, these people have divided Catalonia into those ‘who are Catalan, who are pro-independence, and the others, who aren’t pro-independence and we don’t really know if they are Catalans.’ We’ve thrown away years of work uniting Catalan society.”
The Catalan issue, he says, has had an impact on him socially. There are old friends whom he no longer sees, not because they have fought over the independence issue but because they know that they will disagree if the subject comes up. His own family, including his in-laws, he says, are a mixture of lifelong independentistas, “neo-independentistas” and “totally anti-independentistas”.
“I’ve been at some family meals where somebody ended up banging the table and saying ‘that’s enough – we’re not talking about this any more, okay?’”
He adds: “The problem is, admitting that [social] division means breaking with the idea that the process is nice and tolerant. It’s also linked to the issue of violence…I would say there is no violence, although actually there’s no explicit violence. But there is an incredible latent tension.”
Ciudadanos, he believes has been gleefully contributing to that tension and he describes Albert Rivera’s party as “the worst thing to happen to this country” for years. He then makes a statement which, while rather obvious to many, will no doubt horrify hardliners on both sides.
“Ciudadanos and the [radical] independentistas are the same, they’re the same thing,” he says. “One on one side, the other on the other side – exactly the same. They both feed off all this, they live off confrontation.”
“The procés proposes something…it says: ‘In Catalonia there are two sides, so you have to decide: either the Francoist, fascist, hyper-Spanish and god-knows-what-else side, or the side of democracy, the smiles and self-determination’. And then there’s a group on the other side – Tabarnia and all that mob, who say: ‘Finally, it was about time, there are two sides in Catalonia – those who speak Catalan, who are nationalist, pro-independence, intolerant fascists and then there are those of us who are democratic Castilians who have always been under the boot of the Catalan bastards’.”
He says: “Both visions are complementary and both are false. In Catalonia there aren’t just two sides, [but] the two extremes are the ones who speak the most. Those of us in the middle are the ones who speak out the least.”
It has been a strange spectacle watching the optimism generated by Pedro Sánchez’s general election victory at the end of April turn sour. The stop-start slow-mo negotiations between the Socialist Party and Unidas Podemos to form a new government never really seemed to get beyond second gear. Instead, they have become a marathon blame-game full of briefing, counter-briefing and poisonous soundbites. Rather than asking whether they will be able to reach an agreement by the September 23rd deadline, we have more frequently started to wonder: whose fault is it that they can’t?
The answer to that is far from straightforward, despite what partisans on each side claim. Sánchez’s declared refusal to allow Pablo Iglesias in his cabinet was key, lending a baffling note of personal enmity to negotiations, as well as suggesting that the acting prime minister feared being eclipsed by the Podemos leader’s charisma. Iglesias’s counter-proposal ahead of the failed July investiture, of having an array of ministries under his party’s control, looked like overreach yet seemed to bring the possibility of a two-party coalition into play. He is understandably exasperated, therefore, by Sánchez’s decision since the summer investiture vote to insist once again on forming a minority government.
The last year has given us a new incarnation of Sánchez. On his arrival on the political front line he was a felipista moderate, under the yoke of the Socialist party machine, blandly grinning his way through two election defeats. Then his “no means no” stance against Mariano Rajoy in 2016 saw him transformed into a back-to-the-roots leftie, as he was first ousted by his own party before making a Lazarus-like comeback and pledging a closer relationship with Podemos.
Sánchez 3.0, who has been in action since taking office via a daring parliamentary manoeuvre in June 2018, is different again. Inevitably constrained by the dilemmas of the top job he has struggled to deliver on promises and gestures, whether it be trying to calm the Catalan crisis long enough to seek a solution, presenting a coherent immigration policy after taking in the Aquarius migrant boat, or overcoming legal obstacles to the exhumation of Franco.
Despite the pressures of office, Sánchez retains his cool, unruffled demeanour – but surely something more urgent was required over these summer months. At times he has seemed so relaxed about engaging in talks with Podemos and other parties whose support he requires that he might as well have been wearing flip-flops.
As the constitutional clock has ticked down towards the deadline triggering new elections, the Socialists and Podemos have reinforced the age-old cliché about Spain’s left: that it will always find something to disagree over. Compare that to the country’s right, where Ciudadanos, which two years ago was still defining itself as a “social democratic” party, now merrily bins its scruples and teams up with the far right and the corruption-plagued Popular Party if it means getting a slice of power. Sánchez’s strategy may have been all along, as many suspect, to hold out for another election at which his party is expected to improve its share of seats. But Spain’s fragmented politics is so delicately balanced that it remains a gamble, giving the parties of the right a shot at redemption after their April defeat.
And so the prospect of a new, harmonious, leftist government has mirrored the fate of a blow-up holiday unicorn. Once gleaming and buoyant in the late-spring sun, the air has gradually hissed out and now, at summer’s end, it is drifting in the swimming pool, lifeless and floppy.
It could be that a last-minute deal is secured, giving Spain a badly needed government as it heads into an autumn of turmoil that promises Catalan unrest, further Brexit mayhem and, possibly, an economic downturn. But don’t assume that common sense and national interest will overcome petty hostilities, personal rivalries or hubristic strategies.
Last October, I joined a group of foreign journalists for an off-the-record meeting with Ciudadanos party leader Albert Rivera. We’d had plenty of these kinds of events with leading politicians before, and several with him, but on this occasion he seemed different to the man I remembered. He seemed more hurried and less at ease. What’s more, he no longer spoke with evangelical zeal about political regeneration and the battle against corruption. Instead, he spent much of the time talking, in highly derogatory terms, about Pedro Sánchez who had become prime minister a few months earlier. The Socialist leader, he told us again and again, had sold out to Catalan separatism.
In 2016, Rivera and Sánchez had been photographed shaking hands as they closed an agreement on a raft of proposals which they presented as the platform for a governing partnership. In the end, their accord, whose proposals broadly occupied the centre ground, didn’t receive the necessary parliamentary support, so it became just another footnote in Spanish political history. But the ferocity with which Rivera attacked his erstwhile partner two years later was striking – as if he was annoyed with himself for having once engaged with Sánchez. Sitting next to him at that press meeting I felt the full blast of his peevishness.
Ciudadanos continue to insist they are “liberal” and “centrist”. That’s despite a refusal to support the centre-left Socialists in the national parliament and the fact that they see the conservative Popular Party (PP) as a “priority ally”. The claims of occupying the centre ground are also contradicted by a willingness to form local administrations with the far-right Vox party in Andalusia and Madrid.
Such a hard line is clearly bothering at least some in the party. Francesc de Carreras, a co-founder of Ciudadanos, wrote a strongly worded letter to Rivera in El País recently, accusing him of betraying the party’s principles and of behaving like “a petulant teenager” due to his refusal to consider supporting a new Sánchez government.
The dalliance with Vox, meanwhile, has been a gift to the independence movement, which has long cast Rivera and his party as neo-Francoists merrily jack-booting their way into Spain’s institutions while being cheered on by angry unionist hordes. Yet, as De Carreras suggested, the party’s rightward lurch seems to be driven not so much by sinister ideology as by what Gerardo Tecé calls “National-Opportunism”. Tecé points out that the party that pledged to clean up Spanish politics made its début in a regional government in 2015 by propping up the Socialist administration in Andalusia, widely regarded as one of the most corruption-riddled of the modern era; it then continued its regenerative crusade by returning Mariano Rajoy to power in 2016 – before his government was ousted due to a torrent of corruption scandals.
Now that the territorial issue is apparently Ciudadanos’s single main concern, similar qualms arise. If the party is so keen for Sánchez not to rely on separatists to form a new national government, why doesn’t it offer him its votes, or at least an abstention? Because Sánchez is already in cahoots with them, Rivera will reply – a conspiracy theory which has no basis in fact. And if Ciudadanos is so determined for Barcelona not to fall into the hands of separatists why did it punish Valls, who ensured it did not?
This kind of anger-charged politics reminds me of Rosa Díez and her now all but defunct UPyD party. A disgruntled Socialist with strident unionist views, Díez once seemed poised to challenge the existing party duopoly. Yet her politics increasingly seemed to be driven by what she hated in others rather than a positive vision for Spain. Now marginalised from mainstream politics, she is just another ranty presence on Twitter.
Rivera, of course, has made a bigger impact than Díez, with 57 seats in parliament. But, as he fiddles with his Spanish-flag wristband and launches yet another tirade at the Catalan government while ruling out pacts with Podemos, the Socialists or nationalists, he looks like a bridge-burner rather than the bridge-builder he once promised to be.
It’s tempting to wonder if Rivera’s fury might stem from the fact that, deep down, he feels that he, not Sánchez, should be the one currently trying to form a new government. In the general election Ciudadanos performed well, yet still could not beat the PP, even when it had suffered a disastrous defeat. With those disappointing results from the 2015 and 2016 general elections under his belt, Rivera must be wondering what he has to do to break into the top two. His post-election insistence that he, not Pablo Casado, is leader of the opposition betrayed his frustration at coming so near to pulling off a major upset.
Alexei Sayle once said: “Anyone who uses the word ‘workshop’ in anything other than a light-industrial capacity is a wanker.” It’s a harsh maxim, but he was making a good point. Words matter and being honest with the words you use matters, especially in the political sphere. Yet amid the breathlessness of Spain’s recent crises and election campaigns, respect for language has been gleefully buried. Spanish nationalists are not nationalists, they’re “patriots”; Catalan nationalists are not nationalists, they’re “democrats”; parties don’t do pacts with the far-right, they form governments “a la andaluza”. And Ciudadanos, following this linguistic mendacity, are moderate, centrist liberals.