Spain’s leftist unicorn

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.

The brother-in-law (part two)

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.

Albert Rivera: a National-Opportunist?

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.

Early last year I wrote about Rivera and his exploitation of the Catalan crisis for electoral benefit and how it was time for him and Ciudadanos to confirm that, having shed their original social democrat values, they were now a party of the right. But even now, getting them to admit where they are on the political spectrum remains about as easy as nailing gazpacho to the wall.

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.

For some former Rivera allies all of this has been too much. The former French prime minister Manuel Valls, who seemed such a coup when he agreed to run for mayor of Barcelona with the backing of Ciudadanos several months ago, has condemned the party’s dealings with Vox. Rivera then decided to split with Valls altogether after he supported the leftist Ada Colau as mayor. “There’s nothing worse than Ada Colau,” tweeted Ciudadanos spokesman Juan Carlos Girauta.

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.

Jack Sparrow versus Spain

Jack Sparrow
Jack Sparrow: leading a century-long, international conspiracy to slander Spain.

One of the top headlines on El País’s website earlier this week read: “The Spanish black legend spread by Hollywood”. The article beneath reported how the Defence Ministry has given an award to historian Esteban Vicente Boisseau for a book he has published on how Spain’s presence in the Americas between the 16th and 19th centuries has been distorted by British and US cinema over the decades.

I have not read the book, although El País went into some detail regarding its content, explaining how Boisseau sees a deliberate, long-standing attempt by British and American filmmakers to smear Spain’s past. Given that the article quite clearly takes the historian’s side on the matter, offering a strident synopsis of the book, reading Boisseau’s work itself now feels rather redundant.

“Without a doubt, the African-American population would find it unacceptable if in Disney theme parks there were an attraction, to the sound of happy music, that showed Africans being captured by pirates,” Boisseau notes, in a passage quoted in the article that lambasts the depiction of Spaniards in such places.

Then, apparently with a straight face, the author draws on a famous film franchise that he believes is laced with anti-Spanish slander: “The message conveyed in Pirates of the Caribbean is that robbing, torturing and killing Spaniards, selling, buying and abusing Hispanic women and looting are not only justified but rather that they are happy events, a true bit of fun.”

It’s hard to know which is more troubling: Boisseau’s argument, El País’s willingness to recycle it without critical comment, or a government ministry’s decision to reward the product of such a provincial mindset.

To return to the author’s point: no, I’m sure African-Americans might find it unacceptable to see themselves depicted being merrily enslaved in Disney World. But that’s because they suffered hundreds of years of slavery. Spaniards didn’t. Meanwhile, to cite Pirates of the Caribbean as evidence of a plot against Spain is surely either part of a very elaborate, book-length joke, or something more worrying.

A catalogue of further dastardly Anglo-Saxon celluloid-shaped attacks on Spain’s proud history follows in the article, including the bloated Gérard Depardieu vehicle 1492: Conquest of Paradise, Disney’s animated Pocahontas, or, going much further back, Tearing Down the Spanish Flag (which, rather thoughtlessly, was made in the year 1898).

What do we make of such historical paranoia? I have written at some length about how sensitive Spain, or at least many Spaniards, have become about their international image over the last couple years, mainly as a response to the Catalan crisis. But this silliness over history – attempting to present a prosperous, developed member of the EU as the victim of a weird conspiracy – raises the bar. The petty comparisons with the sins of other countries made by Boisseau/El País – Henry VIII killed more people than the Spanish Inquisition, they protest – make it worse. It’s the Y tú más mentality used by discredited politicians in the hope that their opponents’ scandals will eclipse their own and now it is seeping into prize-winning academia.

When Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador proposed recently that Spain should apologise for abuses committed during its conquest of Latin America, the vitriolic backlash that followed seemed to be fuelled by this recent trend of national defensiveness.

In its current mood, Spain is not going to consider López Obrador’s request and, from a country where it’s hard to look up without seeing a national flag, perhaps that is asking too much. But a more informed, less emotionally charged understanding of the conquest of the Americas can only be a good thing. How many people, for instance, are aware that disease, rather than military might, was the most deadly factor in overwhelming the Aztecs, Incas and Native Americans?

Boisseau’s Jack Sparrow-fixation is only one of many ways in which history can be misread or crowbarred into a particular worldview. Last weekend, members of the Spanish and Catalan governments were among those who gathered at Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, where several thousand Spaniards died at the hands of the Nazis. In a speech paying tribute to the victims, Gemma Domènech, head of the Catalan government’s historical memory department, cited the “political prisoners” being held in Spain, in reference to the nine independence leaders who are in jail facing charges of rebellion. Spanish justice minister Dolores Delgado walked out in protest.

This is not the first time the Catalan independence movement has tried to frame its cause alongside some of the 20th century’s most horrendous atrocities and noble campaigns. Apartheid-era South Africa, segregation in the United States and Gandhi’s anti-colonial movement have all been invoked by Catalan leaders in recent years, as their insistence on “internationalising” their cause has spilled over into misjudgement. Domènech’s insistence on mentioning the Catalan cause in the same breath as the victims of Mauthausen is surely a misstep even the most fervent independentista should blanch at. Not only does it show a poor grasp of history and a crass lack of taste, but her own cause (which, whatever injustices it may have suffered in recent years, has a death toll of zero) is belittled when placed next to the Holocaust.

It reminded me of a similar case from 2013 when Eva Durán, of the conservative unionist Popular Party (PP), made the mistake of comparing the trend of escraches – gatherings of demonstrators outside the homes of politicians – with Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews. For some, history revolves entirely around their own needs.

Mainland dreams

The desperation of migrants attempting to reach their dreamed-of destination has become a familiar sight on our TV and computer screens, its impact inevitably diluted by the 24-hours cycle. But on a recent trip to Spain’s North African city of Ceuta, I was reminded of the lengths to which many migrants will go in order to cross borders.

Several hundred Moroccan teenage boys are in Ceuta and its sister city, Melilla, hoping to cross the Mediterranean and reach the Spanish mainland. Many of them are living in shelters run by local authorities, but there are dozens who prefer to sleep rough near the port areas of the cities, scrounging food where they can. In Ceuta, they sleep in abandoned cars or under wooden pallets and most days they scale the wall surrounding the port car park and attempt to stow away on vehicles waiting to board the ferries. Sometimes they hide in the back of lorries or trucks carrying goods, other times they cling to the underside of these vehicles. The success rate appears to be low. I spoke to boys who had tried to stow away almost every single day for the last couple of months, only to be caught by the civil guard each time.

But the occasional success story keeps their hopes up. The week before I was there, a 13-year-old boy had managed to get across to the Spanish mainland, having hidden away in a ferry.

Ceuta may be part of Spain, but it’s not part of the Schengen space, so reaching it does not mean a migrant is automatically able to travel anywhere in the EU. Also, it’s a relatively small city, where professional and study opportunities for migrants, particularly of Moroccan origin, are limited. As one boy told me, he only feels “twenty percent” in Spain when in Ceuta.

With elections looming, the presence of these boys in both Ceuta and Melilla has become a political issue. Being under the age of 18 protects them from being repatriated, a norm which has been debated recently as some parties pressure for them to be treated as adults. They even have their own acronym – MENA, or menores extranjeros no acompañados.

None of which is to suggest that this is an easy phenomenon to resolve. These teenagers almost always leave home with the blessing of their families, despite the obvious risks they run. Recently, a man was found guilty of sexually abusing Moroccan migrant children in Melilla, something which is reportedly commonplace. And in February, a 15-year-old boy paid the ultimate price for pursuing his dreams: he was crushed to death by the lorry he was trying to hide under in Ceuta’s port.

The Editor

In the spring of 2015, El Mundo’s Asia correspondent David Jiménez was unveiled as the newspaper’s new editor. A year and 366 editions of the paper later, he was sacked.

Jiménez recounts his eventful tenure in a newly published book, El Director (“The Editor”). Having gone on sale this week it has already sparked a storm, not just among Jiménez’s former colleagues, but in the Spanish media world in general, with several journalists accusing him of taking revenge on his former employer or peddling gossip. In the Spanish media, one journalist told me, “firemen don’t stand on each other’s hoses.” There’s a feeling that, in being so explicit about his experience, he has broken a longstanding omertá.

One of the problems for Jiménez’s critics is that El Director is such a good read, with a lightness of touch and a tone that ranges from bemusement to barely concealed fury. From the start, he is a fish out of water. A journalist who had spent most of the previous two decades living abroad, having little direct contact with the workings of El Mundo or the world of the Spanish elite, is suddenly chosen for the Big Job. He follows in the footsteps of long-time editor and media legend Pedro J. Ramírez and his successor, Casimiro García-Abadillo, who held the post for just over a year.

The brief seems to be clear: to stop the paper’s disastrous decline in sales, make it a competitive online presence and restore its journalistic reputation. Jiménez envisages a major overhaul, led, understandably by an emphasis on developing the paper’s digital performance. But from the very start he faces resistance. Some of it is from luddite or jealous colleagues, but a more formidable foe is upstairs from him, where El Mundo’s executives pace the corridors and fret over whether the paper is doing enough to grease the wheels of power.

Despite employing many dedicated professionals, El Mundo, Jiménez tells us, is a hotbed of hypocrisy, cowardice and back-stabbing. All these attributes come together in the sinister figure of El Cardenal (one of many characters in the book whose real name is replaced by a nickname), an executive who constantly pressures Jiménez to bury news that will hurt the Partido Popular (PP) or the country’s corporate giants. “Power had stopped fearing the media and now it was the media who feared power,” he writes early on, setting the melancholic tone for a story which we know isn’t going to end well.

However, there are lighter moments. Former Madrid mayor Ana Botella confuses Jiménez with a prize-winning bullfighter at one point, and his account of desperately trying to get his children to shut up in the back of the car when prime minister Mariano Rajoy is calling him on the phone is priceless. And Spain’s élite don’t always come off badly. On a train journey back from Huesca, he receives an unexpected phone call from King Felipe and Queen Letizia, who both apologise after some compromising leaked texts had shown her calling one of El Mundo’s supplements “shit”.

And yet, the overall impression El Director gives is not just that of a media industry that is in economic decline, but one which has utterly lost its ethical bearings. While Jiménez sees more and more evidence of corporate pressures compromising the media’s performance, he also discovers that media organisations are blackmailing companies into buying advertising.

“The wall separating propaganda from information, the press release from news and advertising from journalism had collapsed,” he writes. “Buying a journalist was not possible in Spain, but, as the Afghan saying about corruption goes: you could talk about hiring one.”

Jiménez sees journalists-for-hire all around him. Many are on tertulias – radio and TV panel discussions – where participants are often chosen for their outlandish personalities and because they fill an ideological quota, even receiving instructions from political parties before appearing. (Jiménez has a particular axe to grind against the tertulias – on election night in 2015 he spots one of his star reporters holding forth on a television panel when she is supposed to be in the newsroom covering the result.)

Any insider account of El Mundo has to at least touch on how the paper handled the events and fallout of March 11, 2004, when a terrorist attack killed 191 people in Madrid, and Jiménez obliges. The paper’s coverage remains a huge blemish on its reputation: Ramírez, who as editor would frequently play paddle with then-prime minister José María Aznar, accepted the government’s erroneous line that ETA, rather than jihadists, had carried out the bombing. When it became apparent that ETA had played no role in the attack, El Mundo continued to insist on the Aznar theory, for years casting doubt on the official investigation, thus convincing many Spaniards that there had been a cover-up.

I had always wondered what the journalists under Ramírez had thought of all this and whether it was simply a bubble mentality. But Jiménez, who at the time was in another country, suggests that few agreed with the ETA theory. “It was difficult to find anyone in the newsroom who thought that what we were doing made any sense,” he writes, “but it was even more difficult to find someone who had the guts to tell the editor that.” Those who did dissent, he reveals, were “purged”.  Meanwhile, “Those who bought into the editor’s fantasies with the most enthusiasm were promoted.”

Ramírez, who was El Mundo editor for most of Jiménez’s time at the paper, is portrayed as a flawed, egomaniacal autocrat. Utterly driven by the search for the big headline and exclusive, he is blessed with boldness and a rare journalistic instinct, yet appears to have few scruples, whether selling the March 11 lie, plagiarising a scoop from El País without attribution, or simply reducing journalists to tears with an angry tirade.

But while Jiménez’s book casts light on the Spanish media and one newspaper in particular, it also has plenty to say about the state of modern Spain in general, a country whose political and economic institutions have taken a pasting in recent years, as the cosiness between media, business and politics has reached a peak. He writes:

“[Rajoy] had as much intention of overhauling politics as El Cardenal had of overhauling journalism or [Telefónica CEO] César Alierta had of overhauling business. The three of them were part of the chain of national mediocrity which began at school, where critical thinking was viewed with mistrust and popularity was earned by pushing people around in the playground; it continued in the office, where promotions were reserved for those who were submissive and too much initiative is seen as a threat; it continued in the media newsrooms, where a privileged caste had become powerful by stepping on the enthusiasm of journalists with more talent than themselves; it turned gangrenous in public institutions, where thousands of jobs were doled out according to which side you were on, regardless of merit; and it continued up to the final rung of the ladder, where a prime minister who was plagued by corruption could aspire to re-election, confident of the fact that several million Spaniards would vote for him with the blind loyalty of the fans of a football team.”

Jiménez is frustrated at every turn by those who want to keep this rotten media-business-politics triumvirate in place. The experience was clearly a painful one for him and his account of it is drawing a fierce backlash from some quarters. “We journalists like to tell a good story,” he writes, “but not our own.” This is one story that needed to be told.

El Director, by David Jiménez, is published by Libros K.O.

Curtain call

Members of the Kamikaze theatre company in Jauría, by Jordi Casanovas. Photo: Vanessa Rábade

“We have to accept that theatre is entertainment. But you can’t take the word ‘enjoyment’ to mean the avoiding of reality. Theatre should be a widening of reality.” – Alfonso Sastre.

A deep divide runs down the middle of Spanish theatre. On the one hand, there are the big commercial productions, many of which can be seen lining Madrid’s Gran Vía. These low-brow shows include musicals, such as Mamma Mia or We will Rock You, but also a seemingly endless flow of relationship/sex comedies and translations of established foreign plays.

On the other side of the chasm sits the high-brow material: Spanish and other classics, as well as challenging contemporary productions which may struggle to pull in the punters but which are more likely to draw the attention of the critics. The Centro Dramático Nacional, for example, has been behind current productions of Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard and Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot

This leaves a sprawling dramatic no-man’s land, a place where accessible yet quality theatre is scarce. One way of filling that void would be to treat the classics with less reverence. Spain has a rich theatrical legacy, but the work of Cervantes, Tirso de Molina and García Lorca and other giants tends to be so venerated that it often seems trapped behind glass, out of reach (and beyond the pocket) of the ordinary spectator. It’s a mindset that was very much visible during the recent 400th anniversary celebrations of Don Quijote. A wealth of round tables on the novel were organised, new hardbook editions were published and museum exhibitions on the author were staged – but my feeling was that an opportunity to bring Cervantes truly closer to his readers had been lost.

Another area ripe for theatre is contemporary Spanish society – not the country’s bedroom or dinner-table mores but the stuff happening out on the street. The Kamikaze theatre company is currently exploring this rich seam of dramatic material with a hyper-realist play based on the Manada sexual assault case. In 2016, five young men assaulted a young woman in Pamplona during the Sanfermines festival. Last year they were convicted of sexual abuse, but not rape, triggering a wave of street demonstrations and outrage which has shaped debate on the issue since.

Last week, Kamikaze brought the play, Jauría, to Madrid. The script, by Jordi Casanovas, is based exclusively on transcripts of the trial, which are rearranged for dramatic effect but not altered. That text and the direction, by Miguel del Arco, offer the six actors a minimalist setting in which to re-enact the circumstances of the assault and the ensuing trial to stunning effect.

“A lot has been written and said about the Manada trial, but there has been very little of depth on the subject,” Del Arco said before the first night’s performance. “We live in a society that is obsessed with headlines but we’ve lost the ability to delve into things more deeply.”

Having covered the Manada attack, the trial and the social fallout, I felt I had a good understanding of the issue. But as the director suggested, Jauría gave me an insight that went beyond what the media coverage offered. It was an insight based on facts but also on human experience.

This is not the first production to tackle contemporary Spain in such an uncompromising, vérité manner  — Rodrigo Rato’s life was brought to the stage last year in El milagro español. But the country’s messy modern psyche surely deserves to be explored further by its theatres.

Jauría is on at the Pavón theatre as part of a double bill with ‘Port Arthur’ until April 21st.  l

Adults in the room

It’s still early days in the Supreme Court trial of 12 Catalan leaders for their role in the 2017 failed independence bid. But, with all the defendants having given an initial testimony and several of the highest profile witnesses having taken the stand, certain themes are emerging.

One of them, of course, is the now familiar claim by at least most of the defendants that this is a political trial, driven by Madrid’s deep-state puppeteers and that it is therefore bereft of judicial credibility.

Another is the potentially crucial disagreement over what happened during demonstrations in Barcelona in September of 2017 as the civil guard searched a Catalan government building. Those associated with the independence cause see no evidence of violence during the protests, at least of the kind needed to justify the rebellion charge levelled at nine defendants. Prosecutors, meanwhile, are bent on proving otherwise.

But the biggest flashpoint of that autumn was, of course, the independence referendum staged on October 1st in defiance of the constitutional court. It has also become one of the most notorious days in modern Spanish history, with riot police breaking into several polling stations and attacking unarmed voters. At the time, it felt as if Spain had become a banana republic for a few hours, the only comfort being that, presumably, justice would be done and those responsible for the day’s brutality would suffer the consequences.

And yet, nearly 18 months later, there has been no government or parliamentary probe. Legal action is under way against a number of police, with the involvement of Barcelona city hall as a plaintiff, but no official investigation is on the horizon. All of which makes the findings of the Supreme Court with regard to the 2017 referendum particularly important. For the moment, this is the closest thing Spain has to an official inquiry into that day’s events.

With the stakes so high, the evidence given so far has, mostly, fallen disappointingly short. Last week’s roster of witnesses read almost like a who’s who of players in the 2017 Catalan crisis (with one or two obvious absentees): former prime minister Mariano Rajoy, his deputy Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, the former interior minister Juan Ignacio Zoido, former Catalan premier Artur Mas, pro-independence congressman and provocateur Gabriel Rufián and his mentor Joan Tardà.

And yet, between them, none of the above managed to cast a clear light on events, even when discussing the referendum itself. Rajoy had the biggest billing, of course, yet expectations were inevitably dampened by his reputation as the country’s least charismatic leader of modern times. It is only eight months since he was ousted, yet Spanish politics has moved on so fast that Rajoy looked like a relic from another era, a blue-suited woolly mammoth of a politician who had staggered into the courtroom by accident, still blinking and equivocating with all the negative pomp of his heyday. And, perhaps predictably, the man who had been in charge of the Spanish government on that black day in October 2017 had virtually nothing of substance to say about it, to the extent that he even denied that a referendum had taken place.

Rajoy, like Santamaría, distanced himself from the police’s actions. Former interior minister Zoido did the same, albeit with all the composure of a bumbling, boozed-up relative at the Christmas table. The police, not ministers, oversaw such matters, was his argument, as he repeated the phrase “I don’t remember” over and over again. Did this man really once hold one of the most important government portfolios?

When Zoido’s deputy, José Antonio Nieto, then told the court that there were no police charges on October 1st, at least as he understood the term, things moved into an altogether more worrying realm, somewhere removed from reality.

It was a relief, then, when Basque premier Íñigo Urkullu took the stand. Amid the fog of buck-passing and verbiage which had come before, his austere manner and forensic control of facts, names and dates were a balm and it was tempting at times to see him as the only adult in the room. While Urkullu’s answers gave his status as a witness copper-bottomed credibility, his willingness to attempt to mediate in the events of 2017 has shown that he is that rarest of creatures in contemporary Spanish politics: a statesman. One of the contradictions of that series of events in Catalonia is that Carles Puigdemont, according to many accounts, did not want to declare independence and Rajoy did not want to introduce direct rule. Yet, pushed to the brink by the extremes of their respective political families and lacking decisiveness, both men leapt into the abyss. Urkullu ultimately failed to stop either of them, but it wasn’t for lack of effort.

Last week I was berated by a pro-independence Catalan for making light of the trial. With the Real Madrid-Barça clásico being played on the same day as Rajoy’s court appearance, I had drawn a comparison between the two, wondering if the day’s judicial action might end up as an anti-climax, a no-score draw. My attitude, I was told, was “totally blasé”, given that nine people had been in prison for the last year or so in the build up to the trial. All I’d say to that is that no, I’m not blasé about it, but I do think such studied solemnity is unhelpful. This is not a humanitarian crisis – for that look to Venezuela or the western Mediterranean, where every day lives really are at stake as desperate migrants try to reach Spain.

What is happening in the Supreme Court is something different, however much its baggage may outrage those involved or alarm those watching. It is the mutant child of a totally unnecessary political crisis, one which has been fuelled by stubbornness and lack of equanimity on both sides. Just ask Mr Urkullu.

Arrimadas’s Waterloo “happening” kicks off Spanish electoral season

Spanish general election campaigns aren’t supposed to begin like this. They tend to kick off in echoey sports centres in Zaragoza, or lifeless conference halls in Marbella, with amp-busting canned music and kitsch flag-waving.

But you could make the case that the 2019 election campaign began in Belgium, outside the rented Waterloo house of former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont on Sunday. There, Inés Arrimadas, Catalan unionism’s most recognisable face, staged a…what? “Happening” might be the best word. Gathered with a group of journalists and colleagues from her Ciudadanos party, Arrimadas give a 10-minute speech in which she reprimanded Puigdemont, telling him his independent republic does not exist, advised him to hand himself in to Spanish authorities and then promptly left.

It was a press conference, of sorts. But from the moment Arrimadas announced her Waterloo plan, it had a slightly weird, Dadaist air. That was compounded when, as the event got under way, Puigdemont’s front door silently swung open, in an invitation to dialogue that everybody knew Arrimadas would not accept. It was all too easy to imagine the former Catalan president watching the proceedings from an upstairs bedroom, perhaps muffling a snigger as he twitched the curtains.

It’s all slightly reminiscent of a stunt pulled by the unionist-fantasists of Tabarnia last March, when their leader Albert Boadella issued a megaphoned appeal to Puigdemont from the same spot. But while Tabarnia’s humour has soured since then, on that occasion Puigdemont’s antagonists did at least have comedy on their side. Arrimadas’s gesture, by contrast, might have made us laugh if it weren’t so reckless.

Enric Juliana noted at the weekend that instead of heading to Waterloo, she was in fact heading “to the electoral border between Ciudadanos and Vox.”

The election campaign doesn’t officially start until mid-April, but this was Ciudadanos’s starting gun. It wasn’t an attempt to lay out policies or even a vision of Spain, it was simply a move aimed at further raising tensions and convincing voters that Ciudadanos can be as angry at and hostile to independentistas as Vox or the Popular Party.

There will be plenty more of this in the coming weeks, with grand, choreographed gestures taking the place of considered solutions, and not just from Ciudadanos. The PP and Vox will, of course, also bang the same drum, calling for immediate direct rule in Catalonia and tougher laws to clamp down on separatism. Meanwhile, Pedro Sánchez’s government will also seek to make a big gesture before the April 28th election, albeit one which could solve a very painful problem: exhuming Franco from the Valley of the Fallen.

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 & In March, 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 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., 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.