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 & 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?

Official_photo_of_Quim_Torra_(cropped)
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.

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.