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?

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”.

Screen Shot 2018-07-23 at 18.35.59

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Between Two Waters

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

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

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

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


The brother-in-law

The brother-in-law, or cuñado, holds a prominent, yet unenviable, position in Spanish society, transcending the realms of the family tree to become something more than just a relative. He’s a symbol, a social phenomenon, a state of mind.

The exact characteristics of the archetypal cuñado are up for debate, but they tend to be negative. He is an extroverted, matey, slightly boorish, know-it-all who greets you effusively but doesn’t really listen to what you have to say. On the contrary, he loudly broadcasts his own opinions, often political, over Christmas dinner.

Albert Rivera
Albert Rivera: first in line in the conga.

“For the brother-in-law, everything is communism, everything is Venezuela, everything is Eta,” Lorena G. Maldonado, of El Español newspaper, has written. “In his holiday photo album he’s pretending to hold up the Tower of Pisa, he’s first in line when there’s a conga at a wedding, he stirs the Sunday paella and smiles as he says: ‘I’m Spanish, what do you want me to beat you at?’ He saw the property bubble coming a long way off, he was there, he already knew, he told you so…”

For many (Maldonado included), Spain’s highest-profile cuñado is Albert Rivera. That’s in great part because in 2016, Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, in one of those finely calculated moves that he specialises in, cast the leader of Ciudadanos as such during a parliamentary debate. The slightly comic accusation was based on Iglesias’s claim that Rivera’s ideology derived from the same family as the right-wing Popular Party (PP). But there was also a hint of the more personal use of the term – the smug paella-stirrer – which has since stuck to Rivera like rice to a pan.

In some ways he does indeed fit the cuñado stereotype, if only in terms of aesthetics and style. There is the clean-cut-but-casual attire, the bumptious self-confidence, the apparent knowledge about any subject and ready response to every problem, which can both impress and grate. But even his critics now have to take Spain’s most popular national party leader seriously.

In recent months, Ciudadanos has been riding high in voter intention polls, even proving to be the most popular party in Spain, according to Metroscopia. Rivera, meanwhile, is regarded less and less as a mere opposition upstart who bangs on about corruption and Catalonia and more and more as a potential prime minister.

But while that possibility becomes increasingly feasible, the place Ciudadanos occupies on the political spectrum has remained somewhat fuzzy.

The brother-in-law, Maldonado explains, with a large dose of irony, “is neither on the left or the right; instead he’s straight up, salt-of-the-earth, genuine.” What Maldonado means is: that’s how he presents himself, although after a few glasses of La Rioja he’ll start on about communism and Eta.

Rivera, meanwhile, in a very cuñado-esque bit of rhetoric, told The Economist recently: “We have to move away from the old left-right axis”. Not so long ago, his party was describing itself as “centre-left”, its business-friendliness offset by mostly liberal social policies. But almost exactly a year ago, Ciudadanos redefined its ideology, removing “social democracy” from its statutes, leaving a definition of it as “constitutionalist, liberal, democratic and progressive”, which does little to clarify the issue (after all, who would suggest that being “unconstitutional, illiberal, undemocratic and regressive” was a good idea?). A dig into the archives further muddies matters, with Rivera flip-flopping on gay marriage, opposing abortion as a right, showing an ambivalent take on historical memory, announcing a refusal to support Rajoy as head of a new government in 2015, forming a putative governing pact with the Socialists in 2016, then supporting a new PP government (with Rajoy at its head) a few months later.

Confused? Understandably so. But then again, Spanish politics is a weird, many-mirrored place at the moment and similar charges of inconsistency could also be levelled at the Socialists or the Catalan secessionists.

But recent events in Catalonia, where Rivera’s party has been hogging the unionist limelight, have, finally, appeared to nail it down as a party of the right. With Rajoy’s PP still mired in a smorgasboard of corruption scandals and having failed to solve the territorial crisis, Ciudadanos has benefitted, winning the Catalan election under the candidacy of Inés Arrimadas and cheerfully surfing the wave of Spanish neo-nationalism. To put it crassly, the Catalan crisis has been kind to Ciudadanos.

Conspiracy-prone supporters of independence regularly claim Ciudadanos are right-wing extremists and rabid independentistas tend to portray them as fascist, a term that has lost its currency in this age of the easy insult and which really isn’t relevant in this debate. (One thuggish wag painted “Neo-fachas” on the doorstep of the party in L’Hospitalet de Llobregat recently; one twitter user accused me of receiving funding from Ciudadanos the other day for suggesting in an article that the party was moving away from the PP on the historical memory issue).

But no, they are not the crypto-Francoist, goose-stepping loonies their enemies desperately try to portray them as.

Yet it does seem that Ciudadanos finds itself in a rum, rather disturbing, position – let’s call it Rivera’s Conundrum.

Created as a nationwide force in 2014 with the promise of introducing a centrist, transition-style statesmanship to Spain’s tribal politics, in Catalonia the party has become precisely the opposite, doing as much as any other to rattle the cage of tribalism. The more polarised the territorial crisis has become, the more Ciudadanos has hoovered up anti-independence votes. And it has heartily contributed to that polarisation, positioning itself as yin to Carles Puigdemont’s exiled yang, with the PP often a hapless bystander.

One of my favourite cartoons of recent months was a picture of Rivera marching along, bashing a drum marked “Article 155” – the clause in the constitution allowing Madrid to implement direct rule. His insistence throughout much of last year that this drastic measure be introduced often left Rajoy looking timid and, dare I say it, moderate, in comparison.

Ciudadanos’s approach to this issue was on display recently in Madrid during a BBC World Questions debate, panelled by representatives of Ciudadanos, the PP, the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and journalist Ana Romero. The most belligerent voice in the room was not that of the PP’s Francisco Martínez or ERC’s Alfred Bosch. It was Begoña Villacis, of Ciudadanos, whose insistence on attacking the Catalan independence movement at every turn – even, bizarrely, when the debate had moved on to Gibraltar – which gave the event a slightly sour aftertaste.

And there are signs that, in its determination to keep stealing voters from the PP, Ciudadanos’s hard-line playing to the gallery is seeping out of Catalonia, into its national politics (see its attempts to remove the Basque government’s historic right to controlling its own taxes, or its U-turn on the issue of life imprisonment).

So where does this leave Spain’s best-known brother-in-law? After years of shifting around, and with the corridors of power apparently beckoning, it’s time he made clear where exactly on the political right he and his party stand as a government-in-waiting.

Worryingly, Rivera’s Conundrum dictates that if he shows any willingness to step back, to make concessions – to stop banging the drum – he’ll lose votes. Given that Puigdemont’s Conundrum dictates similar terms for the ousted Catalan president, don’t expect to see much bridge-building any time soon.

Spain’s people of the year

5. Irene Montero.

It’s been a funny old year for Podemos. The party began 2017 hobbled by infighting as its two most prominent figures, Pablo Iglesias and Íñigo Errejón, battled for its soul. Iglesias emerged as the winner and his deputy was banished to a lesser role, with Irene Montero taking his place as the party’s parliamentary spokesperson. Amid the sound and fury in Catalonia, Podemos struggled to make itself heard at times this year as it carefully trod a path between unionism and separatism. But in the spring, it did manage to hog the headlines when it presented a no-confidence motion against prime minister Mariano Rajoy. The proposal failed but it allowed the 29-year-old Montero to deliver a withering parliamentary attack on Rajoy and his party and to announce her own arrival as a political player.

4. Garbiñe Muguruza.

Although Garbiñe Muguruza only won two tournaments in 2017, the fact that one of them was Wimbledon made this a year to remember for the Caracas-born tennis player. Her high-energy game, built on powerful groundstrokes, helped the 24-year-old beat Venus Williams in straight sets in the final at the All England Club. She also held the world number one ranking (before losing it to Simona Halep) and took a WTA Player of the Year award. “Muguruza should win another Slam in 2018, and maybe even two,” warned Baseline website. With Rafa Nadal back at the pinnacle of the men’s game, it has been a year to celebrate for Spanish tennis.

3. Inés Arrimadas.

Inés Arrimadas has long been a thorn in the side of the Catalan independence movement. As the Popular Party (PP) and Socialists lost ground in the region, her Ciudadanos party emerged as the leading unionist voice and Arrimadas as an aggressive and effective critic of separatism. But this year, the 36-year-old has been even more in the news, assuming her new dual role as leader of the party in Catalonia and its national spokeswoman with aplomb. Arrimadas ended 2017 by delivering an historic electoral result: she secured 37 seats in the regional chamber, making Ciudadanos the first non-nationalist party ever to come first in a Catalan election. That remarkable result will almost certainly not be enough to make her the new regional premier, but it did highlight how unionist Catalans finally found their voice after a tumultuous few months.

2. Javier Martínez.

Amid all the political histrionics in Catalonia this year, a genuine tragedy did take place in the region: a terrorist rampage along Barcelona’s Ramblas on August 17th, followed by a similar attack in Cambrils the next day, leaving a total of 16 people dead. The official response ranged from the impressive to the petty and to their immense shame, a number of public figures saw the aftermath as an opportunity to advance their political agenda. But in a year when clumsiness and mediocrity was so often on display from national leaders, others showed a remarkable degree of integrity. Among them was Javier Martínez, father of a three-year-old boy, Xavi, who died on the Ramblas in the first terror attack. Just days afterwards, he embraced an imam in the town of Rubí, in a gesture of unity that was as astonishing as it was rational.

1.The “injured woman”.

Long billed as the day the Catalan government would hold its outlawed referendum on independence, October 1st always looked like a day of reckoning for Spain’s territorial crisis. But the vote itself was overshadowed by the behaviour of the national police and civil guard, who were deployed to several polling stations where they proceeded to attack voters and seize ballot boxes. Both sides of this conflict have been guilty at various times of a crass disrespect for democracy, but as footage and pictures of this violence travelled around the world (along with other, fake, footage), it became apparent that this had been a monumental error of judgement by the Spanish state, whose efforts did not even manage to halt the referendum. Catalan separatists were handed another grievance against Spain, one that will no doubt stick in their minds for years to come. I have chosen the (unidentified) woman in this picture as Spain’s person of the year, not because of anything she has consciously set out to do, but because she represents the entrenchment and polarisation that the Catalan dispute has caused and the senseless violence it provoked.

What they think of us (part 2)


1 Oct Pic

“Because we are right! And because we are strong!” – Lluís Companys

“Let’s not go to sleep dreaming of Scotland only to wake up in Ulster.” Lluís Rabell

In early October I met up with a Catalan friend in a café in Barcelona. It had been a while since I had seen him and although the last time we had spoken he’d been a supporter of independence, he had also expressed a certain scepticism about the whole process and was able to laugh at its more absurd manifestations. This time, however, his opinion had hardened and his mood darkened. The October 1st independence referendum, which had taken place just a few days earlier, was still fresh in his mind. Friends and members of his family had been in polling stations that had been set upon by the civil guard and national police as they attempted to stop Catalans from voting that day.

My friend recounted what had happened in disbelief, becoming increasingly distraught as he did so. Eventually, he blurted out: “They won’t even let us fucking vote!” and there, in the middle of the café, he started sobbing.

A few minutes later he left and as I was finishing my coffee, a woman at the next table came over and asked if I was journalist. Yes, I said, cagily.

“I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation,” she said, barely able to contain her outrage. “That man was telling some terrible lies.”

To my relief, that was as far as the conversation went. But both episodes spoke volumes to me about this dispute and how it has taken a disturbingly visceral hold of those on both sides.

One of the striking, and at times laughable, fallouts of the Catalan crisis has been how it has reduced apparently rational, adult intellectuals to the level of teenage trolls. It has become fertile ground for a particularly alarming brand of echo-chambered ranting and name-calling, not just between everyday twitter users, but also at the supposedly highest level.

This has presented us with some sights I never imagined I’d witness – such as Julian Assange tweeting in Catalan and then embarking on a very public sandpit exchange with novelist Arturo Pérez-Reverte. That spat told us little more than how easily a couple of grown men could tumble into a pit of infantile gobbledygook. But other, apparently similar, fracas generated by the Catalan situation have been more interesting and perhaps more informative.

In the wake of October 1st, the The New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson wrote an account of what had happened that day, putting the police violence at the heart of his relatively short article.

“Whatever the avowed legality of the action, it was not only a shocking display of official violence employed against mostly peaceful and unarmed civilians but an extraordinary expression of cognitive dissonance,” wrote Anderson. “Since when did European governments prevent their citizens from voting?”

That article, and others in the international media, have drawn an irate response from within Spain, at least from the unionist side. The novelist Antonio Muñoz Molina was particularly irked, furiously taking issue with Anderson’s description of the civil guard as a “paramilitary” force. The use of that word alone, Muñoz Molina suggested in El País, showed that this journalist “is deliberately lying, with no qualms he is aware that he is lying and aware of the effect his lies will have…”

Earlier, in a paragraph that should be pored over for years by those seeking to understand the complex, barbed, psychology of modern Spain, Muñoz Molina had written:

They want us to be bullfighters, heroic guerrillas, inquisitors, and victims. They love us so much that they hate it when we question the wilful blindness upon which they build their love. They love the idea of a rebellious, fascism-fighting Spain so much that they are not ready to accept that fascism ended many years ago. They love what they see as our quaint backwardness so much that they feel insulted if we explain to them how much we have changed in the last 40 years…

Several similar articles followed that of Muñoz Molina, many of them published by El País, which seems to have become the standard-bearer for Spanish democracy’s wounded pride. The newspaper’s op-ed department head, José Ignacio Torreblanca, even invented a new word – Anglocondescension – to describe “the insufferable sentiment of Anglo American superiority that we have been suffering since the October 1st referendum in Catalonia.”

Like many of his colleagues, he cited bullfights, flamenco and paella as tropes that lazy foreign journalists apparently lean on when writing about – and talking down to – Spain. In another article – yes, another one – in El País, Maite Rico took issue with foreign observers’ obsession with “bullfighters-civil war-García Lorca-paella” (where does this thing about paella come from?).

I won’t go into how accurate or not the foreign media has been about Catalonia over the last few weeks – after all, the sheer volume of coverage has been overwhelming. But the crisis has opened Spain up to a level of international scrutiny that it has probably never experienced before, given the impact of social media and 24-hour news.

As for the response of Spanish commentators to what the foreign press has been saying about their country over the last few weeks, they seem very much in line with what I call The-New-York-Times-Thinks-We’re-Shit Syndrome (TNYTTWSS) – a serious but little understood pathology that is particularly prevalent in the Iberian Peninsula. Previously, TNYTTWSS manifested itself as a kind of enthusiastic curiosity about what foreign media thought about Spain. But in recent weeks it has curdled into a spiky defensiveness.

Much of the anger of Messrs Muñoz Molina and Torreblanca and others seems to be focused on the constant referencing of the Franco era in coverage (Muñoz Molina’s article was headlined “In Francoland”). Can’t you just forget about our past, they are saying, it has nothing to do with our present. It’s a fair point and their frustration is palpable. But ignoring Spain’s recent past when trying to understand its current political/constitutional/territorial/democratic (take your pick) crisis makes little sense. The country has made huge strides forward in the last four decades, but even its blithest champion would have to agree, for example, that its judiciary has a credibility problem, or that the governing Popular Party’s torrent of corruption scandals go beyond the realms of embarrassment, and that Spanish voters have a disturbing habit of ignoring such aberrations when casting their vote. Do we just write off these phenomena as anomalies, existing without historical background? No, we look for reasons, many – but not all – of which can be found in the hectic years of the democratic transition, or beyond, in the democratic vacuum of the dictatorship.

Similarly, recent oddities such as Brexit or the election of Donald Trump can only be fully understood with the benefit of historical context (whether that be Britain’s colonial past and waning international influence, the decline of the US rust belt and longstanding racial tensions, and so on). But looking hard at a country’s democratic credentials and recent history when it sends armed riot police in to deal with unarmed voters, or jails pro-independence leaders indefinitely as part of a probe into rebellion and sedition is not unreasonable or part of an international plot to diss Spain. It’s common sense.

Anderson’s article, it has to be said, did lack some more recent context. He didn’t mention the undemocratic behaviour of the Catalan pro-independence parties in late 2015, when, after failing to win 50 percent of votes in a plebiscite-election, they declared victory and handed themselves a mandate to push ahead towards secession. Nor did he mention the highly dubious behaviour of the Catalan parliament on September 6th and 7th of this year, when the speaker altered the order of the day in order to allow two contested laws paving the way for independence to be steam-rollered through the house.

But, for some time now, both sides in this dispute have been gleefully “spitting upwards”, as the Argentines would say.

For Carles Puigdemont and his Catalan government that meant using a series of legitimate grievances against the Spanish state and government to push on towards a hazily sketched-out independent republic, regardless of legality and the wishes of a majority of Catalans, even when it became clear that declaring independence would accelerate the flight of companies from the region and rob it temporarily of its existing devolved powers.

For Mariano Rajoy it has meant pandering to the basest instincts of the right wing of his party, the Madrid media and his voters, by refusing even to acknowledge that this was a political problem. For 24 hours – on October 1st – Rajoy was the prime minister of a country that resembled a banana republic. Since then he has found himself forced to resort to the most drastic response available: direct rule. This most unionist of politicians has done more long-term damage to the nation’s territorial unity than any Spanish leader in recent times. If Catalans still commemorate the fall of Barcelona to Bourbon troops three centuries ago, you can bet October 1st 2017 will stay fresh in their memory for some time to come.

The spit, as the Argentines might say, has only just started landing.

‘No tinc por’


Spain has suffered two jihadist terror attacks over the last 13 years. In March 2004, bombs planted on trains in Madrid killed 191 people and in the days that followed, hundreds of thousands of Spaniards turned out onto the streets to express their condemnation of the attack and solidarity for the victims. Then, as it emerged that the government of José María Aznar had erroneously told the country that Eta had been responsible, the mood changed. Aznar’s desperate insistence that it was not Al-Qaeda (and therefore nothing to do with Spain’s presence in Iraq) failed to convince voters, who delivered a shock result in the general election three days after the attack, putting the Socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in power.

Many voters on the right would never accept that result as legitimate. Egged on by certain media (especially El Mundo) and politicians in Aznar’s Partido Popular (PP), the more gullible and conspiracy minded continued to believe that Eta – and even elements of the Spanish state or Socialist Party – had been involved in plotting the attack.

I would not wish on any country the poisonous atmosphere that Spain saw in the following months, during which the legitimacy of the new government was constantly undermined and relatives of some of those killed in the attack were insulted in the street for not accepting the cranks’ version of events.

The country has changed a great deal since then, in many ways for the better, and the so-called “11-M” conspiracy has more or less evaporated. Thankfully, we have not seen the same kind of collective madness in the wake of the Ramblas and Cambrils attacks of August 17-18.

However, other schisms have become apparent in recent days.

On the train from Madrid to Barcelona on August 18th, I bumped into a Catalan congresswoman from the Socialist Party and I asked her if she thought the recent attacks would have any effect on Catalonia’s plans to stage an illegal referendum on independence from Spain on October 1. The gist of her response was that it wouldn’t and that very soon, Spanish politics would be back to normal.

I agreed, but I think neither of us anticipated what followed: an impressive show of unity, followed by confusion and plenty of bile.

That unity was the gathering of politicians and King Felipe along with thousands of others in Barcelona’s Plaça de Catalunya for a minute’s silence, the day after the van attack in the city. The chants of “No tinc por” (“I’m not afraid”) that followed were deeply moving and as businesses opened up again that day and tourists once again wandered the Ramblas en masse, it seemed that this was the best kind of response to a senseless act.

But barely had the candles been lit on the Ramblas’s improvised shrines to the victims (see photo above) than things started to sour.

Much of that curdling has been played out in the media. An ill-judged editorial in El País needlessly dragged the Catalan independence issue into the Barcelona attack fallout, lamenting the “flagrant breaking of laws, the games of deceit… and political opportunism” of the northeastern region’s government.

Meanwhile, a blame game has ensued, with many in the media and security forces apparently determined to highlight the failure of the Catalan police, the Mossos d’Esquadra, to heed concerns which had apparently informally been expressed by Belgian authorities about the imam at the centre of the plot, Abdelbaki Es Satty.

The Mossos’s hogging of the headlines after shooting several of the terrorists appears to have bothered some in Madrid, as does the fact that the Catalan police chief Josep Lluís Trapero, and the regional premier, Carles Puigdemont, offered updates on the investigation in Catalan rather than Spanish.

“Is it possible to offer a greater level of stupidity, meanness and provincialism (not to say necrophilia)?” fumed Pedro Pitarch, a retired lieutenant general, of a televised appearance by Puigdemont after the attacks, on his blog.

Meanwhile, others have been quick to blame Barcelona’s mayor, Ada Colau, for the attack, for not having installed bollards at the top of the Ramblas (Alcorcón mayor David Pérez, of the PP, accused her of “paving the way” for the terrorists).

Such huffing and puffing from is perhaps inevitable after a tragedy of this kind. But the political context for all this is unprecedented, lending an extra layer of tension: the October 1 independence referendum is the culmination of half a decade of political crisis and deep uncertainty, undoubtedly fuelling much of the unnecessary behaviour of recent days on both “sides” of the territorial argument. It helps explain, for example, the determination of some supporters of independence to trumpet the rather unconvincing argument that their region’s response to the attack is proof in itself that they are ready to form a new state.

One fiercely pro-independence man I met on the Ramblas on August 18th told me that “it’s not the time to bring out the flags” because displays of nationalism at that moment would distract attention from the victims and he had no problem with the fact that the Spanish prime minister and king were in the city. But many others saw things differently, and the pro-independence estelada was a common feature of the anti-terror march a week later in Barcelona, as were boos and whistles for Rajoy and King Felipe (justified, supposedly, by the “hypocrisy” of a Spanish state that does business with Saudi Arabia).

What would Javier Martínez, the father of the three-year-old boy Xavi who was killed on the Ramblas, think of all this? Amid the flag-waving, political jockeying and finger-pointing he embraced an imam in the town of Rubí just days after losing his son in the attack in what has to be the ultimate act of unity and defiance.

So often in the wake of an attack like this we are told that we have to make sure our lives are not overly disrupted, because “that’s what the terrorists want”. Yes, but they also want us divided and unsure of who our allies are. In the last few days we have not seen the hateful delirium that gripped Spain in the spring of 2004. But the divisions are nonetheless there and everyone – politicians, police, retired military, newspaper editors, bloggers, unionists and separatists – would do well to step back from their agenda and glance at the bigger picture.