For well over two years, even before Pedro Sánchez took the reins of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) in 2014, Susana Díaz has been touted as the party’s leader-in-waiting, even though she has still not declared her intention to compete in the upcoming leadership primary. Patxi López, meanwhile, has thrown his hat into the ring already – too early, some fret.patxi

As premier of the Andalusia region, Díaz is one of the country’s most powerful politicians – possibly Spain’s most powerful woman. And if you accept the commonly held wisdom that she was instrumental in Sánchez’s October ouster, that makes her an even more formidable figure. She enjoys the support of much of the PSOE old guard, including former prime ministers Felipe González and José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, as well as many regional “barons”.

In Andalusia itself, she is, for the most part, utterly in command. The party’s biggest stronghold, she did well to hold off the Podemos threat there in 2015 and remain in power. Having seen her in action in the highlands of Cádiz (the province with the highest unemployment rate in Spain) during that election campaign, I can vouch for her regal self-assurance on home turf. But for a Socialist, winning elections in Andalusia and governing the region is a bit like coaching Bayern Munich football club: a huge responsibility, of course, but everything is tilted in your favour.

Governing the Basque Country as a Socialist, by contrast, is much more of a challenge. López should know. In 2009, he ended three decades of Basque nationalist rule, to form the unlikeliest of governments in the region – a partnership between the Socialists and the Popular Party (PP). It didn’t last very long, of course, but it wasn’t the first time that Basque politicians had given their counterparts elsewhere in Spain a lesson in realpolitik.

The differences between the two Socialist front-runners don’t end there. When the PSOE was teetering on the brink of self-destruction last autumn, torn apart by its indecision over whether to allow Mariano Rajoy to continue governing or hold out for yet another election, López was firmly in the latter, “No-means-no”, camp. He wore his support for the doomed Sánchez on his sleeve – not a strategically savvy move, but an admirably loyal one.

Díaz, meanwhile, was much more equivocal about whether or not the party should ease Rajoy’s investiture vote, ensuring she was in the limelight while tiptoeing round the word “abstain” as if it might bite her.

All of this may read like something of an attempt to sell López as the man to save his party, and Díaz as the dastardly career politician. Well, that’s not entirely the case. After all, in his brief stint as speaker of Congress last year López was disappointing, particularly when he nearly lost control of a boisterous chamber during Sánchez’s failed investiture. And the perception that he is, as the ever-perceptive Iván Redondo puts it, “the third way of the third way of the third way”, is more reassuring than inspiring for potential voters.

López is no rock star. His vague proposals thus far seem to suggest he broadly understands the need for an overhaul of Spanish Socialism in the context of the new political landscape, but he has neither the fiery divisiveness of Pablo Iglesias nor the Blairesque suavity of Albert Rivera. Instead, his unusual career has given him a lived-in, woody, workmanlike quality – he’s the kind of man from whom you might expect to buy paint or nails in a hardware store rather than see strolling the corridors of power. And having worked his way slowly up from the small-town politics of Portugalete, he finds himself, finally, in the running for the big job in Madrid.

It’s a long way between now and May’s primary contest. In the meantime, not only will Díaz almost certainly stand in López’s way, but Sánchez is still mulling a comeback (some have even wondered if López’s involvement in the primary was a ploy cooked up by the party to deter the unpredictable former leader). If Sánchez runs, he would probably hurt the Basque, given that their platforms would have much in common, likely handing Díaz the leadership.

At 57, López isn’t going to have many more chances like this. But then again, perhaps the Socialist Party has had enough, for the time being, of being led by apparently blessed forty-somethings who seem to parachute out of nowhere before breaking their legs on landing.

Chirbes and the private life of Spain

“It takes a lot of energy to keep the flame of civilisation alight.” – Rafael Chirbes


chirbesCast your mind back 10 years, when Spain was on a roll. Its economy was growing at an unbelievable rate on the back of a property boom; second cars and second homes were being bought like they were going out of fashion; the unemployment rate had dropped to single figures; and prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero had declared that Spain was in the “Champions League” of world economies.

What could possibly go wrong?

We all know the answer, but I’d like to look back at the publication, in 2007, of a remarkably prescient novel, by Rafael Chirbes, which seemed to intuit the disaster to come. Crematorio tells the story of a family in the fictional Valencian town of Misent. Told from the point of view of different characters, it frequently jumps back into the past. Yet this is a fiercely contemporary novel, which, instead of lionising the new Spain, delves under its shiny bonnet and examines the unsavoury, grimy motor that drives it.

Crematorio portrays the Spain of the middle of the last decade: pumped up by credit, giddy on consumerism and happy to wreck the skyline in the name of progress.

It’s not the easiest of reads, with Chirbes eschewing conventions such as dialogue and even paragraphs. Instead, each long chapter is a single torrent of words, told from the perspective of a particular character.

The most intricately painted of these is Rubén Bertomeu, a wealthy, 73-year-old property developer who ruminates on the recent death of his brother Matías, his family and his own eroded scruples. Rubén is a fascinatingly complex creation and, as the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that he personifies the transformation of modern Spain. As an idealistic young architect he dreamed of creating beauty and improving lives, but over the years he has shed his principles, allowed his tastes to slide and destroyed the countryside in order to make money.

His cynical involvement in the property industry has contributed to the grim modernisation of his hometown, a place that has been turned into “an innocuous kind of theme park, a stupid holiday destination” on the Mediterranean coast.

While Rubén is at the centre of the novel, his family and acquaintances are also explored, like spokes on a wheel. He fondly remembers his dead first wife as he ponders his second marriage to a much younger woman, his uneasy relationships with his mother and his daughter and his estrangement from a local novelist who was once his best friend. Then there is a shady Russian business associate, and one of Rubén’s employees, who is caught up in a web of crime. It all makes for a demanding state-of-the nation story that reaches for the sky and frequently realises its lofty ambitions.

When Crematorio was published, the madness of Spain’s property boom was not yet fully apparent and nor was the corruption which helped drive it. It was only when the bubble burst that a seemingly endless torrent of graft scandals started to flow. Chirbes, however, saw it all clearly for what it was.

“[H]ere among the cranes that touch the sky, the derricks, the rubbish skips, the loading trucks and noisy diggers, you have to be discrete”, Rubén says, as he boasts of his ability to bully and bribe the local authorities into granting him permits to build on land earmarked for social use.

The academic Fernando Valls wrote that Chirbes sought to “tell the other version of our official history, the one that is hidden from us, giving dignity back to the losers” and also shining a light on “the failure, not just of politics, but of a large part of Spanish society.” His other acclaimed novels have worked their way through the last 75 years or so of Spanish history, from the legacy of Franco (La buena letra) and the democratic transition (La caída de Madrid), to the social devastation of the recent economic crisis (En la orilla).

As Valls put it, Chirbes was “a writer that no one could tame.” What a shame, then, that his 2015 death, at the age of 66, robbed us of one of the few people who was able to chronicle the private life of Spain, especially at a time when it has so many secrets to be told.

Spain’s People of the Year

Amid the political upheaval, tragedy and celebrity deaths that 2016 saw around the world, Spain has had quite an unusual year of its own. Most notably, the December 2015 general election was followed by 10 months of unprecedented political uncertainty during which the country did not have a government. Given that these developments overshadowed the entire year, my five-strong list of Spain’s people of 2016 is dominated by political figures. Some have over-achieved, while one, in particular, had a year to forget. But all have been, in their different ways, individuals who have had a major impact on Spanish life. There is a glaring lack of women on the list, an indictment of Spanish front-line politics (only four out of 17 regional premiers and none of the main parties’ leaders are female). But the coming year could well see the likes of deputy prime minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría and Andalusian Socialist boss Susana Díaz step further into the limelight.

In ascending order, here are my Spanish People of the Year: 

  1. Pedro Sánchez

“Is Pedro Sánchez the Socialist messiah, or just a zombie who doesn’t realise he’s dead?” asked El Español newspaper a few weeks ago. It was a fair question. Less than two months earlier, he had been overthrown as Socialist Party (PSOE) leader in one of the messiest displays of political self-mutilation Spain has seen in its democratic era.

pedro-sanchezSánchez’s 2016, like that of most frontline Spanish politicians, was dominated by the fallout of the December 2015 election and the June re-run that followed it, with all the plotting, bridge-building and tearing-out-of-hair those months involved. His downfall was spun by many critics in the party as the result of his willingness to sidle up to Podemos and nationalists in a doomed bid to form a rag-tag leftist governing coalition. But in reality, he had always been viewed with suspicion by the PSOE’s powerbrokers, particularly former prime minister Felipe González and Andalusia premier Susana Díaz, both of whom seem to have been responsible for unleashing the dogs.

Since his ouster, a revisionist version of events has cast Sánchez as the equivalent of the UK’s Jeremy Corbyn: an old-fashioned lefty trying to steer the party back to its principles. The 44-year-old economist himself has been all too happy to encourage such talk. “If the PSOE wants to be a serious governing party, it has to speak directly to Podemos, work alongside it in order to carry out the transformation and political change that the country needs,” he told La Sexta television, shortly after his resignation. To which it’s tempting to reply: Where was that boldness when you were in charge, Comrade? During the more than two years he led the party, it was hard to discern a clear Sánchez-inspired vision for Spain, beyond the fog of strategy and party intrigue.

Now he appears to be mounting a comeback. Sánchez 2.0 is driving round the country trying to drum up support for his vaguely subversive, apparently more radical, platform, a move that is inevitably winding up the PSOE’s bigwigs. He may never get his hands on the reins of power again, but Pedro Sánchez could at least make things uncomfortable for Díaz, whom many expect to walk into the party leadership job in the spring.

No, Sánchez is not a messiah, but this zombie isn’t entirely dead yet.


  1. Íñigo Errejón

For a while, Íñigo Errejón was one half of the country’s most famous and fruitful double act. As the measured, slightly geeky deputy leader of Podemos, he seemed the ideal foil for the fiery Pablo Iglesias. Together, they plotted their party’s meteoric rise, from its inception in 2014, to the December 2015 general election, when it won 69 seats in Congress.

But in the uncertain months that followed, cracks in their relationship started to show. One of the year’s most memorable moments was when Errejón’s nodding support for Iglesias during a congressional debate melted into disbelief as the Podemos leader gratuitously reminded the Socialist Party that its hands were stained with the “quicklime” of state terrorism.

errejonThe party’s deputy leader was never convinced of the subsequent decision to team up with the communist-led United Left (IU), fearing the move would alienate Podemos’s more moderate electorate (arguably a concern that was borne out by the June election, when Podemos lost hundreds of thousands of votes).

In September, the disagreements between Iglesias and Errejón over strategy started spilling onto Twitter. “We already scare the powerful, that’s not the challenge,” Errejón tweeted in response to an Iglesias outburst. “[The challenge] is to seduce that part of our country that suffers, but which still doesn’t trust us.” Such clashes between the erstwhile Lennon and McCartney of the Spanish left seem to have dominated Podemos’s presence in the media and convey the image of a party on the verge of either re-discovering itself or of splintering apart.

Amid the confusion and despite his callow, Joe 90 image, Errejón has proven himself a formidable voice in national politics and a powerful influence inside his party.


  1. Zinedine Zidane

What a difference a year can make. In January, Real Madrid were in a slump. Led by the unpopular Rafa Benítez, they were third in the league and playing like a bunch of strangers. When Benítez was sacked to make way for “B” team coach Zinedine Zidane, it appeared from many angles to be a desperate move. The Frenchman had limited coaching credibility and his promotion looked like a roll of the dice based purely on his aura as a player. zinedine_zidane_20official

When Real Madrid lost at home to Atlético in February, apparently surrendering the league, Zizou started to look like yet another dead man walking from the most precarious job in football. And yet, after pulling themselves together since then, his players have put together an unbeaten run of 37 games and counting, which includes the Champions League and World Club titles.

The tonsured hero who not so long ago lit up the Bernabéu as a player now prowls the touchline, bald as a coot and wrapped in a stylish long coat. His success is sheer luck, some say. Anyone could coach a group of such talented superstars, mutter others. Whatever the secret of Zidane’s success, this purple patch will eventually have to come to an end and, let’s face it, some of his charges are hardly ambassadors for the game. But in the meantime, let’s enjoy the fact that such a graceful, modest man is flourishing in such a notoriously difficult post.


  1. Carles Puigdemont

Thrown into the role of Catalan regional premier almost by chance, Carles Puigdemont has spent the last year bang in the middle of Spain’s deepest political crisis of recent times. The nationalist former mayor of Girona was plucked from near-obscurity in January to replace Artur Mas, a move that narrowly managed to salvage the separatist coalition which has been pushing for independence from Spain.

puigdemontMany expected Puigdemont, who is the closest thing the Catalan secessionist project has to a figurehead, to be little more than a Mas puppet. But the mop-topped premier is different to his predecessor in two crucial ways: firstly, he is a life-long advocate of independence for Catalonia, unlike the “convert” Mas; and secondly, like many natives of Girona, he is known for a willingness to hear the other side’s point of view.

So far, that ability to negotiate has rarely been used on the unionists in Madrid. Instead, Puigdemont has been struggling to keep the more radical elements of the Catalan coalition on board as he pushes ahead with the independence “roadmap”. Meanwhile, his region has been facing seemingly endless legal action from the Spanish state – including a court ruling against Catalonia’s bullfighting ban, the arrests of activists who burned photos of the king, and a judicial summons for Catalan parliamentary speaker Carme Forcadell.

As the separatist front’s ambitious objective of an autumn referendum on independence comes into view, expect plenty more such conflicts. The Spanish government claims it now wants to reach out to Catalan nationalists, a move which could deflate separatist feeling somewhat. But for the region’s premier, a longstanding dream has become feasible.


  1. Mariano Rajoy

Going into the December 2015 general election, who would have expected Mariano Rajoy to win that vote and its re-run, stare down his critics and make minimal concessions before managing to form a new government in October? Yet he has done all those things, in the process challenging the notion that Spain has embraced a new political era.rajoy

The leader of the Popular Party (PP) had arguably the most satisfying year of his career in 2016, a success built on his remarkable ability to remain still. Perhaps the most radical decision by this three-toed sloth of a politician came soon after winning the 2015 election – and characteristically it was a decision based on not taking the initiative – when he became the first election winner ever to decline the monarch’s offer to form a new government. And yet it proved a sound decision as his Socialist rival Sánchez got bogged down in his own attempts to form a coalition.

In February, Rajoy had been caught on camera telling UK prime minister David Cameron that “the most likely outcome is that there will be new elections on June 26”, and so he played his long game accordingly. Ignoring calls to step aside and unblock the stalemate, Rajoy sat tight, spoke disdainfully of the opposition’s attempts to offer an alternative and found himself making gains in the election’s re-run as many voters fled the unknown quantities of Ciudadanos and Podemos and shunned the increasingly divided Socialists.

These developments have led some commentators to paint Rajoy as a master strategist, cleverly plotting his adversaries’ downfall. That might be a little generous, given how the weakness and fragility of the rival parties and the rigidity of his own PP clearly favoured him. It’s also worth bearing in mind that Rajoy’s insistence on clinging to his party’s leadership without making an early bid to form a new administration was a major reason why Spain went 10 months without a government this year. His actions undoubtedly benefitted his personal position, but not the country’s interests.

Catalonia’s odd couple


“We’re kingmakers and we have the right to bring down the government when we like and call new elections.” – Quim Arufat (CUP)


The unlikely marriage between the mainstream separatists of Junts pel Sí and the radical Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) in Catalonia has been one of the most intriguing and remarkable political developments of recent months in Spain. Formed in the wake of the September 2015 Catalan election, this secessionist front has enabled the parties that make up Junts pel Sí  – the former Convergència and the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) – to govern the region while pushing ahead with the procés, the roadmap towards an independence state.

With only 10 seats in the Catalan parliament, the anti-capitalists of the CUP are the junior partner. But they are also holding the whole thing together.

It was never going to be easy. Convergència (or PDECat, to give it its post-rebrand name) is a centre-right party which has carried out some of the heaviest spending cuts Spain has seen in recent years. It has a fondness for privatisation and, perhaps most relevantly, it bears the legacy of the now-disgraced Jordi Pujol, who hid a fortune in Andorra throughout his long tenure as Catalan premier.

That clearly makes it an uncomfortable bedfellow for the CUP, a party whose slogan is “independència, socialisme, feminisme.”

“It’s an extraordinary situation, it isn’t normal,” the CUP’s Quim Arrufat told me of the partnership earlier this year. “It doesn’t happen in any other country: anti-capitalists agreeing on some points with Christian democrats because of a lack of sovereignty.”

Lately, that relationship has been severely tested. First there was the inevitable obstacle of the 2017 Catalan budget, with the CUP pressing for more emphasis on social justice, but then came some less predictable, but more inflammatory, episodes.

In November, the CUP mayor of the small town of Berga, Montse Venturós, was arrested after failing to appear in court for having hung the independence flag from her town hall. The independence movement as a whole was swift to present her as a martyr figure (see picture above), burning at the stake of the Spanish state’s “judicialisation” of a political issue. But cracks in the separatist front were starting to show, with Venturos’s lawyer berating the Junts pel Sí regional government for allowing the Mossos, the Catalan police, to carry out the arrest.

“I wouldn’t say that we want [independence] more than other parties, but we have different ways of working,” Venturós told me when I met her in Berga recently. She added that “it’s clear that we have different ways of working.”

Similarly, the more recent furore sparked by several CUP members’ burning and tearing up of photos of members of the royal family has exposed those “different ways of working”. Again, the Mossos, who carried out the arrests of several of those involved, have been in the eye of the storm, because they are under the command of the Catalan, rather than the central, government.

That regional administration supposedly tolerates, if not approves of, such acts of rebellion. After all, Junts pel Sí has been leading a campaign of civil disobedience against the rules and rulings of the Spanish state for over a year now, not to mention its staging of the unlawful 2014 independence referendum, which has seen several senior figures in the coalition face legal proceedings.

But there’s only so much rebellion that Junts pel Sí can handle and these episodes of “direct action” seem to be trying its patience. The CUP was always destined to be the unruly younger brother, rolling his eyes and huffing at the squareness of his older sibling. But the downside of this relationship now seems to be worrying Junts pel Sí. Santiago Vidal, a senator for ERC (also in Junts pel Sí), told me that the CUP “in many ways, don’t help” the independence cause because they undermine the moderate image the movement is trying to cultivate, as well as rubbing their partners up the wrong way.

The appearance of apparent death threats against senior Convergència politicians painted on the wall of the party’s offices in Horta Guinardó in recent days has given all this intrigue an ugly spin. And it couldn’t be a better time for the Spanish government to embark on its so-called “operation dialogue”, a brazen attempt to repair some of the bridges to Catalonia which it has so gleefully trashed over the last five years.

With no elections on the horizon, Mariano Rajoy can tentatively leave behind the rigid unionism which helped secure him electoral success while deepening the country’s territorial crisis. If his charm offensive/cynical ploy (take your pick) does manage to make moderate Catalans think twice about secession, then you can bet the tensions between Junts pel Sí and the CUP are only just getting started. And if so, the biggest obstacle to Catalan independence isn’t in the Madrid courts, it’s in the fragility of the separatist front.

Tramping the dirt down

“Because there’s one thing I know I’d like to live / long enough to savour / That’s when they finally put you in the ground / I’ll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down.” – Elvis Costello


Shortly after the death of Margaret Thatcher in 2013, Elvis Costello caused a stir by continuing to play his vitriolic song about the former prime minister, ‘Tramp the Dirt Down’, at concerts. He was being crass and disrespectful, critics claimed. Costello responded by insisting he wasn’t celebrating Thatcher’s death, but that he still felt the same way about her policies. “I don’t feel vindicated,” he said. “I didn’t personally kill her.”

Two deaths in recent days have reminded me of this episode: that of Fidel Castro and also that of former Valencia mayor Rita Barberá. I’m not going to stretch the imagination by drawing parallels between the two (divisive figures with big personalities and authoritarian tendencies etc…) but it has been fascinating and instructive to watch the impact their deaths have had in Spain, particularly that of Barberá, who died of a heart attack in a Madrid hotel.

Having governed Valencia for a quarter of a century and been at the heart of the Popular Party’s power structure for many years, she was, in her heyday, a flamboyant, larger-than-life and autocratic figure, whose at times comical brashness and self-confidence reflected the fortunes of her city. “Rita believed that she was Valencia and that Valencia was her,” noted her biographer (suggesting that maybe those Fidel comparisons aren’t such a stretch after all).

Yet Barberá’s stock, like that of her city, would eventually plummet, dragged down by the weight of ludicrous overspending and a litany of corruption scandals. A money laundering case in which the former mayor was being investigated finally saw her pushed out of the PP in September, although she clung to her seat in the Senate. Her sidelining had seemed to be driven by younger figures in the party, such as Pablo Casado and Javier Maroto, whose personal loyalties to Barberá were trumped by their desperation to shake off the PP’s corrupt image. Many accounts suggest she had become something of a pariah for the PP, politically marginalised and shunned at social events as the corruption probe hung over her.

In recent weeks an image had therefore been conjured up of Barberá hiding away in forlorn exile, abandoned by friends, peering at the world from behind closed blinds – a Yoda figure, shuffling around the swamp in a galaxy far away.

And it was this image that many senior PP politicians have invoked as they have embarked on a very strange, public guilt trip. “Each person will have on his conscience the barbarities that he has said about Barberá, without any proof whatsoever,” said Justice Minister Rafael Catalá, who seemed to be questioning the evidence gathered by the anti-corruption office.

Many others have expressed similar sentiments, with the PP’s blame-scattergun sometimes aiming inside the party tent, but mainly beyond. Twitter users, said PP deputy Celia Villalobos, “condemned her to death.” PP spokesman Rafael Hernando, meanwhile, denied any kind of regret within the PP at Barberá’s treatment. Instead, he employed a bewildering array of metaphors to blame the “hyenas” of the media who had “lynched” her and “turned her into a shooting gallery”.

Podemos’s refusal to take part in a one-minute silent tribute to Barberá in Congress meant that party avoided charges of hypocrisy, but it unwittingly gave the PP a handy alibi: Look, they’re treating her even worse than we did.

This whole episode seems to have told us a lot about Spain’s attitude to death, as well as its relationship with corruption and the media.

The passing of any public figure here tends to provoke a particularly radical, and often fanciful, reappraisal of the deceased. The example of Jesús Gil y Gil springs to mind. After dying in 2004, the oafish, scandal-plagued former mayor of Marbella was talked about more as a national treasure rather than a national disgrace.

And while Barberá’s chequered career has been given a frantic makeover in recent days, those who reported on her alleged misdemeanours have been the target of vitriol. Gran Wyoming, the current affairs comic who is always more watchable when speaking seriously rather than reeling off scripted jokes, issued a timely warning that some of Barberá’s erstwhile friends were “taking advantage of the tragedy to take aim at certain media whose duty is to report, among other things, corruption cases, which are of interest to all Spaniards.”

As Elvis Costello would, I am sure, agree: being dead doesn’t make you right.





“regenerate v. 1 Bring or come into renewed existence; generate again. 2 Improve the moral condition of. 3 Impart new, more vigorous, and spiritually greater life to (a person or institution etc.). 4 Reform oneself.”

“Regeneration” is not the first word that comes to mind when thinking of Jorge Fernández Díaz and his recent bumpy ride from the interior ministry to the chairmanship of the public complaints committee in Congress.

On the contrary, the 66-year-old has become almost a synonym for the kind of old-school political caste that Podemos and others on the Spanish New Left abhor. As interior minister in Mariano Rajoy’s first term, his blinking, what’s-the-world-coming-to demeanour and penchant for belted jackets gave him the air of someone angrily at odds with the 21st century.

This is the man who, as head of one of the country’s most important ministries, repeatedly awarded a top police medal to the Holy Virgin in Málaga; the man who on one occasion compared abortion to Eta terrorism.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I have read, over the last few days, that Fernández Díaz is “a close friend of Mariano Rajoy”. The suggestion is that this is the only possible way to explain why he remained in the political front line so long and why the prime minister has tried to keep him there, despite mounting resistance.

To recap: Fernández Díaz lost the interior ministry portfolio when Rajoy announced his new Cabinet last month. This was not surprising, given that in June, audio recordings had emerged apparently showing the then-minister conspiring to smear Catalan independence leaders with fabricated corruption cases. Amid his own protestations that he is the victim of some form of witch hunt, Fernández Díaz now faces a congressional probe into his conduct.

But instead of silently slipping away from the limelight, Rajoy put Fernández Díaz forward as his candidate to chair the congressional foreign affairs committee. Despite an outcry on the part of Podemos and others on the left that the tainted former minister should be rewarded with such a prestigious job, he seemed to have enough backing to secure it. But the Socialists, after a last-minute panic attack, withdrew their support, reneging on a deal with the governing Popular Party (PP). Fernández Díaz was left clutching the short straw: the chairmanship of the public complaints committee, an appointment which does not require the approval of other parties.

It’s been a strange, irritating and sometimes vaguely comical episode which has highlighted Spain’s new-found fragmentation: it managed to make the PP and Ciudadanos look resistant to the political new broom, the Socialists indecisive and Podemos reliably outraged and rigid. But Fernández-gate also neatly reflects Spain’s current difficulties in embracing the slippery concept of “regeneration”.

“The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born,” noted Antonio Gramsci, the Italian political theorist so fondly quoted by Podemos. And similarly, while Spain’s old two-party politics has been dying since last year’s regional and municipal elections, Rajoy’s return to power confirms that while the new world of transparency and a less aloof politics may be on its way, it hasn’t yet quite seen the light of day.

Fernández Díaz’s unedifying journey of the last few days was not a total defeat for him or Rajoy. After all, he did still end up heading a committee, even if it was a decidedly unglamorous one. But as well as confirming that the prime minister has a tin ear for the public mood, this story showed how hard it is proving to usher in the much trumpeted era of “new politics”.

The fact that a politician who appears to have put much of his taxpayer-funded time and money into smearing political opponents is even considered to chair any congressional committee is surely enough to rile even the most moderate Spaniards.

And yet, something is changing. It’s hard to imagine José Manuel Soria, who resigned as industry minister in April after his involvement in the Panama Papers was exposed, stepping down for the same reason just a few years ago. A political uproar subsequently prevented him from taking a plumb job at the World Bank in September at Rajoy’s blinkered behest. The mayor of Granada, José Torres Hurtado, also resigned in April due to his links to a property scandal.

Let’s not pretend this is a golden era of Spanish transparency. But the public and parliamentary mood has shifted, demanding more accountability of public figures, even though the system they operate in has hardly changed.

So Fernández Díaz’s shuffling, grumbling sort-of exit from the political arena this week could be counted as progress in the country’s long slog away from opacity and impunity. But it’s going to take a lot more than that before Spaniards can pop open the Cava and shout “regeneration!” without smirking.

Two trips to Barcelona


It’s not every day that I get sent to Barcelona to interview a controversial, divisive British public figure for the BBC. At the moment it’s happening every four months or so.

In July, when the findings of the Chilcot Inquiry into the Blair administration’s handling of intelligence related to the Iraq invasion were finally published, I went to interview former Labour government spin doctor-in-chief, Alastair Campbell, who was on holiday in the Catalan city.

Then, the day after Donald Trump’s election victory, I was deployed to Barcelona to get the reaction of leader Nigel Farage, who was stopping over before flying to the United States.

In many ways, Campbell and Farage are contrasting figures. The leftist sympathies of Blair’s communications chief drew him to the Labour Party, where his skill at camouflaging bad news and bigging up good news through sleight of hand made him a fearsome character, eventually to be immortalised by Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. By contrast, the Ukip leader has always leaned to the right – many would say extremely so – and his success has been built in great part on a matey, let’s-call-a-spade-a-spade brand of public persona. Campbell the snake charmer and Farage the bloke down the pub.

But after meeting and interviewing both men within weeks of each other, it was the similarities more than the differences that struck me, particularly given the circumstances.

As a close advisor and confidant of Blair, Campbell was in a unique position to speak in defence of his former boss on the publication of the Chilcot report. But as a former press officer – and not a government minister – he could speak safely in the knowledge that his own integrity was not at stake. As he fielded my questions, that fact seemed to embolden a man who can deal with the media in his sleep.

Likewise, as Farage sat down in front of the camera, Barcelona’s port shimmering behind him, he did so with few inhibitions. As an acquaintance and political ally of Trump, he had a rare insight into the president-elect’s mentality. And yet, as a British rather than American politician, he could speak with convenient distance when it suited him.

Like Campbell, Farage’s confident answers, immaculately pruned to sound-bite length, reflected a canny understanding of the media. It was as if a switch had been flicked, turning on the public persona and leaving the private one off camera.

Since each of these meetings, friends have asked me what both men were like “off-air”. For many, Campbell represents everything that was wrong with the Blair years: control freakery, manipulation and bullying. And few would contest that Farage is the man whose Europhobia and anti-immigrant discourse culminated in the Brexit vote.

But when stripped of their advisors and entourages and taken out of their natural environment, the truth is, neither man resembled the cartoonish figure of media legend. A solitary Campbell, devoid of bluster, surprisingly asked afterwards how his answers had sounded. And Farage, be-suited and smoking like a chimney moments before facing the camera, looked nothing like the scheming architect of European implosion and everything like a very ordinary, middle-aged businessman taking in the Mediterranean view before catching his flight.

‘Peak Mariano’

So he’s done it. Three hundred and thirteen days after an inconclusive general election, 125 days after its re-run and 58 days after a failed first attempt, Mariano Rajoy has formed a government, with the help of the Socialist Party.

With the wobbliest minority administration Spain has seen in its modern era, he now faces a difficult task. As the three other main parties in Congress prepare to act as opposition forces of varying degrees of aggression, he won’t be able to push legislation through parliament in the way he did so easily between 2011 and 2015. He may not even last the course of another full legislature.

And yet, in relative terms, Rajoy and his Popular Party (PP) are in a stronger position than they were back in December 2015, before that election, because so many of his adversaries have suffered. The most obvious of these is former Socialist boss Pedro Sánchez, whose resistance to backing Rajoy was a major cause of the coup which saw him lose his job.

But beyond the messy Sanchexit of three weeks ago, there are others whose humbling now gives the Galician cause to gloat. The dissenters in his own PP; the rabble-rousers of the New Left; the arrivistes of the New Right; the political obituary writers; the trolls; the naysayers and the piss-takers – all have been defeated, defied or somehow diminished in recent months.

What has Rajoy done to deserve such a resounding victory? Well, nothing really. Ever since he turned down King Felipe’s invitation to form a government in January, citing a lack of parliamentary support, the acting prime minister has been pretty passive, even by his standards.

La Vanguardia newspaper talks about how “a veritable mythology has been built up around the prime minister’s ability to keep still when faced with the most serious problems, in the hope that time will solve them.” I have explored this “mythology” in some depth elsewhere, but without a doubt, the politician known and lampooned for his refusal to take the initiative has taken this trait – or strategy – to a whole new level over the last 10 months.

Rajoy would argue that he reached out to the Socialists, but it was never more than a tokenistic gesture, with no proposals on the table. He did sign a deal with Ciudadanos, but then gave the impression immediately afterwards that it didn’t really mean much to him. And he never seemed to countenance the possibility of stepping aside to make a governing pact more palatable to his rivals.

It’s been a period of Rajoy in extremis. ‘Peak Mariano’, if you will. And while you could argue that it has done the country plenty of harm, you couldn’t claim that it has hurt its exponent.

In this respect, Sánchez, at least for a time, was the opposite, seeking to reach for the unreachable, forming first a pact with Ciudadanos, before ambitiously trying to extend that deal to Podemos. The erstwhile Socialist leader’s biggest fault was this: he wasn’t living in Spain. Instead, he inhabited a non-specific, imaginary European nation where rampant corruption is punished at the ballot box and where talking to populists and nationalists is not a sackable offence.

Rajoy lives in no such place. In fact, you could say that his greatest asset is not his extraordinary ability to sit tight, but rather the fact that he knows only too well which country he is living in.

Five years in Euskadi

What a difference five years can make. For Spain, 2011 seems like another era, when economic slump, rather than political or territorial crisis, worried its politicians and when Podemos was a mere glint in the eye of the indignados.

But some things haven’t changed as much as expected since then.

On October 20, 2011, ETA announced the “definitive” end of a four-decade campaign of violence which had taken over 800 lives. Since then, the terrorist group has not killed or carried out any attacks, confirming that peace has indeed arrived in the Basque Country.

As a result, hundreds of politicians, judges, academics, journalists and other public figures have been able to begin something akin to a new life, without worrying about death threats, extortion notes or the sheer inconvenience of being followed everywhere by bodyguards.

But peace is one thing and reconciliation quite another. Last weekend, an incident in a bar in the town of Alsasua was a chilling reminder of the bad old days. According to many media accounts, two civil guards who were drinking with their girlfriends refused to leave the bar when told to do so by a group of young men who arrived on the premises. The ensuing scuffle left the two civil guards in hospital.

Alsasua is not in the Basque Country, but neighbouring Navarre. However, Navarre has long been considered part of the Basque homeland by nationalists and it was the scene of many of the pre-ceasefire murders. The fact this attack took place there is significant and suggests this was more than just a boozy fracas. One civil guard in the town, who was quoted by El País, said that “things have calmed down a lot over the last couple of years.” But he also made a telling comment: “I wouldn’t go to that bar at that time of night.”

Gorka Landaburu, a journalist who survived an ETA letter bomb attack in 2001, put it to me this way: “There isn’t reconciliation yet. What we’ve seen since the end of ETA’s violence is a kind of co-existence.”

Landaburu features in an essay I have published about Basque nationalism: ‘Skin Against Stone: Spain’s Basque Labyrinth’, to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the ETA ceasefire. In it, I explore both how the region of Euskadi fell into such a vicious spiral of violence and its subsequent difficulties in consolidating the new situation over the last half-decade, as the Spanish government has refused to embark on anything resembling a peace process.

But there are plenty of areas I have not been able to explore – the Spanish state’s dubious use of the judicial system, for example, or the limbo many ETA prisoners find themselves in as their independence cause dissolves. One Basque friend, whose family left Euskadi because of the violence, told me she would have liked to see more testimonies from the exiles’ point of view.

But “the Basque issue” is as complex and multi-faceted as the Basque region itself and it would require many thousands more words to explain it in full on the written page. In the meantime, let’s hope that over the next five years “co-existence” becomes something more like “reconciliation”.

What they think of us


A friend of mine calls it the “New-York-Times-Thinks-We’re-Sh*t Syndrome”.

As long as I can remember, certainly as long as I have been living in Spain, the country has been obsessed with what others think about it.

When I first moved here I was struck by the interest Spaniards and their media showed in what other countries’ newspapers were saying about them. This was starkly evident in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Madrid of March 2004, when the rest of the world seemed to get what many Spaniards didn’t: an Islamic group, not Eta, was responsible.

This trend continued in a rather bizarre vein when one Socialist congressman used a Financial Times editorial as a weapon with which to berate José María Aznar during the parliamentary inquiry into the latter’s handling of the attacks.

But it was a phenomenon that spread beyond politics. The economy, sport and culture were all areas where the foreign media’s view of Spain was forensically examined – for insight, praise or ridicule. To an extent, I found this admirable. After all, it seemed to show a certain humility and international-mindedness. How cosmopolitan, I thought.

But in recent years, with the economic crisis, the Catalan independence push and, more recently, the on-going national political stand-off, Spain’s apparently healthy interest in what the world thinks of it has been amped up to the dimensions of a borderline pathology.

In 2012, The New York Times ran a feature about how many of the country’s poor were pushed to extreme measures, like foraging through rubbish bins, due to the economic crisis. A photo essay accompanied the report, highlighting the drama. Two days later, El País newspaper ran a 500-word article about that article, quoting it at length and reproducing the US paper’s front page on which it had appeared.

El País weren’t the only ones. That same story was pored over by Spanish papers and radio tertulianos for days, with a mixture of fascination and shame: This is what they think of us!

And the same thing happens again and again. Whenever the more high-profile media, particularly the FT, the NYT or The Economist, (and to a lesser extent Le Monde and other continental titles) run an article or editorial highlighting Spain’s difficulties or achievements, it is chewed over for days. More recently, the satirical TV show El Intermedio invited a panel of foreign journalists to talk about their opinion of the country’s news issues. They gave perfectly interesting answers to some rather wooden questions and I wasn’t convinced this made for good television – but I appear to be wrong, given how often it happens.

The suggestion in these cases seems to be that outsiders understand Spain better than Spain’s own media. The suggestion is also that these foreign media’s opinion is more important than that of the national media.

In a way that is true, if only in the sense that a damning editorial about the Spanish economy in a major “Anglo-Saxon” newspaper might push the country’s risk premium a bit higher, therefore adding to its national debt.

(Fortunately, there are those who have managed to prick this bubble. One headline on the humorous website El Mundo Today read: “The New York Times publishes photos of Spaniards without iPhones to show how unstable the country is”.)

But is our analysis really more insightful or significant than that of local journalists, analysts and those people with brash opinions who always seem to be on TV and radio roundtables? I doubt it. After all, I and many other foreign journalists spend much of our time consulting them (the serious ones, anyway) about what they think of the country. What we offer is less detail and more context than the Spanish media, in order to avoid overwhelming our readers/listeners/viewers.

This reverence for what outsiders think betrays much about the Spanish psyche: the euro-zone’s fourth-largest economy still craves international approval and harbours large reserves of self-doubt.

“What’s going on in Spain to make Spaniards hate our own country so much?” ABC newspaper asked last year. Inevitably, it then went on to heap most of the blame on the left and on Catalan and Basque nationalism. No doubt it was asking the same question yesterday, as some celebrated Spain’s 12 de octubre national day while others denounced it as a Francoist remnant of a colonial past.

I won’t try and explain all the causes of the self-doubt here. But last week I saw a more resentful side to this sensitivity while in Dublin, taking part in a symposium on contemporary Spain at the Instituto Cervantes. After I had given a talk about the last half-decade of political upheaval, an elderly Spanish woman in the front row berated me. Highlighting the fact that my fellow speaker and I were British, she pointed out that we had our own crisis caused by Brexit, so why were we talking about her country’s crisis?

How dare a foreigner criticise her country? It was the kind of stance taken by Spain’s politicians when they want to cast their adversaries in a bad light: y tú más – you’re even worse than me.

It’s hard to imagine the The New York Times or Le Monde citing an El País article about the United States or France. That, many would argue, is due to the arrogance of those countries and their media and perhaps it wouldn’t do any harm if the members of the G8, say, took more interest in what was being said by the media beyond their own borders.

But there are many ways to measure a nation’s size, influence and significance – GDP, trade figures, population and even the spending power of their football teams are among them. There’s no such thing as an international “self-confidence index”, of course, but when Spain stops worrying so much about what others are saying about it, when it shakes off the “New-York-Times-Thinks-We’re-Sh*t Syndrome”, it will have made a major leap in that fictitious, but very important, ranking.