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.