The Anglo-Spanish War

One thing about political reality – in the end you can’t avoid it.  You can try, as Theresa May and her weird little Brexit government have been doing for the last eight months or so.   You can beat your rhetorical chest and bare your teeth.  You can threaten this and promise that.  You can utter expressions like ‘truly Global Britain’ and ‘we are a great trading nation’ like mantras and hope that millions of people – or at least enough of them to deliver Tory votes – will utter them too.

You can tell the nation that we will have our cake and eat it, because that is what great trading nations do.  You can run off a cliff and keep going at your own momentum for a few steps.  But in the end,  just like Roadrunner and Tom the cartoon cat, you will fall, because countries can’t walk on air any more than cartoon characters can.

For Cruella de May and her Brexit-skinning crazy gang, that moment arrived last Monday when Donald Tusk announced the EU’s negotiating deadlines.  Unlike so many statements that have come out of Cruella’s mouth – to say nothing of those that have come from some of her more outlandish ministers – these guidelines were founded in a very objective concept of reality, rather than the entirely subjective version that we Brits have got used for the last ten months.

As a result the government’s delusions were quietly and effortlessly dismantled. Free trade agreements will not allow the same privileges as single market membership. There will be no cherry picking. The UK will not be able to make deals with individual EU member-states. The UK will be expected to resolve its outstanding financial commitments before negotiations begin.  The UK will not enjoy the same benefits in its future relations with the EU as member states.  Any free trade agreement will have to contain safeguards ‘  against unfair competitive advantages through, inter alia, fiscal, social and environmental dumping.’

All this was written in the kind of calm reasoned tone you might use to try and talk down someone standing on a high bridge about to commit suicide.   Most of it should have been obvious to any British politicians who were prepared to consider what was legal and what was possible in the forthcoming negotiations.  Unfortunately such politicians have been in short supply lately.   And this is the problem with jingoistic arrogance: it makes it difficult, if not impossible to make realistic assessments about the national interest or even consider what your opponents are thinking and planning.  That’s why you are likely to miss little gems like this one,  that also propped up in the guidelines:

‘After the United Kingdom leaves the Union, no agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom.’

No one should be surprised that Cruella and her team didn’t see that one coming, since they have blatantly ignored all the more obvious things that they should have seen coming.   And no one should be surprised that, faced with Spain’s diplomatic coup, they are responding with the same arrogant and aggressive bluster that has been spewing out of their mouths ever since this ghastly process began.

For reasons that are not exactly clear, the first verbal shot was fired by Lord ‘something of the night’ Howard, who assured Channel 4 News that Theresa May was prepared to go to war over Gibraltar.  Just let that sink in. Howard said that this country would be willing to go to war with a European country that is still technically its ally, and which has some 800,000 Brits living there, if Spain were to do anything contrary to the wishes of Gibraltar’s population, such as insist on co-sovereignty.

Howard describes this as an ‘EU land grab,’ when in fact it’s just another example of the galumphing flatfootedness of Cruella and her team, who really don’t see any iceberg until they hit it.   Howard has noticed that ‘  35 years ago this week another woman Prime Minister sent a task force half way across the world to defend the freedom of another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country.’

I love that ‘another Spanish-speaking country’, don’t you?  Reason enough in itself to go to war, Howard seems to feel.   For him, the Falklands isn’t just a coincidence – it has the whiff of imperial destiny.   And he isn’t the only one.  Defense Secretary Michael Fallon has also said that Britain would ‘go all the way’ to ‘protect Gibraltar’.  Boris Johnson – always a good call whenever you need a fatuous stupid statement from anyone – says that British support for Gibraltar will be ‘implacable and rock-like’.

It would be easy to dismiss all this as yet more crowdpleasing Blimpish loose talk from politicians who don’t seem to know any other kind.  That would be bad enough. You don’t need to read Machiavelli to know that it probably isn’t a good idea to go into complex negotiations from which you need a good result babbling about gunboats and war with one of the countries you’re going to be negotiating with.

But there is also another even more disturbing way of looking at this latest fleck-spittled outpouring of indignation towards Johnny Foreigner.   When Thatcher took the country to war in the Falklands her government was in deep trouble politically, the economy was failing and her polls were dropping.  She gambled on war and won, and the jingoistic bubble that she inflated gave her the political power to take on the miners.

The situation that May and co are in is so much worse, even if the polls and the politics don’t reflect it yet.  They are leading the country towards economic disaster.  They have promised things that are impossible, and the things that are possible they have no intention of delivering.  They are already out of their depth and seem to have no idea what they’re doing or what to do.

In these circumstances we can’t be surprised to hear them talk of war.  Because Brexit means never having to say you’re sorry.  It means that you never admit that what you promised was dishonest, impossible and politically and economically nonsensical.   What you do, when things go wrong, is blame other people: the ‘traitors’ at home; ‘Remoaners’; the ‘EU bullies’ – and now,  ‘another Spanish-speaking country’ that thinks it can get the jump on Global Britain when its back is turned.

Such talk brings back warm and pleasant memories: of the Burmese ‘shoe question’; of Palmerston bombing Athens after a British merchant was attacked by a Greek mob; of the Opium Wars…and for a certain type of Tory, it brings back memories of the Falklands and conjures up enticing visions of a united country of patriotic, flagwaving crowds watching our brave boys depart and the sun never setting etc, etc.

All this war chatter took place in a week in which a school here in my new home of Sheffield has just suggested that parents pay £33 each half term to keep their school going.  That’s the kind of government this is.  It won’t even pay to educate its own children but will go ‘all the way’ over Gibraltar.    We should never forget that, when they get their rhetorical sabres out.

And if the likes of Theresa May, Fallon and Johnson have the temerity to even think about taking us to war over this, we should show these lunatics what treason really is, and give them so much of it that they will never be stupid enough to consider such a possibility.



Catalonia Dreaming

Last Friday morning I was on the top of Mount Canigou, ‘the sacred mountain of Catalonia’,  with my staunchly independentista friend from Barcelona,  Andreu.   Andreu had brought a Catalan flag with him to mark the occasion, and he wasn’t the only one.  A seventy-five-year-old  Barcelones  named Joan had climbed the summit with his daughter Anna in the hope that it would bring the Independence bloc luck in last Sunday’s elections.

Joan had no doubt what he hoped to achieve.  Halfway up the mountain he explained to a two French Catalans from Roussillon that, ‘ We want to escape from this shit that is Spain. I don’t mean the Spanish.  I mean Spain.’  Joan wanted this escape to be achieved by  mutual agreement.  He described it to the two Frenchmen as a mixture of divorce and a settling of accounts, in which Spain and Catalonia would give each other what they owed and each of them would go their separate ways.

The problem, as Joan and every other independentista like him knows well, is that Spain does not want such a divorce, and refuses to allow its increasingly unhappy Catalan spouse to walk away from a relationship that it considers crucial to its own national self-image.   On the summit Joan and his daughter took photographs of themselves draped in the Catalan flag while Andreu attached his own flag to the iron cross – a symbolic gesture that would once have earned him a long spell in jail under the Franco dictatorship.

The desire for an independent Catalan state is not a recent phenomenon.   Its roots can be traced back to the nineteenth century, when so many would-be states across Europe began to hatch from the shells of larger states and crumbling geopolitical empires.   Like many forms of nationalism, Catalanism has spanned the political spectrum from left to right, and incorporates different class forces, from  the  industrial magnates of the pre-World War I Lliga to rural farmers and the working class.

Traditionally one of the richest, if not the richest, regions in Spain, Catalonia’s nationalist sentiments have been driven not only a shared sense of Catalan identity rooted in language, culture, history and territory, but by the belief that it has given more to Spain than it receives in return, and by a sense of entrapment inside a corrupt, inefficient and even decadent Spanish state.

Those who remember the Spanish Civil War as a confrontation between left and right often forget that it was also a conflict between an army that saw itself as the armed embodiment of a centralist Spanish state and the nationalist aspirations of Catalonia and the Basque Country, which the Franco dictatorship spent decades attempting to suppress.

Even after Spain’s democratic transition and the autonomy statutes granted to the Basques and Catalans under the post-Franco constitution, that desire for independence has never subsided.

When I lived in Catalonia in the 1990s, it was more of a background hum.   In those years Jordi Pujol’s conservative  Convergència i Unió federation controlled the Catalan regional government and adroitly used a succession of high-profile events like the Olympic Games to promote Catalonia on the European and international stage, while exacting various political and economic concessions from successive Spanish governments that depended on its votes.

What is happening today is very different.  In the last decade, support for independence has soared, to the point when many independentistas feel closer to their goal than at any time in history.    The  main reasons for this resurgence are two-fold: firstly the strongly centralist, authoritarian, corrupt and startlingly politically inept governance of the ruling Partido Popular (PP), a conservative party with strong Francoist roots that appears to many Catalans the embodiment of the worst of Spain.

In the second place the 2007/8 financial crisis has brought Spain’s two-party system under pressure and produced new forms of civic activism, protest and new social movements.   In Catalonia, the crisis has acted as a political catalyst which has induced many Catalans, like the Scots,  to see independence as a progressive alternative to the austerity politics which the PP has attempted to forced down the throats of the Spanish population.

Neoliberal globalists such as the Peruvian novelist and Andean Thatcherite Mario Vargas Llosa often make spurious comparisons between Catalanism and Nazism, using the shallow argument that all forms of nationalism are essentially the same.   But  Catalan nationalism is not Golden Dawn, or the Ustacha, or Radovan Karadzic.   And the ‘all nationalisms are the same’ argument entirely ignores the search for social justice and for a new kind of politics that are driving the pro-independence surge of recent years.

In Scotland, proponents of ‘better together’ often appealed to notions of British social solidarity as an alternative to independence, even as these notions were being  made effectively redundant by the political domination of a small – mostly English – political elite in hoc to powerful financial interests and collectively wedded to the bitter medicine of economic ‘realism’ and its ugly sister Ms Austerity.

Similar sentiments have been expressed by writers such as Javier Marias and others who lament and mourn the Catalans antipathy towards Spain or present as a reactionary and essentially neurotic political manifestation.

To point this out doesn’t necessarily mean, of course, that self-determination offers the solutions to the problems that its proponents have identified.   But many Catalans clearly believe it will,  and their quest for independence is part of a search for a new kind of politics that has taken many different forms in many countries over the last few years.

The Catalans have been trying hard to achieve their aspirations,  through a skillful campaign of civic participation, rooted in an umbrella of local assemblies or  asambleas  and powerful popular mobilisations such as the massive 2012 I million march in Barcelona, which have assumed the proportions of a genuine social movement.

Using these methods they have sought to promote their cause nationally and internationally and increase the political pressure on a Spanish government that has remained resolutely tone-deaf and determined to resist any negotiations or concessions regarding Catalonia’s future.

Last Sunday’s elections were seen by many Catalans as a  de facto  referendum on independence, following repeated refusals  by the PP to allow the kind of referendum that took place in Scotland last year.   The elections were preceded by a Spanish version of ‘project fear’, which warned among other things of dried-up ATM machines and limits on cash withdrawals in an Argentina-style  corralito.

Unlike the Scots, the Catalans have resoundingly rejected these scenarios, and delivered 62 seats for the coalition of leftist and centre-right nationalist parties  Junts pel Sí  (‘Together for Yes’).  If the coalition can reach an agreement with the leftist pro-Independence CUP, the pro-independence bloc will have an absolute majority of 72 seats out of 135.

So Joan’s communion with the ancestral spirits of his native land may have borne fruit. But this victory is not quite a mandate for independence.  With less than 48 percent of the overall vote out of a record turnout of 78 percent, it is difficult to see how the pro-independence bloc can proceed to establish their own national institutions, as some have promised to do.

But it is equally difficult to see how the current Spanish government or its successors can ignore this result and pretend that it hasn’t happened. In fact  it is difficult to imagine than any future Spanish government will willingly grant independence to Catalonia – a process that would almost certainly be followed by independence for the Basques and possibly by other autonomous regions as well.

The election results don’t resolve this conundrum, and it is difficult to see how it will resolve itself in the future.    Ultimately, as Juan Luís Cebrián argued recently in the anti-independence  El País, the political crisis in Catalonia is the product of the failings of the Spanish state itself.

Cebrián believes these failings can be addressed.    Last Sunday’s elections make it clear than nearly two million Catalans don’t have the same opinion, and the government that takes power after December’s national elections will have a hard time convincing them otherwise.



Spain goes Left: Britain turns Right

I’ve just come back from a week’s walking in the Axarquia mountains in Andalucia.  My trip didn’t allow much time for blogging, or for any commentary on the remarkable results of last weekend’s Spanish municipal and regional elections, but it was thrilling and inspiring to witness Ada Colau on television acknowledging her victory over the conservative-nationalist mayor of Barcelona Xavier Trias.   After all, it’s not everyday that a former anti-poverty activist who has previously been arrested for taking part in anti-eviction sit ins goes to win a mayoral election in one of the great European cities.

The triumph of Colau’s coalition Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona in Common) was one of a series of victories for the Indignados-inspired Podemos (We Can) or Podemos-supported leftist coalitions in regions and cities across Spain.   In Madrid the conservative Partido Popular failed to secure a majority for the first time in 20 years, paving the way for a marriage-of-convenience between between the Spanish Socialist Party and another Indignados-inspired coalition Ahora Madrid (Madrid Now), that could end up with the 71-year-old former communist Manuela Carmena becoming mayor.

Across Spain Podemos or its new centre-right counterpart Ciudadanos (Citizens) came  in  third or fourth.    These results have been described as a ‘political earthquake’, which is something of an exaggeration when you consider that the two main parties still won 55 percent of the vote – a drop of only ten percent from the last elections in 2011. Both parties have been punished by the electorate, but not decisively so.

The Partido Popular remains powerful, despite a series of high-level corruption scandals, and the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) has not yet undergone the process of  ‘Pasokification’ despite the challenge to its left from Podemos.

Nevertheless the main establishment paper El País has described  – with more alarm than enthusiasm –  the results as an ‘important change in the national political map, with a clear turn towards the left’.  A staunch support of the Spanish Socialist Party, El País has issued a stern warning  to  the PSOE not ‘to allow itself to be carried away by the winds of radicalism’ towards Podemos, on the grounds that such a drift would further imperil Spain’s ‘stability.’

The problem is that for growing numbers of Spanish voters, ‘stability’ is not what it is cracked up to be, and a restive population sickened by corruption and austerity is beginning to dream bigger dreams than the two-party establishment wants them to.

The principal driving forces behind this transformation are clear: the economic crisis and the social consequences of ‘austerity’ – all of which has highlighted the mindboggling corruption of the Spanish ruling classes and the collusion or acquiescence of the two main parties that has made both things possible.   This has opened up  new spaces for progressive politics across the country to an extent that has not been seen since the early years of the post-Franco transition or even further back to the Spanish Republic.

This is not a revolutionary left – whatever that concept even means nowadays.   Podemos’ program has been criticized by the right for being utopian and unrealistic, and from the left for not being  sufficiently anti-capitalist.    There is a very real possibility that it will go into coalition with the PSOE – a party that Podemos has always described as a ‘fossil’ in the Spanish political ‘caste.’

That will not be a comfortable relationship, and may end up watering down a political program that is is already vague and a little quirky, such as the ‘secret post office box’  that will enable civil servants to denounce corruption without exposing themselves; a ‘parallel administration’  over the public sector that will ‘restore powers that have been privatised or outsourced’; and a ‘law of popular normative instruments’ that will ensure that extraparliamentary ‘popular legislative initiatives’ are dealt with in the Spanish parliament.

Others Podemos  proposals are  pretty radical in the current context: the restructuring of the national debt; a change in the ‘current conditions of governance of the euro’; a commitment to full employment; a 35 hour week; increases in public spending; greater accountability of the European Central Bank; debt ‘pooling’ between countries; a moratorium on the national debt; restructuring or cancellation of mortgage debts including financial repayments to anyone whose property has been seized by banks; economic sanctions on property owners with ten more empty properties; the closure of Spain’s grim immigrant internment centres (CIEs).

This is hardly a revolutionary program, but it is already enough to cause unease amongst the rulers of a country where the ghosts of the Civil War are always lurking in the background, ready to be brought out to terrify voters who look too critically at the status quo.  There is, for example, a striking conceptual similarity between the anxiety of  El País regarding  a Socialist/Podemos threat to ‘stability’ and the suggestion its great rival  El Mundo – virtually the Partido Popular’s house organ – that the PP and the PSOE might have to govern as a coalition in order to ‘protect the constitution.’

Right now it is difficult to guess who will go into coalition with whom or what the results might be.   But whatever the parties do, it is clear that the Spanish electorate is turning left, not right, in search of solutions to the catastrophe of ‘austerity’, and the fact that it has done so through temporary alliances and ad hoc coalitions between different groups may also point towards a new progressive future, shaped by  the muliplicity of voices that formed Ada Colau’s Guanyem Barcelona (Let’s Win Back Barcelona) civic movement, with its call for‘  a genuine metropolitan democracy, which forces political representatives to obey while they lead. A decentralized democracy with direct elections of councilmen and women in each district, with oversight of budgets, in which citizen initiatives and binding referendums are used to make shared, legitimate decisions.’

This desire for a deepening and widening of the democratic process is crucial to Spain’s leftward drift, where inequality and austerity are producing new forms of popular mobilisation and participation in local, municipal and national politics. All this could not be more different from the UK – with the exception of Scotland – where the political momentum has shifted towards the right and the rebellion against ‘the establishment’ has taken the form of rightwing populism.

Here  an unbound Tory government is now proposing to eliminate the ability of working men and women to defend or improve their pay and conditions.   It is proposing to carry out welfare reforms that will force some 40,000 children into poverty.  It is about to introduce draconian and irrational restrictions of free speech to prevent ‘extremist’ views from being expressed without even taking the trouble to define what extremism even means.

These developments must be resisted, but it is clear that the principal  ‘left-of-centre’ opposition has no interest in doing so.   On the contrary the contenders for the Labour Party leadership are engaged in a frantic, embarrassing and intellectually vacuous attempt to grovel at the feet of ‘business’ and the rightwing press rather than fight for the people they should be fighting for.

In David Hare’s The Absence of War, the Kinnock (Miliband?)-like contender describes the Labour Party as ‘ the only practical instrument that exists in this country for changing people”s lives for the good.’

Whatever truth there may once have been in such an assertion, the current leadership debate makes it clear that it no longer has any, and the dire quality of the contenders now jostling for power is the reflection of a dying and clueless party  dominated by careerist politicians  that is now prepared to trade its  better traditions for a few Tory marginals.

Many on the left have looked forward to the death of the Labour Party, as if its downfall will open the floodgates for progressive politics.  That collapse now looks more likely than it has for many years, and it may not produce the desired result.   But regardless of  whether Labour ‘Pasokifies’ or not and regardless of what the benefits of that outcome might be, its current intellectual and political bankruptcy means that resistance and opposition to Lord Snooty and His Pals must come from elsewhere.

And in these depressing times, the new combination of street-level protest and participatory democracy that is now unfolding in Spain can point to where such resistance might come from, and the different forms that it might take.



Policing the Crisis

The Spanish parliament is currently debating a draconian ‘Citizen Security Bill’   that will introduce fines of up to 600,000 euros for attendance at unauthorized street protests and demonstrations.     Among other things, demonstrators will face fines for ‘insulting’ or making ‘false accusations’ against public officials and state institutions.

The bill will also ban protests in public thoroughfares or outside parliament; demonstrators will not be allowed to photograph or record the behavior of state security forces, and occupations of public squares will be forbidden.

According to Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz, the bill is intended to ‘ guarantee a freer and more peaceful coexistence for all Spaniards … eradicating violence.’    

Permit me to differ.       Permit me to say, at the risk of causing insult,   that this bill is a stunningly reactionary piece of legislation from Spain’s political dark ages, that has brought Franco’s fat little ghost strutting back onto the stage of Spanish politics with the specific objective of shutting down any resistance or opposition to the brutal economic restructuring of Spanish society – not to mention a powerful separatist movement in Catalonia.

Permit me to say also that this bill has been introduced by a remarkably sleazy government that really deserves to be insulted as often as possible – a government whose leading politicians – including Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy – are alleged to have benefited from a secret slush fund operated by   corrupt Partido Popular treasurer Luis Barcenas, as a payment for handing out business contracts.

So the Spanish have a lot to protest about, and Rajoy and his cronies know it and they clearly want to nip it in the bud.     This desire is hardly unique to Spain.     The Spanish bill is part of a more general drift towards authoritarian governance in Europe and beyond that was already underway as a consequence of the post- 9/11 terrorism emergency, and which has since been accelerated dramatically as a result of the financial crisis and its aftermath.

None of this is entirely surprising.     In Europe, as elsewhere, governments have generally acted as instruments of the economic elites and financial institutions that caused the crisis, and used the smokescreen of austerity to rollback state provision of health, education and social protection, while ‘bailouts’ and economic ‘reform’ packages have impoverished growing swathes of the population.

Beyond the specific circumstances of the 2008 banking crisis, there is a wider nervousness in powerful places about the long-term viability of an economic system that remains brittle, unstable, addicted to short-termist financial gambling,   and chronically prone to collapse, in which inequality has become entrenched to truly obscene levels.

Given this background, it’s inevitable that governments have sought to boost their power to control and repress the resistance that has inevitably accompanied their policies.     As always, this task has fallen primarily to the police, who have been given virtual carte blanche in country after country to bash heads and clear the streets.

We saw these tendencies in this country at the 2009 G20 summit, in the Ian Tomlinson   case.   We saw it within months of the Coalition coming to power, with the extreme brutality shown by the police to students and schoolkids protesting tuition fees, when certain sections of the press (you know which ones) were advocating the use of water cannons and rubber bullets.

We saw it again this month,   with the violent assault on student protesters at Senate House.

We’ve seen it in Greece, at this demonstration in Athens in 2011, and on innumerable other occasions:

We saw it in Spain in November 2012, when the police responded to protests in Madrid like this:

Madrid: Los antidisturbios rodean a un joven caído en el suelo. Foto de la página de Facebook  «AntenapezTV »

We’ve seen it in the increasing militarization of law enforcement, in the ‘boomerang effect’ of the ‘war on terror’ that has seen police increasingly acting more and more like soldiers and paramilitaries, with a tendency to shoot, taser and beat first and ask questions later.

The police don’t start behaving like this just because they feel like clobbering demonstrators.   They act like this because they have been ordered to, or because such behavior is tacitly condoned by powerful people who recognize its usefulness and depend on it to push through their political and social agendas.

And in periods like this, the police must be given complete impunity to do whatever they and their political masters think is necessary   This is why the Spanish state wants to give them the power to arrest protesters who ‘insult’ or even spread ‘false’ stories about them on the Internet.     It’s why the cop who killed Ian Tomlinson was never convicted.   It’s why the officer who punched a student at Senate House will not be disciplined.

It’s why, in Italy this week, the police have had the temerity to charge a female demonstrator with ‘sexual violence and insulting a public official’ because she kissed a visored riot cop on his helmet.

This is really something, coming from one of the most brutal police forces on the continent, a police force that is permeated with fascism, that once battered peaceful demonstrators in Genoa bloody, that for years has routinely behaved like this, without any consequences whatsoever.

All this is par for the course.   Back in the 1980s, the British police essentially acted as ‘Maggie’s bootboys’ and the battering ram for Thatcher’s neoliberal restructuring of the British economy.   One of the first things she did on coming to power was to give the police and the army a pay rise.

She knew what she was doing and what she wanted to do, and so do her ideological descendants who are wreaking social havoc in so many countries.

Because the more governments reduce the enabling components of the state, the more they strengthen its repressive features, and the more likely it is that those who resist these developments will feel the policeman’s truncheon, whenever they stop complaining as individuals and go out into the streets to form a crowd.