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Thoughts from Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain

Random thoughts from a Brit in the North West. Sometimes serious, sometimes not. Quite often curmudgeonly.

Thoughts from Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain: 16 October 2020
16 October 2020 @ 13:00

Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.  

        - Christopher Howse: 'A Pilgrim in Spain'* 

Covid

So . . . Ending Covid via herd immunity is a dangerous fallacy. Everyone on board with this?           

Living La Vida Loca in Spain/Galicia

There's no shortage of pessimistic forecasts for Spain's economy. Here's one from The Corner and and there's a Times article below. 

So . . . . how to square this negativity with yesterday's paean of praise from Christian Bungard? Well, it's the gap I bang on between the macro and the micro. Since 2000 - and for various reasons, one of which is large scale corruption - companies and the rich have got more profitable/richer but the middle and lower classes have got poorer. And life has become very much more precarious - the favoured adjective - for the majority. Covid has exacerbated this. Hence the pessimism. And, truth to tell, god knows where Spain would be without continuing huge subventions from Brussels.

As for day to day life . . . As Mr Werner says, It is How It Is.  . . . .Dalor is the 3rd company I've tried to get to fix the large blind in my salón. The first was sent by my insurance company but refused to deal with me after I'd rejected a very expensive quote for an aluminium blind and asked them to quote me for a normal blind. The second, I visited the day after the lockdown ended in July. They said they'd come but it wouldn't be 'immediate'. They never came. So, after they'd put a flier in my buzón, I called Dalor. A chap came in August, measured up, and later called me with me a quote. I accepted this but he warned me - not to my huge surprise - that nothing would be done in August.  The work would be done in September, he assured me. But it wasn't. However, I haven't been too bothered about this because, as the mornings get colder, I need the sun to warm up the salón. But I just called him now, to be told that the office hadn't said anything to him about my acceptance of the quote given to him by phone. If you're wondering why on earth, after 19 years here, I'm surprised at this saga, I have to tell you this isn't remotely the case. But, just for fun, I'll re-visit today the company who told me in July that they'd come 'soon'. To see what ridiculous excuse they come up with for their non-appearance. And maybe to try again to get them to give me a quote.

Which reminds me . . . The plumber I asked 4 or 6 weeks ago to replace parts in 2 toilet cisterns in my house is in charge of the work in my neighbour’s garden. When he came yesterday for this, he said he could do the work now . . . I told him I'd given up on him weeks ago and got someone else to do it. He just smiled. 

Postscript; Even I find this hard to believe . . . Yesterday I made the workmen use planks under the caterpillar tracks of the JCB, to avoid my new lawn being churned up. I've just been out and seen that the didn't use them when they took it away last night! 

It's very hard to credit such stupidity and a lack of consideration for others. Or it would be if only . . . 

María's Fallback chronicle: Days 29, 30 and 31

The UK

Boris Johnson: A sympathetic portrait. See the second article below.

The EU/Brexit

Richard North today: President Macron may be using [the fishing] issue as a proxy for a wider set of objections, not least over the access of the City of London to EU capital markets. If Paris is intent on blocking any deal that is not struck on French terms then a benign outcome to this process will be impossible to achieve.  Plus ça change . . . The French are regarded by all European businessmen as the most difficult to deal with. Amour propre plus La Gloire . . 

The USA

Really worth a read. 

The Way of the World 

A Russian disinformation campaign designed to undermine and spread fear about the Oxford University coronavirus vaccine has been exposed by a Times investigation. Pictures, memes and video clips depicting the British-made vaccine as dangerous have been devised in Russia and middlemen are now seeking to “seed” the images on social media networks around the world.

Finally . . . 

Flashback to November 2002 . . . Speaking of storms and the damage therefrom - there is an oil tanker foundering off the coast of Galicia, threatening terrible destruction of wildlife. The Spanish government is blaming Britain but I am not clear why. Something to do with the fact that the ship was not properly repaired in Gibraltar. This seems strange as the ship was heading south, towards Gib, not away from it. It looks more to me like a play aimed at getting support in Brussels for Spanish control of Gibraltar since the locals can't be trusted. And I see this morning that the Spanish government is now including Lithuania, Greece and the Bahamas in its list of guilty countries. And they have arrested the captain of the tanker for lack of co-operation. Nothing if not comprehensive in their reaction. 

THE ARTICLES

1. Poor, divided Spain may be the sickest man in Europe  Isambard Wilkinson, Madrid. The Times

The worst recession since the civil war and a bitter power struggle over Covid-19 restrictions are undermining the response to the second wave

Spain marked National Day on Monday, but there has been precious little to celebrate in recent years:

Rafael Nadal’s 20th grand-slam victory in Paris at the weekend gave Spain cause for jubilation but there was little else to cheer about afterwards when King Felipe VI and the country’s leadership marked the country’s national day.

Spain has led Europe’s second wave of the coronavirus pandemic with an estimated 896,000 infections in total since the outbreak began. Some experts claim that the economy is in the worst recession since the start of the civil war in 1936. A bitter feud between the government and the opposition over imposing restrictions in Madrid has worsened political polarisation. Officials in Germany, which will stump up most of the massive European recovery funds, question the country’s stability.

As coronavirus is again surging across the continent, concerns are mounting that Spain may become the sickest man of Europe. Many are asking if its problems are too great to heal.

At a first glance the signs do not give grounds for optimism. Poisonous divisions between left and right are hampering efforts to fight the pandemic and rebuild the economy. The Catalan regional government is led by secessionists calling for independence. Allegations of corruption against the former king, Juan Carlos, have deepened a constitutional crisis.

“It’s a crucial, historic moment. What’s needed is political will to avoid confrontation and find what unites us,” Inés Arrimadas, the leader of Citizens, a centre-right party, told The Times. “I’m calling for a truce among all Spain’s political parties to stop fighting among ourselves and understand that the only enemy is the virus.”

The weeks-long clash over social restrictions in the Madrid region culminated on Friday when the Socialist-led government of Pedro Sánchez, the prime minister, declared a state of emergency and imposed a partial lockdown on the capital and surrounding towns against the will of the local authority, controlled by the conservative Popular party (PP).

The government imposed a ban on people entering or leaving the city except for work or essential visits, arguing that it feared the outbreak might spread to adjacent regions. Madrid officials wanted to use lockdowns in only the most affected neighbourhoods. They argued that the authority’s measures had already proved effective. The rate of infection has dropped from 750 cases per 100,000 people over 14 days to 500 for every 100,000 people in the past two weeks. Pressure on the region’s intensive care units has eased. Yet critics argue that the number of infections has dropped because fewer people are being tested.

“It’s a political struggle,” said Pablo Simón, professor of politics at Carlos III University in Madrid. “The national government wants to blame Madrid for not improving the healthcare system and the regional government does not want to lock down Madrid as they want to blame Sánchez, saying it will endanger the economy.

“The result of this game of chicken is that nobody is taking care of the pandemic. They are being totally reckless and stubborn.”

The chaos dates from when Mr Sánchez hastily ordered the end of the strict national lockdown in June. The PP, Catalan and Basque nationalists had refused to support the renewal of the state of emergency under which the government could impose restrictions such as household lockdowns. The prime minister gave control of the health system back to the 17 regions and went on holiday.

Several of the regions, including Madrid, failed to strengthen healthcare services, particularly contact tracing. The government failed to call out the regions’ weak response or set rules for handling outbreaks, which started in July and resulted in Madrid becoming the epicentre of the second wave by last month.

The declaration of the state of emergency in Madrid, which will last for two weeks, has not ended the Punch and Judy show. Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the regional head, said this week that “the justice system, the Madrid region, the king and the law are standing in the way of Pedro Sánchez, who’s trying to change this country through the back door”.

The comments strike at the deeper problems in Spain. Mr Sánchez’s government, the first run by a coalition in its modern democratic history, had been in office for only 15 days when the country recorded its first coronavirus case in late January.

Spain has not had a stable government since 2015 and the new one, which was formed after an inconclusive election — the fourth in as many years — was sworn in with aid of Podemos, the first far-left party in power since 1936, and deals with Basque nationalist and Catalan separatist parties.

Mr Sánchez’s non-consensual presidential style, his plans to investigate the crimes of General Franco’s dictatorship and his reliance on separatists to pass votes have goaded the right wing. So too has criticism of the monarchy by Pablo Iglesias, the deputy prime minister and the pro-republican leader of Podemos. The prime minister today accused the PP of being “anti-system” for its role in the Madrid debacle and its refusal to agree to a judicial reform.

Ana Pastor, an MP and former PP health minister, said: “Confrontation comes not from us but from within the government, whose members attack the King and constitutional monarchy.

“Never in Spain have we seen such populism and a government with communists in it that is supported by separatists.”

After corruption scandals and a substantial economic slump from 2008-13, which led to social tension and years of austerity, the PP, the main opposition party, and the Socialists lost many voters to new parties such as the ultra-nationalist Vox, Citizens and Podemos. Since then the old consensus of the post-Franco years has been increasingly challenged.

The radicalised political tone is at present only softly echoed on the street. About 85 per cent of people recently polled agreed that squabbling among politicians had undermined efforts to curb the virus from spreading. Yet populist nationalism is again growing, with more Spanish flags hanging from balconies, as they did during the height of the Catalan crisis in 2017 when the region’s parliament illegally declared independence.

On Monday Vox staged a protest against Madrid’s partial lockdown and next week it will call for a vote of no confidence against “the totalitarian and criminal government”. The PP is divided over whether it should back the move because although it fears losing more votes and its position of “defender of the state” to its rightwing rival, it also realises that Vox’s antics mobilise leftwing voters.

The Socialists and Podemos thrive on the heightened tension. Another poll this week found that more than 40 per cent of Spaniards favour a republic after Juan Carlos fled to the United Arab Emirates in August to avoid causing further embarrassment to his son, Felipe. Some 34.9 per cent said they supported the royal family.

Analysts fear the present economic crisis may prompt further upheaval. The government forecasts that unemployment will rise in the eurozone’s fourth-biggest economy to 17.1 per cent. The IMF predicts that GDP will fall by 12.8 per cent this year, the hardest-hit among advanced economies, and its budget deficit will stand at 14.1 per cent, the worst figures since the outbreak of the civil war. The tourism sector, one of the country’s main industries, is expected to contract by as much as 25 per cent. Thousands of businesses have closed.

“If we have another social crisis this winter things are going to be even more complicated,” said Juan Moscoso, an economist and former Socialist MP. “For the first time we are decoupling from the EU in economic recovery. Now we see the union is recovering and Spain is lagging behind.”

Mr Simón said that the economy was particularly vulnerable to the pandemic because of its dependence on tourism and services. Yet the state has also been found wanting. “This situation is a stress test, not only for the leadership, but also for the political system, the bureaucratic and state system in Spain,” he said. “We are now seeing the effect of all the different reforms we have not done over the past 20 years.”

Spain has been promised €140 billion in EU recovery funds but German experts doubt its capacity to use them effectively. Friedrich Sell, professor of economics at Bundeswehr University Munich, wrote last week that the country was “politically too unstable” to justify the massive disbursement of funds. The government is negotiating with Brussels to secure the early release of the money.

Several other flashpoints are imminent. A fight has broken out over control of the judiciary; Podemos and its leader are under investigation over party finances; Catalonia is due to hold elections; and the government must pass a budget, a feat that has not been achieved since 2018. The second wave surges on in Navarra and Catalonia, where the number of people being hospitalised has increased by 40 per cent in the past week.

Yet not all are pessimistic. Jordi Canals, professor of strategic management and economics at the IESE Business School in Barcelona, said that any analysis of the economy needed a long-term perspective. He pointed out that the performance of the economy three months ago was not much worse than that of France or Italy. “Spain, like Italy and Germany, is very much export dependent so if the world economy slowly turns around by spring 2021, it will benefit,” he said.

Although Mr Sánchez will struggle to surmount the hurdle of passing a budget before the end of the year, most experts say he will succeed eventually. “The litmus test of the prime minister will be whether he has been able to build a consensus over how to resolve the economic and institutional crises we have by the end of 2021,” Mr Canals said.

Politicians parrot that because Spain is a “great country” it will overcome the crisis. Ms Arrimadas, the leader of Citizens, said that what the country needed was “big vision and statesmanship” . These qualities appear to be in short supply.

2.  Boris Johnson: The Gambler by Tom Bower — A sympathetic portrait

The prime minister’s flaws are treated kindly in a new biography exploring the impact of a miserable childhood

Boris Johnson is a perpetual paradox for admirers and opponents alike: a loner who cannot bear to be by himself; a man of genuine intellect who still prefers to wing it; a figure of ferocious ambition and great laziness; someone desperate to lead but unwilling to manage and mindless of consequences; the liberal Brexiter; the low-tax, big-state interventionist; and a man determined to be marked in posterity but reluctant to put in the hard yards to ensure that he is remembered kindly. 

The quest to find the last Russian doll inside the British prime minister has now been joined by the investigative journalist Tom Bower. The news that Bower, a noted literary hitman — previous targets have included Robert Maxwell, Richard Branson and Jeremy Corbyn — had turned his sights on Johnson will have left the prime minister’s enemies licking their lips. But those looking for a character assassination are going to be disappointed. 

This is more an emotional than political biography. While Johnson’s flaws are never ignored, they are invariably described with mitigation in this surprisingly sympathetic work. The generosity appears to spring from what Bower regards as the book’s big reveal, namely the prime minister’s miserable childhood in a broken home with a neglectful, solipsistic and adulterous father who assaulted Johnson’s mother. Stanley Johnson emerges as the true villain of this story, though few will fail to note that his son has inherited some (though mercifully not all) of his less loveable traits. 

The emotional neglect combined with academic brilliance and an obvious admiration for his father’s charisma and refusal to be bound down, has, Bower suggests, given us a little boy who never quite grew up — a damaged man kicking against all the restraints of life: rules, marital vows, honesty; a man whose need to be loved in the moment explains almost all his moral flaws. 

But while Johnson’s emotional turmoil may explain his many infidelities, it will not do in explaining his other deficiencies. While not an authorised biography, it patently has not been obstructed. The author has clearly benefited from substantial access to relatives, ex-partners and allies.

Tellingly, Bower refers to him throughout as “Boris” — a decision perhaps explained by the curiously opaque declaration at the end of the book that Johnson is “not a stranger in my home”. Apparently in the spirit of openness, the author explains that his wife Veronica Wadley, former editor of the London Evening Standard, has known Johnson for more than 30 years — though he describes their relationship as “one of colleagues not friends”. This seems an understatement: Wadley served for four years as a senior adviser to Johnson when he was London mayor and he this year elevated her to the House of Lords.

Political opponents are derided in a series of low swipes, which Bower rarely bothers to justify.

Johnson’s time at the Foreign Office, widely considered an embarrassment, is blamed less on the man than on officials led by the “unctuous” Simon McDonald, who failed to protect him. That some delighted in his mistakes, is unarguable, but this analysis goes beyond the benefit of the doubt. Johnson’s damaging misstatements on Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian woman detained by Tehran, are for Bower only a “supposed gaffe”.

Governmental failures that cannot be blamed on officials are often down to the weak ministers rather than the man who appointed them. Political opponents are derided in a series of low swipes, which Bower rarely bothers to justify. Amber Rudd is a “perfidious lightweight”. Brenda Hale, president of the Supreme Court, which ruled Johnson’s prorogation of parliament to be unlawful, is — horror — “a feminist campaigner”, and had “rarely concealed her contempt” for Johnson (though how this explains the other 10 judges in a unanimous 11-0 verdict is unclear).

The author looks to have absorbed the opinions of Johnson’s closest allies rather than simply reporting them. Foreign Office staff are dismissed for their “timidity, unimpressive intellect and limited education”. Education officials were “lazy and incompetent”. It is, it seems, everyone else’s job to make up for the PM’s unwillingness to dirty his hands with detail. 

Many criticisms of officialdom are at least arguable, but the combined effect of all the digs is to unbalance what would otherwise be seen as an attempt to present a fair portrayal. Perhaps the most unedifying moment is when Bower takes potshots at Sonia Purnell, Johnson’s previous and less forgiving biographer.

For all this, Bower does not ignore his subject’s political weaknesses, recounting how often Johnson arrives in a job he has sought with no plan for what he wishes to do and no instinct to find out how the structure works. Bower is merciless on Johnson’s failures to address the shortcomings of the Metropolitan Police and on his over-reliance on others. 

The section on the run-up to Brexit is also convincing. Opponents have been quick to accuse Johnson of opportunism in backing Leave but Bower argues persuasively that while it served his political ends, he also believed it. Yet the book also shows just how ideologically light Johnson travels. Whether this is pragmatism or roguishness rather depends on your starting point.

The book will change few minds. Brexit has led most people to a firm position on Johnson, but this is an attempt to offer a nuanced account — supportive but critical — of a man Bower calls an “intelligent patriot”. The voters, he concludes, “still wait to see if he is a leader”.

The overwhelming impression is of a man Bower likes and pities. The arc of this story is of a brilliant child trapped inside a prime minister, a victim of an atrocious father still searching for approval. But if Johnson does not soon become the leader that Bower clearly believes he can be, then Stanley’s victims will not be limited to his family.

 

* A terrible book, by the way. Don't be tempted to buy it, unless you're a very religious Protestant.



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