Friday, November 30, 2007

Fair Shares For All?

A revealing report was published this week on the question of how income is distributed in Spain in relation to the wealth of each autonomous region. There has been much talk about how the system of devolving central government powers to the regions puts an end to the idea of solidarity across the country as the wealthy regions hold on to more of what they earn. Well the conclusion of this report is that this has not been the case; at least during the period 1991-2005.

The region which contributes most to the redistribution of resources is Madrid, followed in second place by Cataluña. However, not all of the richer regions are contributors; both Navarra and the Basque Country have special regimes which mean that they make no significant contribution. Maybe that's why they have such big houses? Despite this, the overall picture is one of a system that largely works; and shows that greater regional autonomy doesn’t necessarily have to mean an end to a policy of redistribution between rich and poor. Much of the wealth of Madrid and Barcelona is a product of the efforts of those who left their native Andalucia or Extremadura in search of better times, it seems only right that there should be some flow back to these poorer regions. Were it not so, then the gap between rich and poor would only get bigger.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Strange Case Of Mohamed Samraoui

Mohamed Samraoui was arrested on the 22nd October in Malaga, and after being held in prison for a few days he is now outside of prison on conditional release. It is believed that his arrest followed a request from Algeria via Interpol, and he is now awaiting a decision on the extradition request from the Algerian authorities.

Samraoui is no ordinary citizen, and his current situation in Spain is also far from ordinary. He is really Colonel Mohamed Samraoui, a former senior officer in Algerian military intelligence who deserted his post in 1996 and claimed political asylum as a refugee in Germany. He alleged that he had been instructed to assasinate Algerian Islamists exiled in Germany, and also subsequently denounced the role played by the Algerian army in the bloody and very dirty war that took place in the country throughout the 1990's. His allegations include involvement of the Algerian armed forces in terrorist actions attributed to Islamist rebels, and he has written a book on the subject.

Given all of this this, it is perhaps not surprising that the Algerian authorities would like to have him back, what is surprising is that the Spanish government should agree to detain someone who is a recognised political refugee in a fellow EU country, and then embark on a process which could lead to that person being repatriated to a country where he can hardly expect to receive a warm welcome. Whilst awaiting the decision on the extradition request, Samraoui is forbidden to return to his home and family in Germany. Different motives have been suggested for the cooperation by Spain. One suggestion is that they want Algerian cooperation with the resolution of the conflict in what used to be the Spanish Sahara. Another, stronger, reason why they might want to please the Algerian government is the business potential of the huge reserves of natural gas which that country possesses. A decision to extradite will be an appalling blow against the right to political asylum and to have a safe refuge from persecution, regardless of whether it's good for business.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Themes That Can Change An Election....The Economy

One of the most curious features of the last few years has been the way in which the economy has practically disappeared from the political debate in Spain. Some people have a straightforward explanation for this, the economy has been going so well that it's a waste of time for the opposition to dedicate much time to the issue if they can't damage the government. The decision by Zapatero to put the economy in the hands of the "safe" Pedro Solbes did contribute to the depoliticisation of the issue, as nobody is ever likely to accuse Solbes of being a crazed ideologue.

Even so, I don't really buy the argument that no headway could be made with the issue while everyone's house price continues to rise. There are always economic issues that can be raised, and in some ways the economy is one of the weaker areas for this government. The good times are when you have the opportunity to deal with the economic problems affecting the voters, nobody will do it when there is a recession. Yet Zapatero's administration has simply operated a laissez faire "let the good times roll" attitude which leaves many of those problems untouched.

The very high levels of job insecurity damage the future prospects of the economy. When people have more security they make more long term plans which lead to more spending, which in turn leads to more jobs being created. The number of people still scraping by on low salaries whilst prices have rapidly reached levels more appropriate for a richer country is also very high. I read this week that the real increase in salaries over the last 10 years has only been 1.4%, if we have really had such a massive increase in wealth in that time then it is not going into the pockets of the salaried workforce. Or maybe it has just gone into a very small number of pockets? Also, a recent opinion poll put unemployment back at the top of the list of issues which people felt most affected by.

The lack of interest shown by the Partido Popular (PP) in the economy is betrayed by the fact that they have left the issue in the hands of some of their least recognisable politicians. Who can name the person in charge of the PP's economics policy without looking it up first on Internet? An odd way to treat what is normally seen as a heavyweight position, but then the focus of the PP's opposition has been elsewhere for almost the entire parliamentary session.

However, more recently everyone has started rescuing the theme from the (Bill) Clinton campaign against Bush (pappy) - "It's the economy stupid!" The slowdown in the property market combined with a recent sharp upsurge in prices of basic foodstuffs, together with the proximity of the elections has meant that it is back on the agenda. We can add to this list the realisation by the PP that they can't talk about terrorism all of the time, occasionally they have to vary the tune. There are uncertain times ahead, perhaps the uncertainty has come too late to really affect seriously the outcome of the elections, but it seems very likely that the next legislature will not see the same disdain shown for economic issues as we have witnessed in this one.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Fernando Fernán-Gómez

The death last week of the Spanish actor Fernando Fernán-Gómez has rightly attracted a lot of attention here. If you were to take a random selection of Spanish films from the last 50 years, the chances that this prolific actor/director would have participated in at least one of them are very high. Well known as an actor, rather than as a celebrity, he will be sadly missed.

Some of his films are being shown again on television in homage to him. On Friday we got the strange but entertaining El Extraño Viaje, directed by Fernán-Gómez. The film was enjoyable, but also astonishing with its portrait of a Spain that is barely recognisable these days. Then on Saturday we got Belle Epoque, a foreign language Oscar winner for Fernando Trueba in 1994, in which Jorge Sanz is forced to endure the unbearable ordeal of being stuck in the same house as Penélope Cruz, Maribel Verdú and Ariadna Gil. Fernán-Gomez almost steals the show as the father.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Rebels Without A Cause

Now that the streets of Madrid are back in the hands of their rightful owners, some of the world's most reckless drivers, it is time to reflect on the latest outing for the civic rebellion. First the numbers; Saturday's demonstration has produced the usual farcical estimate from the Comunidad de Madrid, 550,000 people took to the streets according to their figure. Of course they never reveal the method used to arrive at such figures. There are those who stick to a rule of thumb based on simply dividing this estimate by 10 to get closer to the true figure, but over at the Manifestómetro they still insist on using more rigorous methods. No other estimate puts the total attendance at greater than 80,000 and it is clear that the numbers mobilised by the AVT are continuing to decline - it wasn't even raining this time, so they'll have to look for other excuses.

They would have had to have been quick to count me amongst those attending, ever since Spanish television started showing live Premier League football my Saturday afternoons suddenly seem more crowded than used to be the case. I popped out for a brief look, and caught the tail end of the march; just in time to see the fascist group bringing up the rear. Frankly these events are now so stage managed that they have lost much of their interest. Anyway, by spending more time at home I was able to enjoy the full glory of TeleMadrid's manipulative and propagandistic coverage of the event. If you ever wonder why this channel endlessly repeats the same old movies every few months, then wonder no more. They spend "their" budget on lavish blanket coverage of anti government demonstrations, even allowing for the known bias of the channel there is no longer even the most token attempt at balancing the opinions expressed.

The speeches at the end provided a stark illustration of the extent to which voluntary amnesia has become popular amongst the angry right. They skip directly from the halcyon days of the "spirit of Ermua" when a resolute government stood firm against the terrorist threat, to the present where a cowardly administration is down on its knees and hands over the country to ETA. What's the bit they miss out completely? Nothing important really, just that period when their own cherished government sat down and negotiated with ETA too. This episode has now been completely removed from history; it is as if it never happened. Equally the president of the AVT, Jose Francisco Alcaraz is treated as a martyr to freedom of expression because someone is taking him to court for insults, nothing more than a tiny taste of what he has so freely attempted to do to anyone who dares criticise him.

Here's someone who knows how to talk to terrorists

I did think this might be the last such outing before the election, especially as the Partido Popular has gently distanced itself. However, thinking a bit further I suspect we will see more mobilisations. Having been robbed of a negotiating process to use as the pretext we will instead get the continuing presence of radical Basque nationalist parties in the elections as an excuse to take to the streets. Meanwhile, this continues to be the legislature with easily the lowest number of terrorist victims since democracy returned to Spain, and according to the polls terrorism has dropped down the list of public concerns. May it continue to be that way.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Play Fantasy Journalism With El Mundo

Thousands of cash prizes must not be won! The objective of Fantasy Journalism is not to report the news, that’s too boring, the aim of the game is to invent the news. Just to give you all an idea of how this works I provide a couple of helpful examples. It would of course be possible to take almost anything El Mundo has published on the Madrid bombings as an example of how to play the game, but I have a couple of fresher cases.

El Mundo began this week with a potentially huge story, claiming that they had evidence of a meeting between the PSE (Basque section of the governing PSOE) and members of ETA. The meeting was alleged to have been held somewhere on the frontier between Germany and Austria. With today’s anti government demonstration already on the horizon, the drums started beating and you could almost imagine the shouts of “Zapatero, traitor” that would be heard. Just what the “civic rebellion” needed, continuing evidence of collusion between the government and ETA, the perfect issue to mobilise the angry ones in their thousands. The Partido Popular (PP) would surely pick up the ball and run with it, pressurising the government to come clean.

However, something strange happened in the following couple of days, and instead of dominating the headlines the story has almost disappeared. Perhaps the reason for this disappearance has something to do with an account in El País of how the tale emerged in the first place. According to El País the claim about the meeting with ETA was first aired in October by the Madrid radio station City FM, well known already for its enthusiastic participation in spreading the conspiracy theories on the Madrid bombings. Still according to the El País version of events, the story was then relayed to a member of a police intelligence unit by someone who is a member of the Asociación de Victimas de Terrorismo, sponsors of today’s demonstration and also very keen conspiranoicos. The police officer concerned duly prepared an informative note on the claim and the note was subsequently filed in the big box where they put all claims unsupported by any evidence. Then came El Mundo’s report, placing great emphasis on the fact that a police “report” authenticated the existence of the meeting, and making no reference at all to the police dismissal of the claim as lacking any credibility. Master conspiracy theorist Luis del Pino believes that El Mundo was trapped with this story by the evil doers, but as any decent Fantasy Journalism player can tell you, fact checking is for wimps. Especially if it might get in the way of publication!

Case study number two. The crucial political confrontation currently taking place in the Constitutional Court was coming to a head. The government had challenged the eligibility of two conservative members of the court to decide on an issue because they had already publicly pronounced on it. The PP was looking for a way to respond to a challenge that could leave their side in a minority on the court. Hear that bugle? That’s El Mundo riding to the rescue. A story miraculously appeared in the paper concerning three members of the court and things they were alleged to have said in a meeting of the tribunal’s members. The PP challenged their eligibility to form part of the court’s deliberations, basing their challenge on El Mundo’s conveniently timed report. Sadly for the PP, even some of the conservatives on the court have objected to El Mundo’s version of events and have publicly repudiated it. The PP, rather than accept that the story was invented to allow them to make their challenge, has instead accused several members of the court of being liars; something which seems unlikely to help their case.

Always remember, it is not just that truth is the first casualty of Fantasy Journalism, it is more a case of it being battered to death with a heavy, blunt instrument. Let the game continue.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Who Are You Calling Right Wing?

It's taken a long time, and the journey is far from over - but there are distinct signs that someone, somewhere in the headquarters of the Partido Popular (PP) has taken a close look at the opinion polls and seen a second successive election defeat on the horizon. Like an oil supertanker that takes hours to change direction, someone on the bridge has issued the order and bit by bit the monster starts to turn.

It didn't seem that way last Friday, on the first day of the conference the PP had prepared to project itself to the electorate. There were the same old faces, Acebes and Zaplana, droning on about ETA and the supposed surrender by the government to terror. It didn't look like the script had changed at all. However, the following couple of days were actually dedicated to presenting some electoral proposals. Nothing very stirring, nothing that suggests that too much deep thinking has been going on. What does a right wing Spanish party without a program come up with at the last minute? Why, tax cuts and a bit of populist nonsense aimed at saving the nation from those terrible Catalans and Basques. How will the tax cuts be paid for? Details schmetails, we’ll get back to you in January on that one. Nevertheless, a distinct change of emphasis and with honorary president Jose Maria Aznar hidden far away and out of sight in South America.

Then there was the Madrid bombings verdict. Despite a noisy rearguard defence of the little that remains of their conspiracy theories about the bombings, the PP has quickly realised that the unequivocal attribution of the bombings to Islamist terrorism means that they need to leave the issue behind them. Yet another reason for making sure that Aznar spends as much of the next four months outside of Spain as possible, as well as for keeping Acebes and Zaplana occupied stuffing envelopes to send to the voters. Perhaps the most curious case of all is that of El Mundo, the newspaper that has positioned itself over the last four years as cheerleader for the most right wing and vengeful (let's just call it Aznarist) sector of the party. The latest epistle on Sunday from its director, Pedro J Ramirez has left some of the enthusiastic members of that sector a bit confused. This is not the time to be out marching on the streets says Pedro, we need to appeal to the centre ground and stop hitting on themes like gay marriage or civic education. An ironic message from someone who has done so much to impose a different tune on the party, but also a clear sign that reality does occasionally intrude in his political thinking; even if it does only have a walk-on part.

Then there is the "civic rebellion", one the of the PP's chief fronts for mobilising its supporters on the streets. The man responsible for calling next Saturday's march, José Francisco Alcaraz of the AVT, has even complained about Mariano Rajoy not mentioning this previously unstoppable popular movement in his speech to the conference last weekend. It also emerges that Rajoy does not plan to attend Saturday's event, he is making sure that he is as far away as possible by claiming a previous engagement in Almeria. Instead, the PP will be represented by yesterday’s man, Angel Acebes. Nor are they pulling out all the stops to mobilise their supporters from across the country, as they did on previous occasions. At this rate the march won't even get wall to wall coverage on TeleMaguirre - if the TeleMadrid helicopter doesn't fly then the rupture will be complete, who will be there to claim that tens of millions of people have marched against the government. Well not to worry, TeleMadrid are covering the event although today it has been reported that they have been ordered not to film the PP headquarters as the march passes by. A sign of the times!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Law Goes Up In Smoke

No, the title is not a reference to the still popular habit of burning images of the King. An article I saw in Público the other day highlighted a side effect of administrative power being devolved to regional authorities in Spain. Laws which have national coverage are not being applied equally across the country, and in some cases are not being applied at all. In the latter case this is usually because the regional government in question uses its defiance as a demonstration of political opposition to the government. Now, here is your starter for 5 points; which regional government do you think is currently leading the pack in turning its back on government legislation? Alright, I’ll give you a clue; begins with M, ends in D, and is led by E.

Another 5 points, this time for Madrid residents only – who remembers the law intended to control smoking in public places? There is one, believe me, it’s just that Espe didn’t like it and once it became known that she didn’t like it virtually nowhere enforces it. Why should they if they know that nobody is going to do anything to them anyway? There was a brief period after the introduction of the law when it was possible to go to a concert and be able to watch a band in a smoke free atmosphere, not very rock and roll but it did improve the experience. Not any more. The law is not a very good one, but that is not really the reason why it is not being observed.

Let’s move on. One of the major pieces of legislation introduced by Zapatero’s government has been something called the Ley de Dependencia which has as its very worthy objective the provision of financial support to those who are unable to work because they are full time carers of the sick. No fewer than 23,000 households stand to benefit from this measure in the Madrid region alone, but unfortunately the demands of political opposition mean that this assistance is not likely to arrive very soon. In order to implement the measure each region is required to provide the government with details of those eligible for assistance, Madrid and Murcia have decided they don’t want to do that. No law passed by this government which has any chance of being popular will be permitted to succeed. It’s a vindictive attitude towards those who could benefit, perhaps no surprise coming from a regional government that also denies support to the largest association of victims of the Madrid bombings.

There are some more long standing acts of defiance too, in Navarra for example it is impossible for a woman to obtain an abortion; no public or private clinic will carry out the operation. This is despite abortion having been legal for many years. The excuse given is a right of conscience not recognised by the law, and those doctors who are prepared to carry out abortions find that they are not permitted to do so. Now for 100 bonus points, find me a leader of any of these administrations that has not made numerous references at some point to the “rule of law”.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Cinema....Las Trece Rosas

This is one of the Spanish films that has created the most expectation so far this year, with its true story of 13 young women who were executed by Franco’s troops in the aftermath of the fall of Madrid. The film, directed by Emilio Martínez Lázaro, holds few surprises as we all know what is going to happen in the end. That doesn’t necessarily need to be a problem for a film, the way in which a story is told can bring just as much as any surprises in the plot.

The first part of the film portrays the efforts of the new rulers of the capital setting out to hunt down anyone who opposes them, and to intimidate the rest into passive obedience to the new order. Casual brutality is used by the police to force those detained to betray others. None of the 13 women had done anything much more significant than help friends or toss a handful of leaflets at a crowd queuing for bread, and several of them were minors at the time of their execution. The period is very carefully recreated, together with some skilful disguising of well known Madrid landmarks to hide the changes of the last 60 years.

The second half of the story deals with the imprisonment of the accused and the farcical kangaroo court military tribunal which hands out death sentences at the drop of a hat. Perhaps it is the sheer difficulty of portraying so many principal characters, but for me the film lacks something to really engage the spectator, despite the emotional pull of the finale. I ended up not being really sure exactly who was who and where they fitted into it all, and at times it doesn't come across as very solid or convincing in its presentation of the events. What you get in the end is a very watchable film, but not quite the treat we were led to expect.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Turning A Blind Eye

Madrid has finally made into the big hitters amongst Spanish local authorities by having a corruption scandal of its own. Several employees of the city council are behind bars for offences connected to the concession of licences for bars, clubs or concert venues. Quite a few others have been released on bail while the investigation continues. The system seems to have been quite simple, you paid the employee concerned, or one of the private sector friends of the employee, and all your licensing and paperwork problems disappeared. A process which could easily take several years suddenly became shorter. All sorts of stories have now emerged in the press from people who have had to pay bribes to get licences, or face the threat of closure - some of them reported what was happening to the administration years ago. There are clear indications that the city administration knew about the problem, and that they did nothing about it until the police investigation began. This suspicion has been indirectly confirmed by statements from the ayuntamiento that they cooperated fully once they knew about the investigation; it seems reasonable to assume that the situation would have continued for years had the police not acted now.

What is really striking about this scandal is that it demonstrates the almost complete absence of accountability in local government in Spain. People have very few rights in dealing with the administration, and if an official chooses to make life difficult for someone then it is very easy to do. Public access to information on the inner workings of the municipality which they elect and pay for is very restricted. It is this more than anything else which makes it so easy for corruption to flourish. Also, if it takes years for a licence to be conceded to someone this is not just because of inefficiency, it is because those running the "service" want it to be that way. The first reaction of Madrid mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardón has been to suggest the privatization of the service involved, an action that will have the effect of making it even harder to enforce even a minimum of accountability in the concession of licences. It is an ironic solution to a problem of municipal corruption; those responsible for the massive corruption scandal in Marbella used the same technique of creating these semi-public agencies as a key part of their methodology for looting public funds.

This way of dealing with problematic issues is very reminiscent of what we can now call Sarkozy style politics, or the politics of distraction. The first law of Sarkozy politics is that you never ever accept any responsibility for anything that happens on your watch. So when a problem arises, you have to act in a way which suggests that the problem is somehow nothing to do with the administration over which you have presided for several years. With this base established, you then move on to the second law which is to propose an energetic looking "solution" which in reality does nothing to deal with the original problem, but which makes you look active in responding to it and which also permits you to implement plans that you haven't been able to impose by other means. Another example of this is occurring with the huge and ugly new advertising hoardings which are rapidly disfiguring many streets in the capital. Gallardón has responded to protests by more or less saying that he doesn't like them either, whilst of course permitting their continuing construction. Nothing to do with me, I'm only the Mayor.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Jet Set

Tired of having to mix with the great unwashed as you pass through Madrid airport? Humiliated at having to move with the herd even though you (or your employer) paid for that overpriced business class ticket? Don't worry, be patient, help is at hand. Madrid's regional government has decided that Mariano Rajoy's cousin was right about global warming and that what we need in the region are more airports. Not just any old airport you understand, the new one they have announced is not going to be for Easyjet or RyanAir, they can go to Madrid Sur! No, the airport they might have to end up calling Madrid Sur-Oeste is going to be run by private companies for private flights. Those little 20 seater jets that allow the really self-important to get around without having to interact with the rest of us - at a price of course, keeping the riff-raff at bay is never cheap.

Since I'm on the subject, how many of you caught La Espe's latest gem? Questioned on her role in the forthcoming general election campaign, Espe surprised the gathered journalists by informing them that she is considered the "Lideresa" of the Partido Popular, and that with such a grand sounding title she would naturally be jetting all over the place in the campaign. Perhaps lady in waiting would be a more accurate description of her current party position.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Operación Chuleton

Another weekend in the Picos de Europa, but this time there was not much walking being done; the objective was very different. We went to the village of Potes, which lies just inside Cantabria on the border with Asturias, and which is reached from the coast by one of the most claustrophobic narrow roads you can imagine, surrounded on both sides by walls of rock. The village lies in the fertile region known as La Liébana, and despite being at the foot of the eastern Picos it has a microclimate that makes for a respectable grape harvest. Apart from that, it’s also become a popular destination for the Brits who drive their cars off the Santander ferry every summer.

The grapes they cultivate in this area were at the heart of this weekend's visit. The last time I was there, a few years ago, the visit coincided with the Fiesta del Orujo, the spirit that results from distilling the grapes. It all seemed very civilized, you passed at leisure from one stall to another and they gave you a little shot of different orujos, sometimes straight from the still. Things change, the Fiesta del Orujo has got considerably bigger but unfortunately not better. The sponsorship of the regional government means that now they have a huge stage set up with folk dancing and even a "celebrity", Carmen Sevilla, to open the whole event. The village, whose population probably doesn't exceed 1500 people, was jammed with traffic and the enormous tent in front of the stage was equally full. The evening turned into a sort of glorified botellon as everyone went for the free drink. At least I have found a good use for an egg box, the shots of orujo fit very neatly inside; the eggs can just be thrown away. Meanwhile, the members of the jury looked very serious as they swilled glass after glass to try and pick this year’s gold medal winner.

Anyway, even this event was not my main reason for being in Potes, I was a man with a mission. The last time we were there, we ate in a restaurant not far from Potes where I can say without any doubt that they served me the biggest chuleton (T-bone steak) I have been presented with anywhere in Spain, and I've been around. I didn't manage to finish it last time, despite giving it my best attempt following the orujo aperitifs; and so a return visit was always going to be on the cards. I was a bit apprehensive, what would happen if the restaurant had changed and they presented me with a tiny piece of meat on a huge plate decorated with a brightly coloured sauce? I needn't have worried.

I have to admit that I failed again, although as always I did what I could under difficult circumstances. Failure does not always have to be unpleasant, in fact it provides the perfect excuse to try again - although maybe next time I need to do a couple of days walking first to build up my appetite.

San Vicente de la Barquera the following day

Catching The Southbound Train

Right, that’s more than enough about the royals, this blog is almost becoming like Hola! I saw a bizarre item in El País today praising the British for having completed a high speed railway line on time and under budget; comparing the case with the delays and problems of the high speed line to Barcelona. I think there are a couple of minor details which probably need pointing out here. Firstly, comparing a train line from London to the Kentish coast with a line connecting Madrid and Barcelona is hardly comparing like with like, the distance in the British case is barely over 100 kilometres. Secondly, and a bit more importantly, comes the simple fact that the line connecting London to the Channel Tunnel was supposed to have been built in the 1990's, not in 2007!

I lived in Sarrff London in the late 80's and early 90's and remember a big public meeting held in my area because the proposed line was going to run through that part of the city. Eventually the planners changed their minds and decided it was better to knock down bits of East London instead. The real point is that under the jackboot of the Thatch it was decreed that the public sector would have nothing to do with the new line, it was all going to be constructed by the super efficient private sector. Ten years later, with the tunnel already open, with nothing constructed and no sign of it ever happening, even the pro-market Blair agreed that the project needed what you might call a bit of impetus. Of course those awful statists in France (where nothing at all ever works) had their side of the high speed connection up and running almost from the day the tunnel was opened. Britain gets there about 13 years later and it gets presented as a model to follow. We apologise for the delay to your 1994 service from Paris, this was due to dogma on the line.

It Ain't What You Say, It's The Way That You Say It

Now for the news; two royal people have decided to stop living together. Virtually the only interesting aspect of the event is the euphemism used to describe the split. Royals in Spain do not separate, as normal couples do, instead they have a "temporary ending of their matrimonial cohabitation". Where will it all end? First we have a prince who marries a commoner who, in another beautiful euphemism, had already "conocido varón" . Now they start splitting up almost like normal people do!

Whether it will cost us more to have them living apart than together is of course a question which will never be answered, because in an interesting example of how weak democratic accountability can sometimes be the Spanish Parliament refuses to accept questions from its members on how much the ever expanding family costs the nation. However, it is rumoured that the male half of the couple in question has, and I choose my words with the utmost care here, some rather expensive habits. Meanwhile, many Spanish are starting to come to terms with a reality that they have refused to accept in the past, that their royal family behaves just like the British one. The coyness that surrounds the monarchy here even seems to affect those parts of the press that complain about it. So why not do something to change it? Perhaps they are worried about the royal temper?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Tomorrow Is Thursday

The King of Spain has been very busy telling off Hugo Chavez - a polite "We're quite capable of recognising our own fascists, thank you" would have been more than sufficient. Fortunately they had already had the conference dinner, otherwise bits of bread would have been flying all over the place. Another report I have seen today suggests that the King is not as restrained or diplomatic as he is generally presented. He is said to have made a one fingered salute to some protestors in the Basque Country a few years ago - a gesture explained at the time as a misunderstood greeting.

Meanwhile, tomorrow sees the court case against the satirical magazine El Jueves. The magazine commmitted the unpardonable offence of printing a satirical cartoon lampooning the King's son, an offence which has provoked the Spanish legal system into an almost alarming burst of efficiency, and which therefore sees the case already in court. Unfortunately, the probability that the case will be in the hands of a judge who regards it as his patriotic duty to punish anyone criticising the Monarchy is higher than it ever should be. However, lets hope for the best and a sensible judgement that puts an end to judicial persecution of legitimate opinions. Click here for the version of one of the accused.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Mind Your Luggage

Here is some advice for those who pass through Barajas airport in Madrid; don't put valuables inside your checked-in baggage. There has been a wave of thefts from passenger luggage in the airport this year, to the extent that the issue has reached the national press, and 17 people have been arrested by the Guardia Civil because they have been caught in the act by security cameras. Once your baggage is checked in there is very little you can do about any theft from the bag because it is so difficult to prove where the theft has occurred. On one journey I made from Madrid this year I found on recovering my case at the other end that the padlock I had placed on it was still there, but was no longer serving any useful purpose. Fortunately I didn't have anything worth stealing in the case. It is something that can happen anywhere, Heathrow Airport in London was at one time known as Thiefrow because of the quantity of valuables that went missing. However, it does see that there is currently a significant problem in Madrid.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Themes That Can Change An Election....The Voters Who Stay At Home

It’s normal for abstention to be factor in election results, because in most cases it does not occur in an even pattern, affecting all parties or candidates equally. Spain is no different, and with the latest opinion polls showing little change in the difference between the two major parties it acquires an even greater significance. In Spain the influence that it has on which side wins is usually very clearly defined, high abstention hurts the left more than it does the right. Let me give an example, when José Maria Aznar won his absolute majority in 2000 he did it on a relatively low turnout (around 65%). Four years later the turnout was substantially greater (about 8 points higher), and despite a PP vote that declined in real terms, the PSOE was still not able to achieve a majority. When the PSOE has won a majority it has almost always been with a higher, more motivated, turnout on election day.

The lesson that is drawn from these trends is that supporters of the right are more likely to vote than supporters of the left. Now, assuming that nothing happens between now and March to seriously affect the pattern of the polls, this means that the best chance the PP has for returning to power is for a significant percentage of those PSOE voters who came out to vote last time around to stay at home. I forget which one it was, but one of Aznar's ex-ministers complained after the last election that lots of people had voted who did not normally vote, as if somehow this was against the rules of the game! As things stand that is their best option, and it is hardly surprising given that the hardline opposition of the PP in the last few years as been aimed much more at shoring up their committed support than it has been at winning any new voters. As I have written about before, there are those in the PP who openly state their preference for winning on a low turnout, much better than trying to reach out to those occupying the centre ground and having to soften political positions. I can see the campaign slogan now, “If you’re not going to vote for us, then why don’t you just go shopping instead?”.

Abstention is one of the main reasons why the government is concerned about the transport crisis in Cataluña at the moment, the votes of that region are needed if the government is going to be returned to power. There are other regions where even a tiny shift in vote will produce different results to those of the last election, and the battle to be the biggest party in Parliament hangs on those areas.

Monday, November 05, 2007

If He Is A King, He Must Have A Palace!

Name this building.

Seems quite an easy question for anyone who has spent a reasonable amount of time living in Madrid, it's the Palacio de Telecomunicaciones where we all go to collect our registered letters or parcels that don't fit into our post boxes at home. Well not any more it isn't, this weekend the removal vans have been busy and the building is now the new ayuntamiento (town hall) of Madrid. City mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardón now has a huge new office with views over Cibeles to the Calle de Alcalá and the Gran Via. He felt the old town hall was cramping his style so for a mere €70 million (small change by Gallardón standards), and compensation to the government of a couple of municipal properties, King Alberto gets his palace.

South of Watford decided to do a bit of vox populi and see what the residents of the city thought of the move. Down in the Puerta del Sol we encountered someone who I can only identify as E.A. Questioned on her profession she told me that she is "president of lots of things, really". This is what she had to say:

"I think it's a bleedin' liberty, here I am in a poky, cramped little building on the Puerta del Sol, and off he goes to this enormous palace. Who does he think he is, we'll soon sort him out. Just wait until Mariano does the party lists for the elections, then we'll see how big Mr Fancy Palace Gallardón is!"

At this point I had to bring the interview to a close, the temperature was rising fast and I felt that "E.A" needed a little bit of time to calm down, she was starting to foam at the mouth. So there it is, a new town hall for a new era. Now, where the hell are we supposed to get our letters from?

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Festival Of The Desert

Not many bands can claim to have been formed in a guerilla training camp, but Tinariwen trace their origins to the decision by Libya's Colonel Gaddafi to give assistance to Mali's Tuareg rebels in their fight against the central government. They are not fighters anymore, and a still uneasy peace holds; although there have been reports of Tuareg uprisings in neighbouring countries recently. Despite the external influences they assimilated, their sound is very much their own. This video gives a taste of the music and the story behind it:

Tinariwen played in Madrid a few days ago, together with Vieux Farka Toure, the son of the late Ali Farka Toure. The first time I saw this band was in Mali itself, at the Festival of the Desert that is held every January in the desert dunes around 60 kilometres from Timbuktu. The week I spent either at the festival, or travelling there and back, remains one of the most impressive - and eventful - journeys I have ever made. Is this sufficient excuse to include a camel photo on my blog? I think it is.

and this is Tinariwen on stage in Mali....

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Autumn In Irati

One of the best places in Spain to witness the effects of autumn is the area around Irati in the north of Navarra. This is the Pyrenees, although the highest peak in the area, Orhi, only just makes it over 2000 metres. The highest point we reached last weekend was on the Sierra de Abodi, from where we got perfect clear views of the high central massif of the Pyrenees that straddles the border between Huesca and France.

We arrived perhaps a week too late to see the changing colours of the forest at its best, but this is not an easy thing to predict. With fantastic weather during the day we were able to do two different routes in warm sunshine, although at night it was frosty and bitterly cold. Following the precedent set by my recent trip to the Picos de Europa, first comes the photos - later the map.