The other day, I was thinking about an article for Bella Caledonia on Spain when a friend of mine, Professor Drew Spiers, from the University Delavida, called me on the phone to ask me about recent events. This is how it went:
– I’m calling about the fall of Mariano Rajoy. You must be happy? – he said, as soon as I picked up the phone.
– Happy isn’t the word for it. It’s like getting an aching tooth removed: a feeling of immense relief, followed by a raw tenderness for a few days after the numbness wears off. Rajoy has done a lot of damage to Spanish democracy and Spain’s international image. He has done most wrong, to paraphrase Yeats, to those close to my heart.
– Don’t mention dentists to me. What exactly happened with this corruption case? I heard that the Partido Popular has been found guilty of taking illegal kickbacks from public works contracts to finance their election campaigns?
– Right. The findings of the particular case which brought down Rajoy are centred on the illegal financing of PP elections campaigns in the Madrid commuter towns of Majahonda and Pozuelo. But crucially in terms of Rajoy’s ejection from office, in their verdict, the judges extrapolated a general practice from this and, equally importantly, also cast doubt on Rajoy’s own personal testimony as a witness in the case. The PP has been found civilly liable for having benefitted from these illegal practices. The only reason the PP was not found criminally liable is that the crimes were committed before Spain’s political party funding laws were passed in 2010.
– Sam Jones in The Guardian describes this PP illegal financing as something done “unknowingly”.
– Sam Jones must have been reading The Guardian’s sister newspaper, El Pais which, like much of the Spanish press, is presenting the story as a case of a few rotten apples in the barrel. But page 1515 of the sentence baldly states: “Those responsible in the Partido Popular knew how election campaigns were financed and, in our case here, the elections in Majadahonda and Pozuelo; to deny this is to go against not only the evidence on display in this case, but also every kind of logic“.
– So the PP has been illegally funding its elections campaigns for, how long exactly?
– Since 1989, when it was founded apparently. There is no mafia in Spain like there is in Italy, and one credible theory is because there is no need for one. The PP has been working as a kind of mafia for decades and, in any case, is deeply entwined with the business interests of the Spanish oligarchy, right down to the most remote town hall in the most distant part of the country.
– What about Rajoy himself, was he involved personally in this case?
– No, though he was called as a witness and the veracity of his testimony was seriously called into question. Furthermore, in the parallel accounts manuscript which ex-PP Party Treasurer Luis Barcenas kept, there are annotations of payments totalling more than 300,000 euros over the years to a certain “M Rajoy”… But that wasn’t the case which was sentenced the other day. There are still several more cases to go before the courts where the same corrupt Gurtel network is alleged to have been at work. One of these concerns alleged periodic slush-fund cash payments in brown envelopes to leading PP figures like Rajoy over decades. Another concerns the alleged destruction by PP officials of the hard-drives of some of their own computers in the party’s HQ before the police could get their hands on them.
– Why didn’t Rajoy just resign as party leader and let somebody else from the PP become Prime Minister after the No Confidence Motion was tabled in the Spanish Parliament? Any British Prime Minister in such circumstances would have been quick to stand aside.
– Because Rajoy is an ultra-Spanish nationalist, and an essential part of ultra-Spanish nationalism is a do-or-die, inflexible attitude only found in comparably extreme cases such as Ulster unionism. It’s an attitude which makes democratic politics very difficult. People like Rajoy are fanatical Spanish nationalists and any kind of concession is considered a weakness. Their thinking is emotional, not rational. Rajoy fell on his own sword, which is the steely hard sword of Spanish nationalism, fabricated in Toledo possibly. He didn’t have the political instincts to step aside, it took him almost a week to realize he had to resign as leader of the PP.
– So Rajoy refused to make a move even though it was obvious his position had become untenable?
– Correct, though to say he didn’t move would be inaccurate. In fact he was absent from parliament for most of the No Confidence Motion in what is one of greatest displays of contempt for Spanish parliamentary democracy ever. He walked out.
– Wait a minute. Rajoy wasn’t even present for most of the debate on the Motion of No Confidence against the very same government he was leading?
– That’s right, Rajoy abandoned the chamber during the No Confidence debate and took refuge in an extremely good restaurant in central Madrid for about eight hours, where he was joined by his coterie of sycophantic supporters. Some wags in the Spanish press compared the whole thing to Hitler in the Fürherbunker in Berlin in 1945.
– And Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the PSOE, was given the confidence of the Spanish Parliament to form a government after the No Confidence Motion was carried on Friday the 1st of June?
– Yes, he was supported by the Basque and Catalan nationalists and, most importantly, the 67 seats of Podemos, the third biggest party in the Spanish House. Indeed, when the results were counted and Sánchez declared PM; the Spanish Parliament rang out with the indignados’ cry of “¡Si se puede!”, roughly, “yes we can”. It’s certainly some journey for Pablo Iglesias and Podemos from the plazas of Spain to being instrumental in bringing down a corrupt PP government. But the PSOE-Podemos fellow-feeling is unlikely to last long.
– Why do you say that?
– Pedro Sanchez’s new government demonstrates great political savvy. Everybody has underestimated Sanchez, who has always come across as anodyne and aimless. But he has put together a media-friendly government, positioned politically in the centre ground, with the highest number of female ministers in the history of European democracy. It looks modern and progressive in terms of civil rights, gender equality and the environment, but essentially conservative in terms of the economy and the unity of Spain. Sanchez will offer talks with Catalan nationalists, but not a referendum. But that may be enough to break the stalemate. Catalan nationalism is split between those looking for a truce in an unwinnable war and those, like Puigdemont and the CUP, who want to carry on with the attrition. Above all, Sanchez’s cabinet is designed to win the next Spanish General Election.
– Getting back to Rajoy, what is his legacy?
– I would say that, more than the hundreds of corruption scandals, whose origins in most cases date back to the PP under Jose María Aznar, Rajoy’s most damaging legacy is to have turned back the clock on democracy and civil rights in Spain. I’m talking about his infamous “gag law” which has led to people prosecuted for tweets, his law making it a crime to “offend the honour” of the Spanish monarchy, and which has seen several Spanish Rap artists processed for their lyrics – one of whom, Valtonyc has fled to Belgium, just like Puigdemont – and of course his intransigent and authoritarian handling of the Catalan situation. Let’s not forget there are still ten Catalan politicians in jail, and they haven’t even been found guilty of anything.
– It is surely indefensible to lock up democratically elected and peaceful Catalan politicians, even more so before they have even been tried?
– It is totally outrageous and, politically speaking, a dereliction of duty. Rajoy failed to do his job and offer any kind of political solution, effectively passing the buck to the Spanish judiciary.
– Anything of interest from Scotland’s point of view?
– Well, Pedro Sánchez is the first Spanish PM ever to speak English, which makes communication a lot easier. I also noted that, during the No Confidence debate, Sánchez, when addressing the Catalan nationalist MPs, specifically referred to the fact that Scotland and England signed an international binding treaty in 1707, thus distinguishing the Scottish case from that of Catalonia. That augurs well.
As for Rajoy, I am sure that many Scots, like me, will remember him for breaking all rules of European diplomacy by staging an official press conference on the eve of the Scottish independence referendum, in which he declared “The only way Scotland can be sure of remaining in the EU is by voting to remain in the Union with England”, only for him to then contemptuously declare a few months later, just after the Brexit vote, that “If England leaves the EU, the Scots do too…”, effectively sabotaging Nicola Sturgeon’s visit to Brussels before she was even off the plane.
In Spain, he will also be remembered for some of his ludicrous lines and malapropisms which read like an exquisite corpse.
– An exquisite corpse? You mean like the game the French surrealists used to play?
– Yes, the one in which a group of people compose a text together, with each person writing a sentence without knowing the preceding sentence, creating an overall surrealist effect. Some of Rajoy’s surrealist gems include, “a glass is a glass and a plate is a plate”. “Spain is a great country, and the Spanish are very Spanish and a great deal Spanish”, and most tellingly of all, “It is one thing to show solidarity, and quite another to do so in exchange for nothing”…
…which is one way of thinking about life…