Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Thoughts from Galicia: 9.5.17

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.
- Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain.

Life in Spain:
  • It's time for Spain's youth to start revising - or possibly learning - for the upcoming Selectividad exams, which determine at which place and on which course they'll be enjoying their tertiary education. 
  • Here in Pontevedra, the public library obliges them by being open until 3am. Yes, 3 in the morning.
  • These exams provide a mark (nota) for each candidate. This used to be out of 10 but is now -  for reasons unknown to me - out of 14.
  • The range of required notas is always a tad confusing, to me at least. The highest marks are demanded for the usual suspects - Medicine, for example - but also for some - nursing and physiotherapy - which would not be at this level elsewhere. I'm told this reflects supply and demand, rather than a requirement for academic excellence in the respective careers. But it should mean there are some very intelligent nurses and physios in Spain. Or perhaps working overseas.
  • The one mark which regularly surprises me, as an ex-lawyer, is that for a law degree. This is usually low, at around 5.0, compared with at least twice that for Medicine. My guess is that this reflects the fact that lawyers here don't have the status they do in Anglo Saxon countries. Here, the notary is far more important. Almost a demi-god, in fact. Thanks to Napoleon and his Code Civil.
Which reminds me . . . a political commentator recently pronounced that Napoleon would surely have liked to have President Rajoy as one of this generals. This was a reference to the little chap's preference for lucky generals and stems from the fact that the unimpressive Rajoy sails on because the main opposition is split between the PSOE and Podemos parties.

Talking of leaders . . . If you're reluctant to believe my theory that the two Mrs Ms are working to reverse the British Brexit decision, take a look at the 2 Prospect articles at the end of this post. Especially the second one.

Reader Maria bemoans the fact that the Galician government is looking at ways to increase tourism in our region. This reminded me that I'd read last week that, so sunny was our last winter, that someone in the Xunta wondered whether Galicia wouldn't soon be the new Canary Islands. God forfend. As Maria asks, wouldn't the Xunta be better advised to seek investment in real, job-creating industries. Instead - I'd add - of merely moaning that Lisbon is being 'unfair' in attracting these to nearby North Portugal. As Maria suggests, this seems to be too tough a task for our local politicians. Easier to take the godsent route of culture-destroying tourism. And to play the victim of Portuguese nastiness.

I thought I'd found a new Spanish word a few days ago, when reading this sentence in Morton's A Stranger in Spain: Col. Gonzalo Pizarro was guilty of what the Spanish call a 'desuedo', or negligence. But, in the end, I decided this was a mistake for descuido. Elsewhere, Morton quotes Richard Ford as saying, in the context of the treatment of Protestant dead:- Orthodox Spanish fisherman, fearing that the soles might become affected, took the bodies up in the night and cast them into the deep to feed the sharks withal. Soles or souls?? Perhaps they were spelled the same back in Ford's day.

There are all sorts of idiots in the world but can there be anyone stupid enough to pay €320 for a branded T-shirt which is designed to look like a fake? This question is prompted by this Guardian article. I'm not sure what the garment looks like. Possibly this. By the way, the answer to my question must be a depressing Yes.

Finally 1: On my way into town every morning I pass a little Spa supermarket which is selling off excess Xmas stock of turrón and marzipan stuff. Two or three times a week, I buy this box of the latter:-

I don't know what the original price was but the reduced price has moved from €1.80 to €1.00 to, now, €0.50. This probably reflects the fact that the sell-by date is this month, raising the questions:- 1. Which Xmas are they left over from - 2016 or 2015?, and 2. Are they fit to eat? After 'an experience' yesterday, I think I'll be assuming from now on that they aren't .

Finally 2: . . .  My thanks to Alfie Mittington, Sierra and Perry for advising on the Ponferrada towers.  It's depressing to know the blackish one looks even worse when seen from the nearby A6 autovia. The full name of the white one is El torre del campanario de la iglesia del Colegio Diocesano de San Ignacio. Here's a better foto of it:-

Today's cartoon:- On a topical theme . . . .



Brexiteers are heading for a sharp dose of reality: They won—but that does not mean they were right: Jay Elwes

The guesswork, the flim-flam, the nonsense, the evasion, the jingoism—all that ends today. With the handing over of a piece of paper triggering Article 50, the campaign is finally over. No longer are we drifting in a hypothetical space of promises and assertions about the nation’s future, about its bargaining power and ability to “take back control.” All of that is now gone. It’s done. There can be no more tub-thumping statements about what Britain’s future looks like. It’s too late for that now.

Reality has returned—and no matter how well-financed your campaign operation, no matter how well-honed your lines of attack or persuasive your arguments, there can be no escape from its unforgiving glare. Promises made in campaign mode and the reality of delivering them are as we know two very different things. Nationalists such as Nigel Farage have claimed excitedly that 2016 was a year of international political renewal and gives as evidence the twin victories of the Brexit campaign and Donald Trump. In recent weeks, campaign promises made by Trump on immigration and healthcare reform have suffered a headlong collision with the granite-hard foundations of political reality. Reality won. Trump’s administration is in tatters.

Those who urged Brexit on Britain are heading for a similarly sharp interaction with the real world. It will shock them terribly, all the more so because so many who made the “Leave” case did so on the basis of a grievous misunderstanding of Britain’s history and identity. At the core of their argument was the idea that Britain must break free of the shackles of external influence—that we must “take back control”—and return to a former state of liberty, of self-governance and puckish, scrubbed independence—“The UK IndependenceParty.” In this way, a vote for Brexit was nothing less than a vote to restore Britain to its rightful former glory. As Boris Johnson put it in a pre-referendum campaign speech: “If we vote ‘Leave,’ we can take back control of our borders, of huge sums of money, of our trade policy and of our whole law-making system… If we vote ‘Leave’ and take back control, this Thursday can be our country’s Independence Day!”

This nationalistic version of history ignores the fact that Britain has never been independent. The country has never stood alone. It has always sought to fix itself to a larger bloc of other countries. Before the Second World War, Britain was the capstone in a global Empire, nestling on the comfortable economic cushion provided by the output of India, the Caribbean, vast tracts of Africa and more. In the aftermath of the war, Britain withdrew from its arrangements with one set of nations and began its long process of integration with Europe. The idea of the buccaneering independent Britain is a mirage—there was never such a time. Nationalists shout about Churchill and how Britain stood alone against Nazism. But the 1930s and 1940s were an era of global catastrophe, hardly a reasonable guide to how a modern peacetime nation should see itself.

As the government sets off on this mission to return the country to a fantasy British past, we can expect a period of uneasy calm. No 10 has passed a piece of paper to the EU stating that it wants to begin the process of withdrawal. The British government will be desperate to get stuck into trade talks. The EU’s negotiators will be less hurried. The first step for them will be to arrive at an agreement between all 27 EU member states about the terms on which Brussels will negotiate with Britain. To be clear—the terms on which the EU will speak to Britain about Brexit have not yet been decided. The reason for this apparent laxity is that they are not the desperate ones.

The Prime Minister, who we should remember did not campaign to leave the EU, will then have to broker an impossible deal: one that is acceptable to both the member states of the EU and to the nationalists in her party who regard themselves as representing the will of the British people, and who demand an immediate return to a past that did not exist. If she “caves in” to the EU on immigration or any other symbolic issue, then her back benches will scream “betrayal.” If she follows the logic of the hard Brexit brigade and Britain drops out of the EU without a deal, the economic and political consequences would be catastrophic. The Conservative Party’s record of dealing with the politics of the continent is not a good one—Europe destroyed Thatcher, Major and Cameron. Now it’s May’s turn.

The politicians who campaigned for Brexit made big claims—very big claims—during the campaign about what Britain could achieve outside the EU. They won. But as they will now discover, that’s not the same as being right.

Article 50: Trigger unhappy: The letter is sent, but the die is not cast. Britain could change course—and it might.    Jolyon Maugham 

“There is no turning back,” crowed the Sun, threatened the Mail, regretted the FT, sneered the Telegraph, and parroted the Guardian. Soon after signing her Article 50 letter, Theresa May repeated the press’s line. And it is not only the media. The notion that Brexit is inevitable has taken root in the accommodative soil that substitutes for thought in the Labour Party leadership. For the Tories the diagnosis differs. Like Maori warriors with their tattooed moko, they parade a fervent attachment to the self-punishing pleasures of a “hard Brexit” to signal their high status to one another. The public too, insofar as the polls can gauge the mood, believes Brexit is now a done deal and want the government to get on with it.

Taken alone, each is a formidable obstacle to the view that Brexit can be avoided. And taken together? Do they cast its proponents as a Shetland pony optimistically breaking the starter’s tape on Grand National Day? Well, the metaphor runs this far. We do sit at the bottom of the handicap. And we’re unfancied—but only because we’re overlooked. For we have a clear path to success.

The European Council, Commission and Parliament have all said that our Article 50 notification can be withdrawn. The Commission and Parliament say withdrawal requires the remaining 27 member states to all agree; the Council that only a weighted majority vote is required. And there may be an easier legal route to the finishing line. Many leading lawyers say we can withdraw the notification without the consent of our counterparts. We could withdraw it, in other words, without stopping to ask anyone else, simply because we wanted to. We could withdraw it, to get a bit more specific, if our electorate took a long hard look at what is really on offer and decided they don’t want it after all.

If the lawyers are right, it could be that the stated opinions of Council, Commission and Parliament reflect not legal reality, but a political fear that an ability to withdraw Article 50 unilaterally would strengthen the UK’s negotiating hand. We cannot know this for sure, however. Not yet, at any rate, but this question is before the High Court in Ireland. And assuming it makes a reference to the Court of Justice—the ultimate arbiter of such matters—we will have an answer comfortably before the end of the year.

But either way—whether unilaterally or by agreement—there is room to reconsider, at least as far as the law is concerned. What that leaves, then, is a series of political questions. Could the British public come to want to remain? And if we did, could we rely on our parliament to give us that choice? To these questions the answer is “yes.” Consider the evidence to date. Yes, the polls suggest, the people prioritise restrictions on freedom of movement—but only if they don’t believe there is a cost attached. In the nine months since the referendum result there has been an enormous increase in the proportion of the population who believe Brexit will be bad for the economy. And that view is now held in every region, every age group and every income group. But the most telling evidence is not in yet: it will reflect a future that is only now beginning to unfold. We have spent nine months in an echo chamber the size of a small nation. Not long ago our political establishment was mostly wary of Brexit, but after nine months of hearing little but its own voice and that of an ugly and angry press, it has now managed to persuade itself that all will be fine. Meanwhile the electorate—much encouraged by that same press—has remained steadfast from June.

A breath of wind, however, would move support. And what winds there are. Before us lie a dozen or more problems of profound difficulty. How to bridge the gap between those who demand we pay nothing on leaving and those who price our exit at €60bn or more. How to disentangle the UK from the European Union’s membership of the World Trade Organisation. Or recast our security in the face of threats to Nato’s functioning. Think of the forewarnings from Japanese manufacturers and German banks. The steady ebb of our world-leading financial services sector. The staffing crisis in our NHS and schools. The tens of billions of extra public borrowing that the chancellor has signalled he stands ready to incur if the demands of Brexit require it. The forecasted falls in real wages consequential on higher inflation.

But take just one, which several pieces in this issue of Prospect are examine in depth. Look at our growing awareness of the effects of Brexit on the Union. Nicola Sturgeon has demanded a referendum on Scottish independence. Spain has dropped its opposition to Scotland remaining in the EU, significantly clearing the path to Sturgeon’s ambition of Scottish independence in Europe. And Theresa May is stoking the fires by refusing to discuss when such a referendum might happen. In Ireland, as Denis MacShane explains on p12, the power-sharing agreement is imperilled. Support for Sinn Féin is increasing to the point where it could top the polls, and a united Ireland is back on the political agenda. Meanwhile, no suggestion has been mooted to resolve the intractable problem of a land border between an Ireland inside and a Northern Ireland outside the single market and customs union. This may well be because, in truth, there is no solution. Even in Wales, which voted to leave, Plaid Cymru has called for Welsh independence to be considered if Scotland votes to leave. Gibraltar, which voted 96 per cent to “Remain,” already faced a deeply uncertain future in light of our government’s preference for a hard Brexit. Things now look more difficult still in light of a Spanish veto over allowing any EU-UK deal to apply to Gibraltar. For good measure, the former Tory leader and Brexiteer Michael Howard put Spain on warning, saying he was “absolutely certain” Theresa May would send in the Royal Navy, if needed.

For nine months we bounced around in our echo chamber. All would be fine. But now’s the moment that thesis is tested, in front of a jury of the electorate, and likely to destruction. You think those problems get resolved? You think the political dynamic remains the same? You think the electorate won’t care? Good luck to you. Yes, we’ve heard the arguments. Yes, there are many who will blame the EU when the wheels fall off; many politicians are banking on as much, and many newspapers will—no doubt—encourage that. But nobody among that 48 per cent who believe that membership of the EU has served the country well is going to blame Brussels. And it is condescending to the intelligence of those who voted to “Leave” to assume that all will ignore the obvious explanation. They will not.

As for Parliament, while it may currently have a substantial Brexit majority, this is far more fragile than it seems. Many who voted to notify the EU under Article 50 did so only because, despite the dreadful flaws of the campaign, they see it as a consequence required by the referendum result: we told the voters we would leave, and so we should leave. The democratic force of the result runs far. But it does not run forever. Before the result was known, 479 MPs had declared for “Remain,” three times as many as for Leave. Every major party at Westminster had a Remain majority. Sure, a few Remainers may have been Conservative careerists, striking what then seemed like the most expedient pose. But the rest? If public support for Brexit starts to dip, they will notice. They will want to notice. They will read it in their post-bags. They will see it in their polls. They will glean it in the media. They will hear it from their constituency parties. And anyone who thinks MPs will ignore these pressures, shortly before a general election, and carry on doing exactly the same thing, doesn’t know what it means to be an MP.

If Brexit becomes tarnished in the public eye, Labour MPs will find it very easy to revert to what, all along, they have believed to be the right course for the country. As will a large group of moderate Conservatives. And the Brexit ultras will be where they were before—a furious fringe. What of Theresa May, herself a Remainer a matter of months ago? When she has come under pressure she has listened. There was not to be a White Paper—and then there was a White Paper. Parliament was not to have a vote on triggering Article 50—but voted to trigger it. Think back to May’s Lancaster House speech in January. She promised that “the government will put the final deal that is agreed between the UK and the EU to a vote in both houses of parliament, before it comes into force.” But she did not spell out the all-important consequences of parliament rejecting that deal—would we crash out of the club with no protection, or would we after all remain inside? She could have been explicit, but was not. Was she deliberately preserving the space to go, again, where parliament takes her? We cannot know, but it is very possible.

It is—surely—all but inconceivable that she would ever revoke the Article 50 notification herself. But if she put the “Final Deal” to parliament, what is to stop parliament requiring that this deal be approved by the public? And there are other, more speculative, possibilities too. Of these, perhaps the most interesting springs from the requirement that any divorce deal be approved by the European Parliament. If that parliament glanced over the channel, and saw a British public in a mood for a rethink, which Westminster was too obstinate to countenance, the European Parliament might impose a condition to giving its consent. Namely, that the UK electorate has the chance to vote on this final deal.

Stand back.

In analysing how Brexit will play out, it is easy to make the mistake of assuming a static backdrop, and unchanging public opinion. Do that, and you will presume too that MPs who think Brexit will be bad for the country will fail to make their voices heard. But change your backdrop—assume instead that support for Brexit has fallen to 40 per cent—and your analysis changes as well.

Supply will rise to meet this demand: individual MPs will not wish to have delivered an unpopular Brexit. Nor will their parties. And nor will a cautious prime minister with a tiny majority, whose careful words have sometimes seemed designed to leave a way out.

All these things remain sensibly possible. There are reasonable future universes in which they come to pass. Leave the echo chamber. Listen to the great beyond. Brexit is not inevitable.


Alfred B. Mittington said...

Ah, what WOULD you do without your beloved Alfred B Mittington?

Richard Ford's Hand-Book, second volume, p. 542 indeed mentions 'soles', and I have no doubt that he meant the fish, and to make a jeu-de-mots with 'souls'. My edition - the Centaur Press reprint of the 1844 version - says nothing, however, about the fishermen feeding the dead to the sharks. Morton may have made that up, or heard elsewhere. Or a later edition of the Hand-Book may have added that little detail.

There are, by the way, many more horrid stories of the treatment doled out to Protestant dead throughout the ages, and until the 20th century. If you wish, I'll share some of them with you and your readers some day.


Colin Davies said...

Maybe but Morton quotes an entire sentence, beginning: "even this concession offended orthodox Spanish fishermen etc.. . ."

Per Morton: "Ford tells us there were only 3 Protestant cemeteries in his day, at Madrid, Málaga and Cádiz. He also says, referring to the seashore burials: 'even etc.' as above.

Eamon said...

The San Amaro cemetery here In A Coruña, officially opened in 1812, is made up of three sections, civil, religious and British. The British one is kept locked and one needs to get the key. From what I remember there is a notice on the gate giving details.

Alfred B. Mittington said...

First of all allow e to correct a typo: the page in Hand-book, vol ii, is not 542 but 532.

And the full quote goes: 'Visit by all means the Protestant burial ground [at Malaga], not because it is a pleasant "traveller's bourne", but because it was the first permitted in our times for the repose of heretical carcasses, which used to be buried in the sea sands like dead dogs, and beyond the low water-mark; and even this concession offended orthodox fishermen, who feared that the soles might become infected; but the Malagueño even to the priest never exhibited any repugnance to the dollars of the living Lutheran Briton, for el dinero es muy catolico.'

The latter part of the sentence is of course so twisted that Ford may well have re-written it for later editions, as was his habit.


Colin Davies said...

The pun only works when the fishermen walked on the ground where the corpses where. Not in the putatively revised sentence ciged by Morton. Where it falls flat Geddit?

Soles. Flat feet . . . .

Colin Davies said...


Colin Davies said...

Actually, it does work as the bodies were first buried . . .

Patrick Glenn said...

Another important author just passed, Hugh Thomas. He is known for THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR which was banned in Spain. I have A TRAVELLERS COMPANION TO MADRID, which he edited and wrote an introduction. I think he was an important author writing about Spain like Ford and my personal favorite ALISTAIR BOYD.

Colin Davies said...

Thanks, Patrick. I have his books and will mention him tomorrow. Not familiar with Boyd do will now follow up that recommendation. Thanks again.

Perry said...

Apologies for this, but your marzipan bonbons triggered ructions. What a brujaja (brou·ha·ha).

-------------------I'll get my coat.

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