Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 30.4.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 
                  Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain
  • All roads lead to Catalonia for the country’s new leader, says the Times. See its leader below.
  • My thanks to readers Sierra and María for helping me understand that the 12 lists I saw in Madrid were not national but local. And the 37-40 names were for the seats allocated to the capital city. With back-ups in the case of 40 names. Naturally, I guess, the lists included all the party leaders. Which confused me a bit. Inter alia.
  • In the press supplement I mentioned the other day, there's an opening spiel about Pontevedra city. Thanks to its not-so-hot summers and not-so-cold winters - it's claimed -  it's known as California. News to me.
  • Also hard to believe is the statement there's free parking within 5 minutes of the city centre. True, there are free parking areas on the other side of the river in Lérez. But you'd be astonishingly lucky, arriving as a tourist, to find a space there. The residents know all about them.
  • The supplement lists all the fiestas taking place in Galicia during April, viz:-
Total: 44.  Comprising:-
- Of touristic interest: 11
- Gastronomic: 18
- Religion: 5
- 'Others': 10
And that's before the weather gets warm . . .

The UK and Brexit
  • It's rumoured Mrs May and Mr Corbyn are close to an agreement on what to take back to Brussels. We'll see.
  • Meanwhile . . . The idea that Labour needs to secure the support of Leave voters in order to win or hold Leave seats is “one of the most damaging zombie beliefs” in politics. The truth is the Labour leader and his advisers are instinctive Eurosceptics who see the European Union as a neo-liberal capitalist enterprise. They have no interest in party democracy when it might produce what they see as the wrong result. Hence the fence-sitting, ambiguity and downright lies of the last 2-3 years.
  • Fart is using the law - normally something he ignores - to prevent details of his financial dealings becoming public. In a joint statement, the Chairs of the House Financial Services and the House Intelligence c committee said Fart's lawsuit was "meritless, not designed to succeed but only to put off meaningful accountability as long as possible." And they added: "As a private businessman, Trump routinely used his well-known litigiousness and the threat of lawsuits to intimidate others, but he will find that Congress will not be deterred from carrying out its constitutional responsibilities". What fun.
The Way of the World/Social Media
  • Headline: Con artist Sorokin was made by social media. A Russian woman who posed as a Manhattan socialite fooled thousands because she looked the part on Instagram.
  • Text: 
o Anna Sorokin, otherwise known as Anna Delvey, was a prolific con artist on the New York social scene. Last week she was convicted of theft of services and grand larceny, having run a series of scams while pretending to be a multimillionaire German heiress. 
o Actually she was born in Russia, and her dad was a trucker.
o For a while, according to one profile, she had a boyfriend, a semi-famous futurist who gave TED talks. How do you spot bullshit when there is so much of it around?

  • A follow-up to yesterday's note:-
  1. Poult - A young domestic chicken, turkey, pheasant, or other fowl being raised for food.
  2. Docken  - Chiefly Scottish : Something of small value I don't care a docken. But reader Perry has suggested it's another version of `docked', as in canine tails and ears.
Finally . . .
  • Anyone who wants a free copy of my Guide to Pontevedra City For Pilgrims can now request it - in whatever text form - at doncolin@gmail.com.  I wasn't exactly overwhelmed last time I made an offer, so am not expectant. Offer expires as soon as I publish it on the net at a ridiculously low price.

The Times view on Pedro Sánchez: Splintering Spain

All roads lead to Catalonia for the country’s new leader

Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s prime minister and socialist leader, has emerged from the country’s elections as a winner but he will still struggle to govern. The deep political fissures over the future of Catalonia have polarised the electorate, splintered parties and helped to propel a new radical nationalist party into a hung parliament. Unless Mr Sánchez can find a way to defuse the Catalan separatist movement, Spain will remain politically volatile for years to come. Across Europe countries are facing extraordinary challenges in holding the centre ground but few face such an existential crisis.

Mr Sánchez, who has been prime minister for barely a year, won a chunky 29 per cent of the vote and 123 seats. To form a government, however, the socialists must secure 176 seats in the 350-seat congress of deputies in the Cortes. Finding a coalition has never been more complex. The two most dynamic groupings in the election were the Citizens Party, which won 57 seats, and the populists of Vox who won 24 seats, entering parliament for the first time. Both fundamentally disagree with Mr Sánchez’s policy of dialogue and limited co-operation with Catalonia. The Citizens Party, which on paper seems like a potential centrist coalition partner, has tacked to the right and has ambitions to be Spain’s prime conservative voice, displacing the badly damaged People’s Party. It has little to gain and much to lose in joining Mr Sánchez in government.

Vox, meanwhile, has demonstrated that Spain is no longer an exception in the European Union. Despite the unhappy memories of the Franco dictatorship, it too now has a country-wide ultra-nationalist party. The party is provocative but works within democratic norms. While it opposes illegal immigration it feeds chiefly on resentment at attempts by Catalonia, one of the wealthiest regions of Spain, to break away from the central state. Its true strength may reveal itself in European elections next month, when populist groupings across the continent are hoping for a loud rejection of the EU establishment.

For the time being, the problem posed by Vox to Mr Sánchez is that of political arithmetic. The arrival in parliament of another obstructive force severely reduces the possibilities of forming a governing alliance. If rejected by Citizens, he may turn to the left-wing Podemos and a Basque party for backing. Yet even this would fall short of a majority. Spain has had minority governments before, indeed Mr Sánchez has led one; but the intractable Catalan issue — the threat that Spain could be torn apart — demands strong leadership and a robust consensus. The country’s economy is surprisingly resilient but markets and Spain’s partners need to be reassured by more than sound economic management.

Mr Sánchez should strike a firmer tone on Catalonia. On taking office a year ago he promised to “re-establish normality”. Yet the more that is offered to the Catalans, the more is demanded by the radical separatists. Catalonia generates 20 per cent of Spain’s GDP and its politicians want to hang on to tax revenue. To many Spaniards outside the region that seems unreasonable. It burdens a nation which still has pockets of serious poverty. Mr Sánchez has little choice but to find a coalition that transcends left and right and that holds to the constitutional ban on regional self- determination. His duty is to keep this vital but frustrated democratic state together.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Thoughts from Madrid, Spain: 29.4.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 
                  Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain
  • Well, perhaps the only surprise among the election results is that Vox didn't really get 'at least 10%' of the vote, coming in at 10.3. Though I guess one could argue that the collapse of the PP party's support was even greater than predicted. Here's The Local on why.
  • As for Vox, here's an interesting insight into their early funding. Can't say I understand it.
  • Overall, says El País here, Spain is no longer different. Google's translation below.
  • Talking of being surprised . . . I really shouldn't be when a group of 3 or 4 young women - in a different room of the bar/café - make so much noise I can't hear myself think. In this regard at least, Spain remains different.
  • BTW . . . Not having the vote despite paying taxes, in 18 years I hadn't had the occasion to go into a polling station until yesterday, when I came face-to-face with the Continental 'list' system, under which you vote not for an individual but for a party. At least in national elections. Yesterday, there were 12 parties to choose from in Madrid - including 2 communist parties and the The Party for a More Just World - and each of these had a list of 30-40 candidates, none of whom you actually vote for. As I understand it, this list is the same in every polling station around the country and the total votes cast nationally for each party then determine how many of the 30-40 get seats in parliament, going from the top down. But maybe I've got this wrong. If I haven't, someone needs to explain to me why the PSOE list, for example, only had 40 names on it, when they now have far more seats in parliament than that. Do they just not bother to include the also-rans on their list
  • As you'd expect from the Great Hypocrite: Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric — like virtually every position he takes — applies only to others, not himself. Buzzfeed News got government reports on special visas requested by Mar-a-Lago on the grounds that they couldn’t find anyone here to take those jobs. In fact, they rejected dozens of applicants and only hired a single American worker.  . . . this is par for the course for Trump, who rails against immigrants taking our jobs but then imports workers for jobs virtually anyone could do. Just like he rails against American companies making their products overseas while his own companies have virtually everything manufactured in other countries.
  • Yesterday, I listened - for a short while - to Vice-President Pence telling the NRA that 'socialism' had caused the death of millions and was a system which denied liberty to its citizens. Can the vice-president of the USA really be someone who, firstly, confuses socialism with both 'National Socialism' and communism and, secondly, is unaware that all European states are, to one degree or another, socialist? Or is he just an unscrupulous liar?
The Way of the World
  • It's been pointed out that the label 'populist' is only applied to far right parties. And that, if you take it to mean something like 'telling people what they want to hear', then it can equally be applied to far-left parties. But isn't. Seems a fair comment to me. Some of the Left really is loonily populist.
  • Word of the Day: Guiri.
  • I'm reading a 19th century (not very) comic novel in which I am stumbling across dozens of words unknown to me. I'll produce a short list of the best in due course. For now, how about a poult of a chap and his docken ears?
Finally . . .

Spain is not different: Eva Anduiza, professor of Political Science at the UAB.

The fragmentation and polarization of politics is affecting all democracies and in the face of the challenges it poses, it is necessary for citizens to be able to react and assume responsibilities

In a few years Spanish politics has changed radically. But in almost nothing Spain is different. Sunday's elections reflect some of the elements present in other countries around us. Fragmentation, asymmetric and affective polarization amplified by social networks, and threats to liberal democracy are some of these aspects that we can recognize in Spain as well as in other very different contexts.

Fragmentation reflects the degree of diversity of a society. It is also a product of the electoral system that is applied, which can help simplify the parliamentary representation of social heterogeneity. Throughout Europe, fragmentation has grown as a result of the emergence of new lines of conflict, and in the case of Spain especially because of the difficulty of the old parties to manage the economic crisis. From a system articulated around two major state-level parties, we have passed in 2015 to four, which will most likely become five starting on Sunday. On the one hand, the existence of many parties implies a broader and more varied menu of political options, which a priori is good in democratic terms, although it is not clear that this is especially attractive to voters. An excess of supply can generate l'embarras du choix and make it difficult to decide who to vote for. On the other hand, fragmentation hinders the appearance of single-colored parliamentary majorities and makes agreements between parties necessary to form a government. This, which is very common at regional and local levels, will be a novelty in the Government of Spain, which, should it occur, will bring us closer to the norm in Europe. The right faces for the first time this scenario of high fragmentation.

The consequences that this may have are still to be seen, which will surely be qualified by their clear predisposition to reach agreements, as shown by the recent government formation in Andalusia.
Along with fragmentation, polarization seems to be another feature of contemporary party systems. The parties, be they many or few, may be more or less distanced from each other and the variation in levels of polarization between countries is enormous. The feeling is that the ideological distance between parties has increased in recent decades, partly because of the irruption of these new challenging parties, and partly also because of the displacement of some traditional parties.

This can be paradoxical if we consider that the capacity of the governments to carry out the electoral programs with which they win the elections is encountering more and more difficulties. National sovereignty pales in the face of the control that financial markets can exert on the economy of a country, whose functioning no one seems to understand or be able to explain. The anger and mistrust in the institutions have become more acute and there is no lack of reasons. This limitation is more evident for policies traditionally considered to be left-wing, constrained in the EU by deficit ceilings and public debt. It is above all the right, unleashed in some countries, that moves towards increasingly harsh positions, generating a situation of asymmetric polarization.

With increasing frequency some parties deploy negative campaign strategies in which the main axis is not the proposal but the virulent criticism to the adversary. Although the consequences of these strategies are the object of academic discussion, it is possible to intuit how, in the heat of negative campaigns, polarization transcends ideological discussion and becomes especially emotional. The phenomenon is amplified by social networks through two mechanisms. On the one hand, networks are fed by negative emotions such as anger and anger, which are the mobilizing emotions that negative campaigns aim to generate. Messages with a negative emotional charge become more viral and are more influential than neutral messages or with positive emotions. In the operating logic of social networks there are incentives to use negative emotions directed at a guilty party. From here it is easy to move to the extension of negative feelings toward sympathizers of other parties (or members of other groups), that is, towards a greater affective polarization. On the other hand, there is experimental evidence that shows how exposure to superficial information that circulates in social networks generates excessive confidence in the degree and quality of one's knowledge. The networks teach us useful things about politics, but it seems that above all they make us believe that we know. This overestimation of our own political competence fosters arrogance and erodes the intellectual humility necessary to ensure tolerance and respect for those who have a different worldview.

Affective polarization leads to reject the legitimacy of the other within the system

Taken to its maximum expression, the affective polarization leads to reject the legitimacy of the other within the system. And from here we jump to the third element that we see in Spain as in other countries: the difficulty of democracies to manage situations in which the same democratic game is questioned. It is a commonplace to say that in a democracy the disagreement about political objectives must be compatible with the agreement regarding forms, procedures and some basic principles. In liberal democracy these procedures are the vote, but also the freedom of information, expression and protest, recognition of the legitimacy of the adversary, the possibility of reaching agreements with those who do not share the same political project, and respect for the rights of minorities. To deny these principles or to try to limit them is against the essence of liberal democracy.

Like polarization, these attacks are not exactly symmetrical either, and they are in different modalities. They come from those who take the part for the whole and consider their vision to be the only legitimate and acceptable one for the country and for democracy. They come especially from those who incite hatred, fear and contempt for others. And, unfortunately, they also originate when the plurality and the peaceful expression of the discrepancy are over-reactive and limited from the institutions.

On these threats it is difficult to count on a militant democracy to protect us, because then we would have an even more reduced democracy. Limiting freedom of expression is sliding down a slope that we do not know where it ends. The moral arguments that we can develop here about the virtues of democracy are necessary, but surely also insufficient. The exit, if it exists, possibly happens because each of us assume the part that corresponds to us when it comes to contain the damage in shared spaces for discussion, however difficult and hostile they may be. We need journalists and responsible politicians, who know how to limit the unacceptable and do not contribute to further eroding the rules of the game by getting clicks or votes. We need teachers and parents to convey the value of living in a democratic system that, despite being limited and vulnerable, against other alternatives is still the best we have at the moment. And we also need a citizenry capable of reacting to danger and taking responsibility in different situations ranging from WhatsApp chats to voting. The environment, unfortunately, is not particularly favorable, but precisely for that reason, it is more necessary.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Thoughts from Madrid, Spain: 28.4.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 
                  Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain
  • Ahead of today's general election, The Local excels with this, this and this.
  • And it also has some less portentous comment/advice for those new to Spain. Or those who've been a while and wonder why they don't have any friends.
  • Spain is once again/still the worst country in the EU for the percentage of young people (18-24) who don't have either the bachilerato or some form of professional training. The number is 18% and compares with Croatia at the other end of the list with 3%. In between are Italy 15%, the UK 11%, Germany 10%, France 9%, the Netherlands 7%, Ireland and Greece 5%, and Switzerland 4%
  • The question arises: If a lot of your most talented/educated young people leave for work in other countries and many of the rest are not well qualified for anything, what does this portend for the future of your country?
  • Meanwhile, we know that - despite enviable top-line economic growth - unemployment remains the second highest in the EU. Though, thanks to the 'submerged economy', almost certainly not as bad as the official numbers of 15% overall and 34% for youth would suggest.
  • Were these issues discussed during the election campaign? Not much it seems. If at all.
The UK
  • The Jaguar iPace SUV has won 3 prestigious prizes: Car of the Year; Ecological Car of the Year; and Best Design of the year. Impressive. But I can't recall whether the marque is owned these days by a Germans or an Indian company, I think the latter. Yes, it's Tata.
  • The essence of Britishness???

  • In case you weren't aware of this, Fart is young and virile, to be contrasted with the state of his latest (and even older) Democratic rival, 'Sleepy' Joe Biden. So, can we give up on the hope of a sudden and fatal heart attack? I suspect not.
  • An even newer (transitive) verb: 'To #MeToo' someone. With luck, it might stay in the USA.
Finally . . .
  • Is it any coincidence that the leader of the 'far right' Vox party, in the videos of him strutting his stuff, favours the chin-forward-face-tilted-upwards pose of the Spanish Legionnaires?
  • And is it any coincidence that all the leaders of Spain's 5 major parties are young, male, handsome (well 4 out of 5) and very televisual?

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 27.4.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 
                  Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain
  • Apparently, no one will be surprised if the result of Sunday's general election is a big surprise. The reason is that no one can predict the impact of Vox, the new and 'far right' party. This is expected to gain at least 10% of the seats but this might not prevent a left-of-centre coalition forming the next administration. This is because - unlike similar 'populist' parties around the world - Vox is not gaining much support among working class voters. Essentially, it's cannibalising the right-wing - that of the middle and upper class voters, especially (macho?) males. As someone has written: It looks to be a symptom of further fragmentation rather than a radical shift in the centre of gravity.
  • As we await the election result, here's some of the insults traded by the leaders of the 5 parties this last week, demonstrating how 'robust' Spanish politics can be:-
Traidor - traitor
Felón- felon, criminal
Mentiroso compulsivo - complusive liar
Ridículo - ridiculous
Adalid de la ruptura en España - champion of the break up of Spain.
Incapaz - useless
Desleal - disloyal
Ególatra - egotistical
Chovinista del poder - power hungry chauvenist
Rehén - hostage
Okupa - squatter (often used against Sanchez for his role as PM without being elected as such)
Fascista - fascist
Fminazi - extreme feminist
Chaquetero - turncoat
  • But did the party leaders get to grips with national and international issues in their TV debates? Matthew Bennett thinks not. . . . The two election debates on TV were little more than overlapping recitals of 4 parties' election manifestos, with a few digs at opposing parties, some props and graphs and - this being Spain - lots of talking loudly over the top of each other. More from MB here.
  • A salutary tale about sites offering villas in Spain.
  • A month ago I talked about Madrid's 'quaint' metro station names. Yesterday, I decided to research street names. This was because I was walking along a street called The Virgin of the Dangers.
  • I think I mentioned my failure last week to persuade all fellow 'pilgrims' to take a riverside diversion of the camino just before entering Pontevedra. Predictably, the owners of the bars along the original stretch are up in arms about the loss of business this causes them. What taxes does the river pay?, they ask. As if that were truly relevant.
The UK
  • Where the Netherland leads, the UK belatedly follows. 2018 was a record year for cycle lane usage in the UK, thanks to the construction of new, high-quality cycle tracks, the growing popularity of existing routes and good networks that feed into those routes.
  • On the incompetence of Fart and his crew, see the article below. Which rather endorses the one I posted yesterday on this.
The Way of the World/Social Media/Nutters Corner
  • I think it's true to say that, when I was younger, society's influencers were the elite. And then 'elite' became a dirty word. And now the 'influencers' are cretins on the internet. So the 'Age of the Elites' has given way to the 'Age of the Dregs with a Bullhorn'. As someone has put it:- Social media has given us all a voice. But it has also generated a profound and alarming misconception that all voices have equal authority. They do not. 
  • Another apposite comment this morning: We live in an age of intransigence. “Blessed are the peace-makers” has been replaced with “bloodyminded are the base-pleasers”. Political leaders no longer pride themselves on brokering deals with opponents but on applause from loyal followers. To move an inch is to blink first; compromise is collaboration; to change your mind is capitulation, betrayal, failure.
  • Is this a perfect case study in the art of character assassination via the internet? The gravamen of the charge: There is now an established pattern. Once an ostensibly reputable source spins a line, the Twittersphere finds its latest object of outrage. As soon as prominent people join the mob (celebrities, activists), the campaign against the individual intensifies. Weak politicians who want to be seen to be reacting fast try not to get caught behind developments. As Henry Kissinger said recently: ‘Information threatens to overwhelm wisdom.’ 
But how to stop this?? Anyone got any idea?

  • A new verb: To Meghan Markle - A newly current phrase for the act of dumping an old friend or relative without ceremony as one moves up the social ladder. As in, “we were best friends but then she just Meghan Markled me overnight”.
Finally . . .
  • This isn't a bridal wear shop. Or even a place to buy bridesmaids outfits. It's the Holy Communion section of El Corte Inglés. An event on which Spaniards - very possibly in decreasing numbers - cam spend thousands of euros per child.


A more competent US President would never have blundered into this mess: Juliet Mills, Daily Telegraph.

US presidents can be rather domineering personalities. Still, even by these standards, it’s unusual for a president to go around carrying a metaphorical “shock collar” in his pocket in order to control his Attorney General. Yet that is how Donald Trump’s closest advisers interpreted his behaviour in May 2017, when he set off on his first foreign trip, to the Middle East, with an unpublished resignation letter from Attorney General Jeff Sessions in his pocket.

It was only the fifth month of his presidency but already an independent special counsel had been convened to investigate the Trump campaign’s alleged collaboration with Russia. To Mr Trump’s displeasure, Mr Sessions had recused himself from the investigation, so the president had demanded his resignation – and then refused it. Keeping hold of Mr Session’s letter, his aides believed, enabled him to deliver a zap to Mr Sessions whenever he wanted to bring him to heel. After nearly two weeks spent flaunting the note to senior advisers, the president returned it to Mr Sessions with a scrawled “not accepted” on the top.

This is just one of the details contained in Robert Mueller’s jumbo 450-page report, published in Washington this week. And as with so many conspiracies, the most damning revelations don’t actually stem from the primary investigation, but from the way the key characters responded to it. “It’s not the crime. It’s the cover-up”, as the Watergate saying goes.

Mr Mueller has indicted 37 people – but Mr Trump is not one of them. Indicting a president, the lawyer decided, is beyond his authority. A US president has a mandate direct from the people, so only Congress can impeach. Since the  House is unlikely to do so, especially given that the report falls short of recommending any prosecution, we now know the “impeach him!” brigade have spent three years barking up the wrong tree. The proper way to judge a directly elected president is, of course, in an election. And if American voters care to engage with it, the Mueller report provides plenty of evidence that Mr Trump is utterly unfit to govern.

The president’s main saving grace is that his efforts to wriggle out of scrutiny are more comical than Machiavellian. The evidence paints a picture of a hysterical delinquent raging haphazardly at each development in the investigation, veering between panic and complacency. It documents him repeatedly ordering his aides to take actions they found horribly compromising and the creative ways they found of disobeying him. It was this disobedience that seems to have protected the president from suffering more serious consequences.

A few instances stand out. In June 2017, despite refusing to accept Mr Sessions’ resignation, Mr Trump still harboured resentment against his Attorney General for failing to “protect” him. So he ordered an aide to deliver a message: Mr Sessions would be fired unless he made a speech declaring that Mueller’s investigation was “very unfair”, that it would be narrowed only to examine future meddling, and that Mr Trump “ran the greatest campaign in American history” with “no Russians involved”.

The aide charged with this unappetising mission carefully noted down his brief… and then passed it off to an underling. This second aide recalled to Mr Mueller the request made him “uncomfortable”, so he told his boss it had been “handled” and did nothing. Stonewalled by his own advisers, Mr Trump resorted to criticising Mr Sessions in press interviews and on Twitter, to the point where the attorney began carrying around a ready-to-go resignation letter in his breast pocket. If you must wear a shock collar, after all, best to carry the trigger yourself.

Around the same time, Mr Trump tried another avenue to rid himself of the turbulent Mr Mueller. He told White House counsel Don McGahn to remove him. But Mr McGahn decided he didn’t fancy carrying out the order. He could see quite clearly, he told the investigation, that its likely effect would be a modern-day “Saturday night massacre” – the tipping-point moment when Richard Nixon’s Attorney General and his deputy both quit rather than fire a special counsel. Mr Trump, seemingly forgetting about his command, didn’t follow up. But when reports of the incident emerged months later, he repeatedly suggested that Mr McGahn issue a public denial. Instead, the lawyer, just like Mr Sessions, decided he would quit if push came to shove.

Up until they leave, his advisers prevaricate, persuade, put off and evade carrying out the president’s most absurd requests. The demands, often directly counterproductive to his cause and driven by pique, come and go as and when Mr Trump remembers them. So his aides manage him, as one might manage a difficult teenager, with a careful curl of contempt on their lips, right up until the moment they have to decide whether to lie for him or get the hell out.

Still, however stark it is to see the facts laid out in official legal form, they ultimately line up with most of what we already knew about Mr Trump. What makes him unfit for office is not so much that he’s petty, malicious and bullying. God knows, those aren’t uncommon traits amongst powerful politicians. What’s unusual about Mr Trump is how inept are his efforts to conceal facts and control people.

For one thing, Mr Mueller states plainly that the absence or loss of material by various players in the Russia probe means there simply isn’t enough evidence to conclude that the president entered into a conspiracy with Moscow. Despite 2,800 subpoenas, 500 search warrants and interviewing 500 witnesses, the threshold wasn’t met, and those being indicted were mainly caught out for lying. If the president had simply sat tight throughout the whole investigation, rather than repeatedly meddling, tweeting and trying to fire people, he would come out of it all looking rather good.

As it is, Mr Trump is looking decidedly less vindicated than when his new Attorney General misleadingly declared, a month ago, that the investigation couldn’t identify any “obstructive conduct” by the president. This is probably why he’s back to his old tricks, condemning it all on Twitter as an “Illegally Started Hoax that should never have happened”. Mr Trump might not have committed any crime, but when it comes to their president, voters ought to demand a higher standard than 
 that – in managerial competence if nothing else.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Thoughts from Galicia, Span: 26.4.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 
                  Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain
  • If you still subscribe to the self-congratulatory myth that Spain is exceptional in not having a far-right party, read the first 2 articles below on the Vox earthquake of the last year.
  • But if you just want to know the 5 most important things about Sunday's elections, click here.
  • An key demographic change of recent times . . . Nearly 65% of Spanish women under 30 consider themselves feminists today – double the number of 5 years ago. In recent months, politicians have seemed increasingly desperate to win over female voters, presenting the occasionally comic spectacle of male politicians fighting over who is the best feminist. 
  • It's that time of the year again.
  • I was travelling to Madrid yesterday morning, so I couldn't do justice to (i. e, fully plunder from) Lenox Napier's Business over Tapas bulletin. I can now say I'd indebted to him for these 3 items, of which I was only aware of the first:-
  1. The Galician Xunta  has placed limits on numbers sailing to the Atlantic islands of Ons, Cies, Salvora and Cortegada. A group of ship owners and hoteliers has, naturally, claimed that the plans are ‘unjustified’.
  2. The denizens of Vigo refer to their fellow Galician citizens of La Coruña as 'Turks'. Click here for the theories behind this, if you read Spanish.
  3. 10 walled towns around Spain. I can heartily recommend the first, Niebla.
  • Fart's main crime, asserts a Times writer, is neither collusion nor obstruction of justice but incompetence. See the 3rd article below
The Way of the World
  • According to the consumer magazine Which?: Amazon is not doing enough to stop shoppers being misled by a “flood of fake and suspicious” reviews. The magazine points out that the percentage of unverified adulatory reviews has risen from 6% of the total last year to nearly 33% this year. And it suggests that a rating of 4.95 is always to be taken with a kilo of salt. Who'd have suspected it?
Social Media
  • Facebook has taken down several networks that were spreading far-right content to nearly 1.7 million people in Spain, days before national elections that are expected to see a surge in support for the far-right Vox party. The networks were uncovered in an investigation by the campaign group Avaaz, and taken down only after it presented Facebook with its findings. More here.
  • Word of the Day: Jolín. Polite for Joder (Fuck). A (very) common exclamation, which I suspect will be my half-Spanish grandson's first word.
  • Revising the Google translation of a friend's article on Galician wines, I came across a number of words unknown to me, such as horst and sapid. The former is 'a raised elongated block of the earth's crust lying between two faults' and the latter means 'having a strong, pleasant taste. And there you were thinking there was no antonym to 'insipid'. As with 'uncouth'.
Finally . . .
  • Four days ago, ahead of the major international athletics event in Pontevedra, I wrote to 3 UK organisations offering a free copy of my imminent Guide to Pontevedra to all participants. Answer came there none. 

1. Vox is transforming Spain’s conservative political landscape: Financial Times

Surging support for the ultranationalist party has polarised the election campaign

Spaniards will cast their votes on Sunday in the most highly charged general election in four decades: but by one measure there is already a winner. Vox, the ultranationalist party that burst on to the national scene late last year, has transformed Spain’s political terms of trade. The country’s Francoist past was supposed to have inoculated it against the far-right that has spread across much of Europe. But Vox has proved that to be an illusion.

Barely six months ago Pablo Casado, the leader of the centre-right People’s party, scoffed at the idea that Vox posed an electoral threat. It did not have a single local councillor anywhere in Spain, he said in an interview with the Financial Times. At the last general election in 2016, it won a mere 0.2 per cent of the vote and not one seat. But Vox, led by Santiago Abascal, a former PP councillor, is now a whirlwind barrelling through the conservative political landscape. It is polling at about 11 per cent and could win about 30 seats in Spain’s 350-seat parliament. The storm has whipped up so quickly that surveys may be underestimating Vox’s support.

Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez argued last week that “Spain has always had a far-right, either inside the People’s party, or outside. Now the far-right has a party of its own.”

Under the tight control of former conservative prime minister José Maria Aznar, the PP held together as a broad church, encompassing social and economic liberals, Christian Democrats and those nostalgic for traditional Catholic values and a unitary state, if not the autocracy of Francisco Franco.

But with the party tainted by corruption and riven by a Spanish nationalist backlash against Catalonia’s illegal independence referendum in 2017, its support splintered under the stodgy, uninspiring leadership of Mariano Rajoy.

First, many of its voters deserted to Ciudadanos, a liberal, free market party fiercely opposed to Catalan nationalism. Now there is Vox.

Squeezed on both flanks, the PP is heading for its worst ever result and could lose up to half its seats. Mr Casado has tried to shore up support by attacking Mr Sánchez in ever more shrill terms, describing him as a “compulsive liar” and the “worst felon Spain has ever seen” supposedly for his willingness to accommodate Catalan secessionist demands.

Arguably, Vox has had a bigger impact on Ciudadanos, which barely a year ago hoped it could eclipse the PP as the biggest party to the right of the socialists. Wrongfooted by these snap elections, Ciudadanos was faced with an exodus of support to Vox. To staunch the losses, the Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera ruled out a coalition with Mr Sánchez and aligned it with the two other parties to his right.

Catalonia’s illegal secession bid “completely changed the structure of our voting base”, says Toni Roldán, a Ciudadanos MP. “Loads of people came to us from the right wanting revenge but when Vox came along they left.” Polling analysis for Ciudadanos identified 10 times as many potential voters to its right as to its left, Mr Roldán adds.

The surge of support for Vox has polarised Spanish politics into irreconcilable hard left and right blocs, adding to instability in what is now a five-party system. With Ciudadanos vetoing a coalition with the Socialists, Mr Sanchez will probably seek parliamentary support from Catalonia’s independentistas as well as the far-left. If the three rightwing parties secure enough support to form their own government, which seems less likely, then Spain’s system of regional devolution could be under threat.

By the standards of extremist parties elsewhere in Europe, Vox might seem moderate. It does not seem vehemently Eurosceptic or stridently anti-immigrant like Italy’s League or France’s Rassemblement National. It is probably best described as reactionary-populist. Veneration of the Spanish nation and its customs are its hallmark. But what it stands for matters less than its impact on the mainstream parties. Judging by this campaign, the impact has been profound.

2. Rise of the right: how the Vox populists have transformed Spain’s political landscape: Graham Keeley

Santiago Abascal’s fledgling party is on course for an election upset on Sunday 

Alberto Asarta, while commander of the UN peacekeeping force, had a tour of duty in Lebanon and fought in Iraq, but he may soon face action in a different theatre of battle: on the floor of the Spanish parliament as an MP for Vox.

The most prominent far-right party since the end of Franco’s dictatorship in 1975, Vox is expected to win up to 30 seats in parliament in this Sunday’s general election.

General Asarta, 68, is among a colourful crop of retired military men, bullfighters and middle-class professionals running for a party poised to deliver the latest populist shock to Europe’s political establishment.

Polls suggest that the Socialists will win the largest share of the vote but it is a close race, and should voters back other parties on the right, Vox could yet play the kingmaker in a new conservative coalition.

Whatever the outcome, the party’s breakthrough on a wave of Spanish nationalism has changed the political landscape in Spain, dragging the mainstream conservative Popular Party (PP) and centrist Citizens to the right.

Vox was born out of frustration with the PP. Santiago Abascal, 43, its pistol-carrying leader, was unhappy at the leadership of the former conservative prime minister Mariano Rajoy and blamed him for failing to act decisively enough to stop the rise of separatism in Catalonia. Inspired by President Trump, Mr Abascal attributes Vox’s success to the frustration among voters with established parties such as Citizens and even the far-left Podemos.

Some voters believe it is giving a voice to ideas previously ignored or suppressed. Enrique Brieda, 34, a consultant from Seville, said he backed Vox because it “dared to say the things which other parties do not”. That includes its proposal to deport illegal migrants and to build a wall between Spain’s North African territories and Morocco. It supports rural pursuits and traditions such as bullfighting and hunting, combats “feminazis” who, it claims, use gender laws to discriminate against men, and wants to reform the European Union.

The party was formed in 2014 and stood that year in European elections but failed to win a seat. It languished in the wilderness until last year when a failed independence declaration in Catalonia in 2017 and the arrival of tens of thousands of migrants across the Mediterranean helped it to find its voice.

The party took a tough line against separatism, launching a private prosecution against 12 Catalan politicians, now on trial for their alleged roles in staging the referendum. At the same time, nearly 60,000 migrants arrived in Spain last year, almost half of all those who tried to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, most along the beaches of Andalusia. In December, Vox shocked the political establishment by winning 12 seats in regional elections in the southern province, ending the Socialists’ 40-year hold on power in the region, and allowed the PP to form a coalition with Citizens with the help of the ultra-conservative party.

Vox claims that its membership rose from 3,000 to 30,000 last year, but it nearly failed to stand in Andalusia because money was so tight. “We did not have the money or resources to cover the campaign. We did not know if it was worth it. But then we rented small mini-buses and drove round. It was like being on tour,” said Rocio Monasterio, 45, an architect and mother-of-four who is the leader of Vox in Madrid.

The same tactic is now being employed in the general election, with Vox candidates travelling in vans to stump for the elections. Otherwise Vox has fought its campaign outside the mainstream media, which it claims “distorts” everything its leaders say. Mr Abascal appeared in a video riding a horse and advocating “the reconquest of Spain”, a reference to the long wars waged against Moorish rulers of Iberia which ended with the victory of Christian monarchs in 1492.

The party leaders only do live television or radio interviews, which can’t be edited, and use social media to get their message across. Vox was barred from two television election debates this week because Spanish election law says that as it does not have any seats in parliament it was not entitled to take part. This played into Vox’s claims of bias against it.

It claims to command a “hidden” vote, with one in four Spaniards yet to make up their minds who they will vote for on Sunday.

Its critics accuse it of stoking racism and anti-Muslims rhetoric. Prosecutors are investigating if Javier Ortega-Smith, 50, its secretary-general, incited hatred when he told a meeting that the party would fight “the Islamist invasion”. Spain’s population of 47 million is less than 4 per cent Muslim, although public perception of the proportion is several times higher than the reality, surveys have show. The party says it actually welcomes legal, orderly migration; Mr Ortega-Smith and Ms Monasterio are descended from Argentinian and Cuban migrants.

With conservative parties veering to the right, this election has been the most divisive for years, with the Socialists trying to position themselves in the centre between the right, and Podemos on the far left. Some mainstream conservatives believe they could yet do a deal with Vox to form a right-wing administration if its wilder radicalism can be tamed. “We would have to calm the inflamed populist side of Vox if we wanted to share power with them,” said Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo, 44, an Oxford-educated marquess who is standing for the PP in Barcelona.

2. Team Trump’s main crime is incompetence: Gerard Baker, the Times

A thorough reading of Mueller’s report reveals plenty to embarrass the administration but nothing that could destroy it

If you thought the results of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Donald Trump’s campaign and Russian meddling in the 2016 US election were going to settle conclusively the issue of the president’s guilt or innocence then you haven’t been following American politics for the past few decades.

It was inevitable that there would be something for everyone when the verdict came down. “No collusion! No obstruction!” was the gist of the president’s response, citing the central finding that no crime was committed by his campaign and the attorney-general’s decision not to lodge any allegations of presidential attempts to interfere with the course of justice after the election.

Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic senator and candidate for the party’s presidential nomination in 2020, was the first in her party to take the opposite view: “The severity of this misconduct demands . . . the House should initiate impeachment proceedings against the president of the United States,” she tweeted.

So which is it? Exoneration or impeachment? I’ve spent the past week reading the 440-page report and checking its findings with lawyers and others. Here I offer the eight key points:

1. No Collusion!

Almost . . . Mr Mueller was careful in his language. He noted that “collusion” has no real legal meaning in this context and prefers to consider whether there was a “conspiracy” or active “co-ordination”. Here, he found there was no crime. Still, the report doesn’t paint a flattering picture. It notes the Trump team were more than happy to benefit from illegal Russian acts, such as the hacking of the Democratic Party’s emails. But Mr Mueller is thorough — there was no conspiracy.

2. No Obstruction of Justice!

This isn’t quite true either. Did Mr Trump use the presidency to impede the investigation into the Russia allegations? Mr Mueller is noncommittal. He does cite ten examples of how Mr Trump’s actions may be construed as attempts to obstruct justice, such as telling the White House counsel to fire Mr Mueller and then to lie about it (the lawyer declined to do so).

Two things prevent him alleging a crime. First, on almost every occasion, Mr Trump’s attempts to obstruct were thwarted by staff who chose to ignore him (see item 5). Second, Mr Mueller took a narrow view of his remit. Under Justice Department guidelines, a sitting president cannot be indicted so in the special counsel’s view it would have been wrong to allege criminal actions because there could be no trial and no chance for the president to defend himself. Instead, Mr Mueller left open the legal remedy to Congress, which alone has the power to charge, convict and remove a president.

3. No Impeachment!

There’s enough material in Mr Mueller’s obstruction findings at least for a congressional inquiry. But there’s enough uncertainty about the president’s actions and intent, about his actual powers as chief executive, to suggest this won’t get far. In any case, there is zero chance that the Senate would vote to remove him.

4. No Witch-hunt!

From the start of the investigation Mr Trump and his allies in Congress and the media sought to discredit it by saying it was started by politically motivated opponents in the deep state who used the infamous dossier by a former British intelligence agent that had its origins in the Clinton campaign. Mr Mueller makes clear there was ample reason to pursue the probe. It wasn’t the Steele dossier that got it started but reports from a foreign government that the Trump campaign had been pursuing dirt on Mrs Clinton offered by the Russians. The many interactions between Trump people and Russians leave no doubt this was a necessary exercise.

5. Team Trump is more incompetent than malevolent.

The report details in embarrassing fashion just how inept the president’s campaign and advisers were. There’s a continuous thread of inexperienced fumbling incompetence, especially in his efforts to block the investigation which mostly failed because staff wouldn’t or couldn’t follow his orders.

The best example may be from Michael Cohen, Mr Trump’s lawyer and fixer. Asked by a colleague to arrange a meeting with Dmitry Klokov, a Russian business figure close to Vladimir Putin, he googled the man and tried repeatedly to get in touch with a former Olympic weightlifter of the same name.

6. Julian Assange is a despicable piece of humanity.

Not news this finding, but more detail to support it. To deflect attention from the fact that he was co-operating with the Kremlin in the publication of Democratic emails, Mr Assange promoted a conspiracy theory that the leak had come from inside the Democratic Party, from a young man who was randomly subsequently murdered on a Washington street. In the process he impugned the man’s reputation and prolonged the agony of his parents over the investigation of his death.

7. The Trump people lie a lot.

OK, you knew that one too. But the scale of the mendacity laid bare is still breathtaking. One blatant example comes from Sarah Sanders, the press secretary. During the controversy over Mr Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey, she told the press the White House had been contacted by many FBI agents to say they had lost confidence in their boss. Asked under oath about this by Mr Mueller’s lawyers, she said her statement was “not founded on anything”.

8. The system worked.

For all the ritual denunciations on both sides, claims of treason, of a deep-state cabal, the investigation did two things. It exposed questionable behaviour by a deeply flawed man and his team. But by declining to endorse the clamour for his removal and conviction, it confers much-needed legitimacy on a controversial presidency.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 25.4.19

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

Note: As it's Thursday, one or two of the items below have been borrowed from Lenox Napier's Business Over Tapas 

  • The upcoming elections:-
  1. Facebook cracks down on far-right networks.
  2. Why they will change the politics of immigration here.
  • Young reader(s) . . Five good reasons to study in Spain. I suspect most of us could think of quite a few better ones.
  • Lenox this morning cites this Politico article on Spain's perennial problem of corruption. In Spanish.
  • See the article below on the strange case of a Gallega deprived of her children  - by a female judge, as it happens - for 'working too hard'. 
  • If you can bear to read it, the Guardian has published a long article on the case of the manada ('pack') of men  accused of gang rape in Pamplona in 2016 and eventually sentenced for a lesser offence under an outdated law which ignores the issue of consent. To the shock of most people in the country.
The UK
  • Is Fart a short-term thinker par excellence?  . . . The USA has perfected the art of economic strangulation through the global banking, insurance and shipping nexus. This is possible because it has hegemonic control over global finance and the dollarised payments system. So . . . The cost of defying the White House on a large scale is punitively high. “Anyone doing business with Iran will not be doing business with the United States,” tweeted Fart. As a result companies have been leaving Iran in a drove. But . . . Germany, France and Britain have created a special purpose vehicle - Instex - as a financial conduit for humanitarian trade with Iran. It is the start of larger ambitions. The European Commission drew up a report in February to promote a switch in company contracts from dollars to euros. China and Russia are experimenting with their own alternatives to the US-dominated Swift system for payments. Trump commands for now but his actions have guaranteed a riposte from the major powers that will erode dollar supremacy over time. By overplaying his hand, he may be throwing away Washington’s most formidable weapon. 
  • Odd Old Phrase: Knobstick wedding: 'The 18th century practice whereby the churchwardens of a parish used their authority to virtually enforce the marriage of a pregnant woman, which they attended officially. The term 'knobstick' was in allusion to the churchwardens staff, his symbol of office.' 
Finally . . . 
  • Walking in the woods behind my house yesterday evening, I saw this flattened mouse in my path:-

On closer inspection, though, it turned out to be just an oddly shaped tree root.


Spanish woman loses custody of children for 'working too much'.

A successful female lawyer has vowed to take the Spanish state to court after losing custody of her children for allegedly working too much.

Elena del Pilar Ramallo Miñán, a solicitor formerly of Santander Bank, was ruled to have “spent too much time away from the conjugal home” when she had child-sharing responsibilities for her two daughters, aged seven and 13, revoked on International Women’s Day in 2018.

Ms Ramallo, from Galicia, northwest Spain, is to argue that the verdict “clashes head-on” with women’s rights to personal and professional fulfilment, and that the hearing gave unfair weight to the word of her ex-husband and her mother, the only witness to have been called.

The presiding judge, Carmen López, found that Ms Ramallo spent excessive time on business trips and conferences, rather than at home with her children, on the basis of testimony from their maternal grandmother, who had been on difficult terms with the mother for many years.

Ms Ramallo criticised the verdict as a “grievance to all women”, and claimed that she had fallen victim to a “social stigma” attached to high-achieving female professionals.

She has addressed an open letter to the Spanish courts in her local newspaper, using the language of ‘J’accuse…!’, novelist Émile Zola’s famous rebuke of the French judiciary that fuelled the Dreyfus Affair.

“As a mother, a woman and a citizen, I demand that nobody else in Spain may ever lose their children over the fact that they work and love their work,” she wrote.

Spain’s Supreme Court has stated that shared custody is the “desirable model”, and single custody would only be imposed under exceptional circumstances.

The family court in La Coruña heard complaints by the grandmother that Ms Ramallo, who has a PhD and is the author of seven legal books, did not pay enough attention to the girls and “was always anxious to devote herself to her career.”

Her ex-husband said that she was “not in the right state of mind” to share custody.

However Ms Ramallo insisted that she had “never marginalised” her role as a parent. “Like millions of women, I have had to dedicate thousands of hours to my work, stealing them from my sleep,” to excel as both lawyer and mother.

The controversy came as the Spanish election campaign, in which the conception of a ‘glass ceiling’ has been a prominent fault line, neared its climax.

While the current Socialist-led government has sought to make maternity and paternity leave equal and transferable, far-right Vox would seek to reverse this if part of a fresh coalition.

“The patriarchy lives on, accusing educated, independent women, who have careers involving travel and professional responsibilities, and who also get divorced, of being bad mothers," Ms Ramallo added.

The custody ruling gave no opportunity for appeal.

Ms Ramallo is seeking advice on which legal pathway to take and is expected to proceed through the Provincial Court of La Coruña.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 24.4.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 
                  Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain
  • Invaluable advice - despite the nation-wide rain of all this week - on how to have an outdoors BBQ in Spain.
  • Santiago de Compostela hosted 14,000 'pilgrims' between the 12th and 14th of April, an increase of 61% on 2018 . . .  
  • We now have a Moroccan tapas bar here in Pontevedra city - El Dükela. If you go to TripAdvisor there's just one review, saying that the place is appallingly bad. But if you go to Google, there are 13 very positive reviews. Coincidentally, yesterday I read of web pages which will (attempt to) tell you which reviews are genuine and which are not. Must give it a try.
  • Pontevedra is about to host a huge international athletics event and the council has gone to the lengths of producing an impressively long and detailed supplement for the local press, plus of course an internet version. Not only that . . . It's all translated into English. And I was delighted to see that this had been given the once-over by a native speaker. Not. Just joshing. I would write (again) to the mayor, offering my services for free. But I know my letter would be ignored. Go figure, as our American cousins say.
  • So, which is the noisiest city in this extremely noisy country? Well, it's not Madrid. Would you believe it's Vigo, up here in Galicia? But, truth to tell, if you read the report, Vigo turns out to be the Spanish city whose residents most complain about the noise. Which isn't really the same thing.
The UK and Brexit
  • Richard North today: To my weary mind, there only looks to be one possible outcome. On 31 October, we will be leaving the EU in a humiliating and largely unwanted no-deal Brexit, simply because our establishment is incapable of preventing it.  . .  The trouble is there is just as easily a possibility that Mrs May presses the revoke button or, in this mad world, we could even have the EU, against all the odds, giving us another extension. There is no way of telling. And this means that we are most certainly doomed to 6 months of unremitting tedium. Hey ho.
The UK
  • A caustic but not very surprising - nor inaccurate - view of one commentator on the political scene: In 3 decades of studying political public opinion, I can’t recall a time when voters were more despairing about politics. . . The Brexit process has shone a light on something far more unsettling: the sheer incompetence of our elected representatives whose apparent instinct to put party before nation has shocked even the most cynical voter. . . 84%  are “not impressed” with either party’s performance, or that of their leaders.  See the full article below.
  • And another:-
o  Instead of being populist-free, Britain will now join the Austrians, Dutch, Estonians, French, Germans, Hungarians, Italians, Poles, Spanish and Swedes in delivering yet another populist backlash against the EU, and against established mainstream elites. In this respect, the process of exiting the EU has made Britain a little more European.     
o None of this was supposed to happen. After 52% of the country voted for Brexit, Britain was supposed to put populism back in the box. The mainstream Conservative government was supposed to devise a competent negotiation strategy, trigger Article 50, lead Britain out of the EU and then go back to the country with the offer of a radical new settlement that would address the other drivers of Brexit, from reforming immigration to tackling regional inequality, from devolving more powers to the regions, to doing more for left behind and left out Britain.  . .  Except, as we now know, none of that happened.
o Britain used to be known around the globe for being immune to populism. Britain was the quintessential ‘civic culture’; its people were sceptical of their politicians but were deferential to authority; and they trusted their institutions and those who had been elected to represent them. But now all that has changed. Instead of diluting populism, somehow Mrs May and the Conservative Party have found a way of putting it back on steroids. 
o Britain might have once been known for being immune to populism but from hereon it will be known as a textbook case in how not to manage populism.

Europe/The EU
  • Does it really make sense to talk about ‘European values’? See the second article below.
  • Fart is making a state visit to the UK in June. It'll surely be an interesting spectacle. Here's one cartoon on the subject:-
Social Media
  • The tech companies are struggling to impose control on the influential global platforms they have built: their attempts to police the toxic content flooding their sites are plodding and inadequate. Just as damaging is their inability — or unwillingness — to strike a workable balance between free speech and harmful content.  . . . The failings of the tech giants are helping to usher in a new age of censorship by making it easier for governments everywhere to justify shutting down access to the internet.
Finally . . . 
  • A friend of mine was telling me yesterday of her problems in finding the perfect partner. Or at the very least an acceptable one. And then she suggested that, if neither of us had achieved this in 5 years, we should get married. So, I guess I'm engaged. Sort of. Passively. But congrats are not in order.

1. In 30 years of research I've never seen the public so despondent about politics: Deborah Mattinson, founding partner at the research and strategy consultancy BritainThinks. Daily Telegraph.

In three decades of studying political public opinion, I can’t recall a time when voters were more despairing about politics - and that includes the fall out from the Telegraph's incredible MPs’ expenses scoop back in 2009. The expenses scandal, shocking though it was, merely confirmed what the public thought they knew already, that some - by no means all, but certainly far too many - politicians had  their fingers in the till.

The Brexit process has shone a light on something far more unsettling: the sheer incompetence of our elected representatives whose apparent instinct to put party before nation has shocked even the most cynical voter. BritainThinks has been running the “Brexit Diaries” project ever since Article 50 was triggered two years ago. Our latest wave of research into public opinion over Brexit revealed a dramatic downturn in mood. Asked to describe the Brexit process, “broken” is the word the public most often chooses while 83 per cent blame the “entire political class” for the mess.

All the major players’ reputations have been trashed: not only the EU and UK parliaments but also teams Tory and Labour. Eighty-four per cent  are “not impressed” with either party’s performance, or that of their leaders.

Voters feel pity for Theresa May combined with exasperation at her dogged perseverance. Jeremy Corbyn, once insulated from the Brexit taint, is thought even more likely than Theresa May to put his party, and even his own career, before the national interest.

People also have Brexit fatigue. Eighty-three per cent now say they are fed up with it dominating the news. There have been vociferous complaints made in focus groups about the important issues that are being ignored: crime, NHS, schools, housing, while Westminster relives its Brexit Groundhog Day.

Even Leave voters, so optimistic two years ago, with talk of “independence”, “choice” and “freedom” are now plunged into the same gloom. In focus groups three weeks ago they railed against “chaos”, “mess’ and “lies”. This is not a trivial matter. An astonishing 64 per cent (rising to 70 per cent amongst women) believe that Brexit is bad for our mental health.

This is clearly not the ideal backdrop to running an election – especially a European election – but that is where we seem to have ended up. As the campaigns get underway and parties scurry to select candidates, the biggest story has been the Brexit Party, catapulting from launch to lead position, polling between 23 and 27 per cent in the first published polls.

While Remain voters are spread thinly across a number of party options, the Brexit Party has managed to attract an impressive 50 per cent of 2016 leavers. It has also pulled in 42 per cent of disaffected 2017 Tories and eight per cent of Labour leavers.

The appeal is straightforward: a simple “does what it says on the tin” offer. The profile of those drawn to it mirrors the core leave demographic: male, older, more working class and from anywhere but London. Farage himself is at once the new party’s strength and its weakness.

Better known than most front line politicians – a YouGov poll last year had him as the “most famous” with 96 per cent awareness – he knows his audience well and has successfully positioned himself as their champion, articulating grievances that other politicians seem to ignore. His positive ratings at 24 per cent place him favourably but it is also worth noting that his negative ratings – 56 per cent have a negative view – demonstrate a ceiling to his appeal that may make electoral success harder to predict.

Many pollsters and commentators were wrongfooted in 2016, underestimating the degree to which leavers, especially those who were not regular voters, would turn out. Assuming next month’s European elections go ahead, turnout will again be crucial. We can already see how polls using different turnout weighting are producing very different results. Predicting elections is a fool’s errand at the best of times, but this one is particularly hard to call.

However, what I can predict is that, whatever the result, the agonising Brexit trauma that has all but destroyed voters’ faith in the political establishment will be with us for some time to come.

2. EU’s two-faced ‘values’: Does it really make sense to talk about ‘European values’?, Hans Kundnani, senior research fellow at Chatham House.

Proponents of the European project like to talk about a core set of “European values” for which it stands.

At a time when the European Union is threatened from within and without, the idea is particularly tempting. It lifts the EU from an entity that simply pursues its own interests — like any other state or group of states — and makes it a “normative power” that can credibly be said to be making the world a better place.

It does not seem to even occur to people who talk about “European values” that the idea is somewhat Huntingtonian. It suggests that international politics is a “clash of civilizations” in which the fault lines are cultural.

But do “European values” even exist in any meaningful sense? They would have to be values that on the one hand unite Europeans and at the same time are distinct from the values held by people from other parts of the world.

There are some rather abstract universal values that are broadly shared around the world. There may even be such a thing as “Western values” (though of course that is also a civilizational idea). But as soon as you try to be more precise and identify distinctively “European” values, differences within Europe — that is, between Europeans — become as apparent as the differences between Europe and the rest of the world.

When people talk about “European values,” they usually conflate two things — first, a set of values that Europeans are claimed collectively to believe in, and second, a set of values that are embodied by the institutional structures and policies of the EU — the values of the EU. It is far from obvious that the two go together.

Europeans may collectively believe in democracy, for example. But aside from the obvious point that they are not the only ones, it is difficult to claim that democracy is a specifically “European” value given that one of the main criticisms of the EU is that it is undemocratic.

In order for the idea of “European values” to be meaningful, Europeans must surely also in some way be collectively committed to them in a way that goes beyond mere rhetoric. In other words, Europeans must live by these values rather than simply proclaim them.

The EU’s founding treaty claims it “is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights.” But the bloc is pretty inconsistent in the way it promotes these values beyond its external borders.

To be sure, the EU promoted democracy, human rights and the rule of the law in its neighborhood as it enlarged. But is the EU promoting democracy and upholding human dignity when it strikes deals with authoritarian regimes and sends refugees back to unsafe countries or allows them to die in the Mediterranean Sea?

The value that can most plausibly be claimed to be “European” is the rule of law. After all, the EU is nothing but a set of rules — and creating rules is what the EU does. And yet this, too, is problematic.

Beyond its usual rhetoric, the EU is doing very little to try to uphold the international rule of law outside its borders. In one of the main threats to the international rule of law — China’s acquisition and consolidation of islands in the East and South China Seas — the EU talks about “principled neutrality” but is largely absent in practice. France has long urged the EU to carry out freedom of navigation operations — to walk the walk, in other words — but has received almost no support. Meanwhile the United Kingdom, which is in the process of leaving the EU, and the United States are actually taking action to uphold the rule of law in Asia.

Brussels has invoked the idea of “European values” to justify taking tough action against Poland and Hungary for violations of the domestic rule of law. The problem is that the EU previously used the same rhetoric to enforce the eurozone’s fiscal rules and mandatory quotas for refugees and thus discredited it.

It turns out that the EU’s insistence on rules is not a European idea, but really a German one. And that is actually a big part of the EU’s internal problems.

Many of the conflicts within the EU are about resistance to rules seen as being imposed by Berlin and as undermining a member country’s sovereignty. This became obvious during the euro crisis, which can plausibly be seen as a battle between a German approach based on rules and a French and broadly Southern European approach based on discretion.

In practice, even the rule of law turns out to divide Europeans as much as it unites them. It may be a value in which a lot of “pro-Europeans” believe, but that doesn’t quite make it a distinctive “European value” — and like other “European values,” it doesn’t necessarily mean all Europeans support it.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Thoughts from Galicia: 23.4.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 
                  Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain
  • Do you know all the new faces - some of them rather odd - seeking imminent election? Test your knowledge here.
  • More here from the Guardian on the empty-village challenge and its importance for said elections.
  • I've mentioned a few times over the years that the Spanish media has a higher (lower?) threshold of acceptability when it comes to showing the bloody results of accidents and terrorist activities. To demonstrate the point, here's a foto of the aftermath of one of the Sri Lanka atrocities. I wonder in which other countries it will appear in the media.
  • I'm just finishing my guide for camino 'pilgrims' who pass through Pontevedra city. I was going to cite a new brochure on Galicia and North Portugal - O Eixo Atlántico - but the English is so bad I've decided against this. The booklet is comprehensive and glossy, so expensive to produce. But, as usual, the Galician Xunta decided against paying a native speaker even a pittance to look at the English version and merely went with the translation of one Xiana Vásquez, who can be assumed to have a computer and access to Google Translate. And might well be someone's relative.
The UK
  • Richard North today: As the moment of truth on Brexit draws closer, the political classes are under great scrutiny, while an increasingly disillusioned electorate deserts its traditional parties and goes chasing after the empty rhetoric of the nearest available demagogue.
  • Don Quijones remains pessimistic about Italy and endorses the view expressed here that her intractable problems could well bring down the Euro. Or even the EU. Herein one of the reasons some of us share DQ's pessimism: The problem illustrates the contradictory rules of the EU and the European Central Bank, which prevent countries from investing in growth and make it impossible to leave the eurozone without triggering the crisis they’re seeking to avoid. Technocrats who think they know best don't have to answer to voters if they're wrong. So, they plough/plow on with their dreams and illusions, ignoring realities. Especially those of poorer members who lack the clout of the Northern European members. And the perennially dreaming France, of course. It will surely end in tears, say I.  Meanwhile . . . .
The EU
  • One British pundit claims that:-
  1. The EU is reforming into a two-speed Europe of a closer integrating Eurozone and an outer ring. Is it really? Can it?
  2. Under either a soft Brexit or the [widely misunderstood] Norway Option, it is likely that within about 5 years Britain would be the leading part of the outer ring. Really?
  3. Pigs can fly.
  • The new president of Ukraine is a comic and Fart is a clown. So, a meeting between them should be at least amusing. Possibly hilarious.
  • Meanwhile, Fart has begun legal action to block a Democrat’s attempt to reveal his personal finances. So, Fart believes in the law when it suits him but ignores it when it doesn't. A life-long strategy, it's said. What a man to have as your president. And possible role model.
Nutters Corner
  • Ex Congresswoman Michele Bachmann again: If President Trump were to reveal a Middle East peace plan that divides the people from the land or pressures Israel or touches Jerusalem, I believe that that action could be sufficient to deny him a second term. This is because the Bible asserts that God will punish whoever harms Israel in any way. If there really is a god, I'm sure he finds Ms Bachmann a bit of a trial.
  • Word of the day: Miercoles. This means Wednesday but yesterday I heard a kid say it, with feeling, when he fell off his scooter. And I guessed it was a  polite version of mierde, or 'shit'.
  • Word of the day: Copacetic. 'In excellent order'. Said to be heard only in North America and of unknown origin. Though there are several theories, of course.
Finally . . . 
  • I hear of a company which will pay me for listening to the many podcasts I already listen to. Am checking it out and will report.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 22.4.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 
                  Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain
  • Brussels fears - justifiably - that the imminent elections won't end political instability. See the El País article - in English - here.
  • Specifically . .  Fighting a resurgent right wing days before a knife-edge election, the Socialist prime minister of Spain has warned that separatists advocating independence for Catalonia risk plunging the country into a crisis worse than Brexit. Pedro Sánchez was responding to claims from the conservative Popular Party, the centre-right Citizens party and the ultra-nationalist Vox that voting for the Socialists endangers the unity of Spain. See the full Times article below.
  • Unlike in the UK, teachers in Spain are civil servants, subject to the diktats of local authorities. This year the Galician Xunta is offering 2,000 new places. As the job, for all its downsides, offers lifetime security and a good income, it's not terribly surprising there are 19,000 applicants. Many - if not all of them - will have paid to be trained for the relevant exams (oposiciones). Often more than once. Quite a racket.
  • It's said here that the Spanish believe that chucking bits of English into your conversation will make you sound sophisticated. From a Brit point of view, it might also make you unintelligible, as you run all the English words together and get both the pronunciation and stress(es) wrong. The article cites 50-50 and says it's pronounced fifty-fifty. But it ain't; it becomes feeftee-feeftee. Not the best example but it'll do.
  • The last bit reminds me . . . There've been a lot of Portuguese in town this Easter weekend. It's instructive to hear them nearly always get English words correct. Largely because their films aren't dubbed into Portuguese.
The UK
  • A (very) dispiriting headline . . . Nigel Farage is the second most popular choice among Conservative Party councillors to be next Tory leader. I fancy the identity of the favourite - Boris Johnson? - would be even more dispiriting.
  • A propos . . . Comments from someone who disagrees with Farage on much: It seems that nothing can slay the irrepressible Farage. Not a plane crash, electoral failure, party scandal, media ridicule, death threats or multiple resignations. The ultimate political Lazarus is back, his Brexit Party surging in the polls in the run-up to next month’s European parliament elections. . .   Now freed of the Ukip name, in a fresh outfit with more credible candidates, he is a serious threat to the mainstream parties not only next month but at the increasingly likely second referendum or general election that may follow. Farage’s gift is that he manages to speak to us not as automatons but as sentient beings. . . He does the extraordinary thing of saying what he actually thinks.  . . . Farage can get away with any seeming hypocrisy because he is comfortable in his own skin and convinced of his own beliefs. . . . The attacks on Farage for being a raving racist fall flat. . . When critics mutter that Farage is a fascist because of his views it only demonstrates the howling gulf in opinion between some of the well-heeled and less well-off parts of our nation. In short, it will never work for Conservatives to attack the man or his cause directly. Every time Farage is labelled a racist for raising concerns about immigration that are held by the majority of voters, his reputation as a teller of truths is burnished. Sneering at his pie-and-a-pint mateyness and nostalgia for a certain kind of England is always going to be counterproductive, for it is seen by many as an attack on their own beliefs and their own lives.
The Way of the World
  •  Heirlooms are fast becoming a thing of the past. The underlying reasons span the gamut of changes social, economic and cultural, but they all boil down to the simple fact that nobody wants their parents’ and grandparents’ stuff any longer.
  • A possibly contentious view: Ecology is politics for people who don’t like people and are miffed that the masses are now free to travel cheaply, rather than being hooked up to a plough or doing laundry in a creek all through the Easter weekend. . . Green is the first socio-political movement in which every spokesperson is privileged.
Finally . . .
  • I planned to pick up a book sent to a kiosk in town today. But checking Amazon's message, I noted it'll arrive not today but next Monday, 11 days after I ordered it. Fittingly, the book is entitled Slow Travels in Unsung Spain. But I can get in 3 days if I sign up to Amazon Prime. So, is the delay a deliberate ploy or merely the reflection of a yet-to-happen publication date of this Wednesday?
  • Better news . . . I see that sparrows are back both in town and in my garden. Though I believe they've almost disappeared from the UK.

Catalan breakaway will be worse than Brexit, warns Spanish PM: The Times

Pedro Sánchez, the prime minister of Spain, holds a slender lead in the polls

Fighting a resurgent right wing days before a knife-edge election, the Socialist prime minister of Spain has warned that separatists advocating independence for Catalonia risk plunging the country into a crisis worse than Brexit.

Pedro Sánchez, who holds a narrow lead in polls, was responding to claims from the conservative Popular Party, the centre-right Citizens party and the ultra-nationalist Vox that voting for the Socialists endangers the unity of Spain.

The conservatives have alleged that Mr Sánchez is likely to have to make concessions to pro-independence parties to form a coalition government. After coming to power last June, the Socialists struggled on for eight months with the support of Catalan nationalists. However, the government fell in February after their allies refused to support the national budget because the prime minister had rejected calls for a secessionist referendum.

Mr Sánchez recently visited Catalonia in an effort to persuade moderate voters to abandon independence, saying that their aspirations for an independent nation were unrealistic, beyond the gift of a prime minister and risked triggering a constitutional crisis.

“The separatists know that independence and the right of self-determination will never happen. And they know also that it [would] not be the solution, but the start of a terrible crisis, even worse than the one that has started in the United Kingdom because of Brexit,” he told The Times. “In the 21st century we cannot be repeating these mistakes, we cannot break a society in half with lies.”

A survey for El Pais suggests that the Socialists and the far-left Podemos would together win 162 seats, short of a majority of 176, in the election next Sunday. It would put them ahead of a possible coalition of the three right-wing parties, but potentially needing Catalan parties to form a government. If he wins, Mr Sánchez has promised Catalans greater self-government.

He claims the right has become radicalised behind Vox, the first far right party in mainstream Spanish politics since the death of Franco in 1975.

“The worst thing about Vox is not Vox . . . [it] is that the rest of the right has followed its path,” the prime minister said. “Instead of containing Vox, for them it has acted as fuel. They have helped to feed its fire and have become more radical.”

He added: “Brexit or Trump are clear examples of where the global winds are blowing. We have to change this tendency. We have to come back to an open society of freedom and tolerance. We need to talk more about social justice than flags.”

He said that his priorities would be tackling political corruption, fighting for social justice and trying to resolve the territorial crisis.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 21.4.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 
                  Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain
  • It had to happen . . . Water that tastes of wine. Made right here in Galicia.
  • Before the horse bolts . . . Santiago cathedral is going to install fire alarms.
  • One way to tackle the urban pigeon nuisance. I believe it's been tried in Pontevedra, apparently without much success. Perhaps it's early days.
  • More on those Iberians/Galicians who settled the UK and Ireland.
  • Spender on Spain, as of March 1975: Whereas Italy and France impress me with a history which recedes into the past, history in Spain seems a past which forces itself on the present. Art and even landscape are still locked in past conflict. How, in Southern Spain, can the relationship of the European and the Arabic seem so fertile and productive – in this the country of fanatical Catholic orthodoxy, of the Inquisition, and of the savage conflict between Spanish and French, depicted in Goya's disasters of war? The landscape, the literature, art, and architecture all seem to ask these questions.
  • Oh, dear. Those terrible Dutchies.
The UK
  • Despite hiccups in the short-term targets, Britain has still managed to cut emissions by a greater amount than any other G7 country. That’s something that should be recognised and even celebrated, surely. Eco-activists are perhaps unaware that the government was grappling with climate change many, many years before they were born. And yet they behave as though they alone have been suddenly privy to the threat it poses, and now they must alert the wider world. 
  • Britain’s emissions over the last century are the equivalent of  less than a single year’s emissions from modern day China, our own efforts, impressive as they might be, are placed in shocking perspective.
  • What makes Fart unfit for office is not so much that he’s petty, malicious and bullying. God knows, those aren’t uncommon traits amongst powerful politicians. What’s unusual about him is how inept are his efforts to conceal facts and control people.
  • Fart may well be unfit to be president but would Democrats be wise to try to impeach him? See the first article below.
The Way of the World/Social Media/Nutters Corner
  • See the shocking article by the philosopher, Roger Scruton, below. You don't have to be a theist to agree with him.
  • Word of the day: Vodevil (Pronounced bodebil). Vaudeville(US); Music hall(Brit)
Finally . . . 
  • In a crossword puzzle I did yesterday, the final answer (which I didn't get) was hoosegow. I wonder how many people know this is a prison.

Democrats divided over impeachment of President Trump:  David Charter, Washington

Hillary Clinton’s closest aides led calls to impeach President Trump over the contents of the Mueller report yesterday, but they came in the face of resistance from Democratic party leaders who fear that it would rally voters to support his re-election.

The Clinton team was joined by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the young congresswoman who is the face of grassroots left-wing Democrats, and Elizabeth Warren, a progressive candidate for the presidential nomination, as two wings of the party united in urging a political prosecution of Mr Trump in Congress.

Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker and most senior Democrat, will host a conference call of senior party figures on Monday in which she is expected to try to shelve the impeachment issue.

Mr Trump, who is on holiday at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, resumed his attack on the “crazy Mueller report” by targeting officials for producing “fabricated & totally untrue” notes of meetings for the investigation.

Far from unseating the president, as many Democrats had hoped, the report has deepened splits in the party after it handed to Congress the decision on whether to prosecute Mr Trump over 11 instances of trying to obstruct justice.

The row threatens to spill over into the Democrats’ 2020 primary contest despite most of the 19 candidates trying to focus on policy, convinced that voters are much more interested in “kitchen table” issues such as healthcare than impeachment.

“Mueller got us this far. Now it’s Congress’s turn to weigh the evidence . . . decide what merits a response and act in the best interests of our democracy,” John Podesta, 70, Mrs Clinton’s campaign chairman, wrote in a push for impeachment. Brian Fallon, 36, a former press secretary for Mrs Clinton, tweeted: “If all this same info were coming out for first time, it would be an earthquake. Impeachment hearings would be a no-brainer.”

Mrs Clinton, 71, has not called publicly for Mr Trump to be impeached. She sidestepped the question when asked last year on CNN. “That will be left to others to decide,” she said. “I want to stop the degrading of the rule of law.”

Impeachment talk has usually been avoided by Ms Ocasio-Cortez, 29, who prefers to focus on her policy agenda, especially her plans to tackle climate change. She tweeted: “Many know I take no pleasure in discussions of impeachment. We all prefer working on our priorities: pushing Medicare for All, tackling student loans, & a Green New Deal. But the report squarely puts this [impeachment] on our doorstep.”

The Democratic leadership is trying to urge rank-and-file members to be patient and allow House committees controlled by the party following its success in November’s mid-term elections to continue examining Mr Trump and his closest aides.

Jerrold Nadler, 71, chairman of the House judiciary committee, issued a subpoena yesterday for the full, unredacted Mueller report, including background testimony, an act the justice department later said was “premature and unnecessary”. Mr Nadler has demanded that Robert Mueller, the special counsel, appear before his committee and also wants to interview Don McGahn, the former White House counsel who refused to follow the president’s orders to have Mr Mueller fired.

Ms Pelosi, 79, has previously insisted that no impeachment effort is worthwhile without bipartisan support.

There was little of that in evidence yesterday, with the Easter break allowing Republican senators and representatives to avoid reporters’ questions. One Republican calling for impeachment was George Conway, 55, husband of Mr Trump’s close aide Kellyanne Conway. He has become an outspoken critic of the president. “There is a cancer in the presidency: President Donald J Trump,” he wrote in The Washington Post. “Congress now bears the solemn constitutional duty to excise that cancer without delay.” His was a lone Republican voice, however.

On Twitter yesterday Mr Trump called some of the statements in the Mueller report “total bullshit & only given to make the other person look good (or me to look bad)”. He also wrote: “Watch out for people that take so-called ‘notes’, when the notes never existed until needed.”

One of the notes he may have had in mind was provided by the former chief of staff of Jeff Sessions, then attorney-general, on how the president was reported to have said “I’m f***ed” when the Mueller inquiry was announced.

The report also records his reaction to the fact that Mr McGahn took notes. “The president then asked, ‘Why do you take notes? Lawyers don’t take notes’,” the report stated. “McGahn responded that he keeps notes because he is a ‘real lawyer’ and explained that notes create a record.”

Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesman, said the Trump administration was not concerned about attempts by Democrats to look further into whether the president committed a crime of obstruction. “We already know how the book ends: no collusion,” Mr Gidley told Fox News.

2.  After my own dark night, the importance of love, renewal and redemption have never been clearer:  Roger Scruton

Roger Scruton was dismissed as the chairman of the Building Better, Building Beautiful commission on April 10

Fully to understand the Easter story it helps to be hounded by the mob, to know that nothing that you say or do can deflect the hostility, and that in any case the distinctions between true and false, just and unjust, good and evil have all been suspended. Some can undergo this experience in a spirit of charity, and one in particular rose above his suffering to forgive those who inflicted it.

The Easter story tells us of the redemption that comes into the world, when such torment is willingly undergone for others’ sake. But it also tells us of the time of utter darkness, the time of nothingness, when the light of creation has gone out. St John of the Cross called this the dark night of the soul. The world lay in such a darkness on the first Easter Saturday; and at the end of this most terrible week a similar darkness fell on me.

Reading the outrageous articles in the New Statesman, the Times, the Sun and elsewhere, in which things that I have never said and attitudes that I have never entertained are unscrupulously pinned on me, seeing all my work as a writer and philosopher scribbled over with ignorant and groundless accusations, I have had to take stock of my life, and for a moment it seemed that it amounted to nothing. It was as though I had been ceremonially stripped of all my assets, and shut away in a box.

This has happened before, but never with such an orchestrated clamour for my destruction. Dismissed without explanation from my government position, it seemed that I was even unwanted by the Conservative Party, to which I have offered a lifetime of intellectual support.

Philosophy is the pursuit of truth, and this has been, for me, a source of consolation in a difficult life. But in the real emergencies, truth is not enough: we stand in need of examples, and of the stories that make suffering bearable, by showing that without it there is no redemption. Hence, in times of darkness, we turn to religion, in which another kind of truth is given to us. Experiences like the one that I have just undergone, however ordinary and human, have a part in the Easter story, and it is the genius of the Christian faith to make such easy room for them.

The root sentiment of Christianity is not triumph but defeat. It takes what is worst in human nature – the hounding of outsiders, the delight in cruelty, the betrayal of friends and the hatred of strangers – and winds these things into the story of Christ’s passion. You too, it tells us, are members of this hate-filled mob. But you too can turn your hate to pity and your pity to love. That is what redemption means.

That, to my mind, is the way to understand Easter Saturday. The world lies fragmented at the foot of the cross, as though un-created. We are shown the opposite of creation, a place of desolation where the light does not shine.

According to the old Christian story Christ spent this day in the underworld, harrowing Hell. But we can understand the Easter message without that particular metaphor. In all of us there is a creative and outgoing principle – a principle of love, through which we renew our attachments and make a gift of our lives. When we cease to love we are as though hollowed out, deprived of the force that sustains us in being. We become a void, a negation, a thing that should not be. And into the void flows the mob, eager for victims and ardent to destroy.

That psychic mechanism is present in all of us. In the world of today, however, its effect is amplified. Twitter has made morons of us all, sweeping us along in a storm of rumour and spite. But Christians, contemplating the crucifixion, can still switch sides from the triumphant mob to the defeated victim. Through the bleakness of Easter Saturday they can experience the true meaning of the Cross, as the dark negative ushers in the Resurrection, and the light once again shines.

Indeed, the habit of focusing on the defeated victim, rather than the triumphant mob, is Christianity’s strength. In the face of destruction the Christian opts for renewal. As Notre Dame burned, the crowd of agnostics in the street below recovered for a moment their Christian faith, looking up to the Angel of the Resurrection, who stands as though shivering above the roof far above. As the angel promises, Notre Dame will be reborn. Despite all that has happened to weaken Christianity in France, the Christian spirit remains, embodied in this cathedral dedicated to the protector of Paris, where she is prayed to by few but loved by many.

The Easter Saturday encounter with nothingness is a demonstration that the world must be constantly re-created. For many would-be Christians, however, the Resurrection is a sticking point. Christ’s death makes sense only on the assumption that he survived it, else he is simply one more in the endless stream of victims. Yet how can we believe in such an event, which so completely defies the laws of nature and for which we have only the sketchy evidence summarised in the Gospels, in the Acts of the Apostles and in the letters of St Paul? Leaving aside all learned theology, but taking inspiration from the poets, painters and composers who have treated this subject, I would say that Christ’s resurrection, like his death, is an event in eternity.

It occurs in me and in you, just so long as we put our trust in the possibility of renewal. It is a re-affirmation of the creative principle, and of the love that brought about Christ’s death. The darkness that came over the world on that first Easter Saturday could be dispelled only by a renewal of this love, and this renewal comes through us. The Cross is a display of supreme forgiveness, which invites us to forgive in our turn.

Seeing the Christian mystery in that way we open a path to reconciliation with the other Abrahamic faiths. Christ’s death is not a once-off event in ordinary time but, to borrow T. S. Eliot’s words, “the point of intersection of the timeless with time”. The wonderful concretion of the Gospels, which give us the shape and feel of Christ’s earthly life, show love shining from a source beyond those vivid moments. To translate that idea into theological terms is not necessary. It is enough to see that there is a love that overcomes all suffering, all resentment, all negativity, and that this love is the source of our own renewal.

Which returns me to my ordeal. No sooner had the smears been published than I was inundated with messages of friendship and support. The life that I assumed to be over was now being renewed. I had undergone a death and a resurrection, and the gift of Easter had been laid on me even before I had asked for it.