Saturday, May 04, 2019

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 4.5.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 
                  Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain
  • A few comments from The Economist on the recent elections:-
o A high turnout of 76% helped the Catalan separatists, who won 22 seats, up from 17, though the big winner among them was Esquerra, the most pragmatic of the pro-independence parties. I wonder what 'pragmatic' means here?
o Unless the PP does much better on May 26th, Mr Casado may be forced out. He chose to turn the PP’s broad church into an ideological sect, purging moderates and bringing in an inexperienced team. His attempt to echo rather than challenge Vox failed. 
o The days of absolute majorities in Spain are over for the time being. 
o But the country’s prime minister has delivered rare good news for social democracy ahead of the election for the European Parliament.
  • Pontevedra is proud of its reputation as a progressive city, largely thanks to its impressive humanisation of its city-centre streets. And its war on cars. It's also proud that it's the leading -Spanish city when it comes to the question a non-split day for primary and (less so) secondary school pupils. But it doesn't do anywhere near as well as its urban enemy - Vigo - when it comes to the issue of 'cleanliness'.
  • It's close to the start of the month, so here's the inevitable guide from The Local on how to enjoy yourself in this fun-devoted country.
  • In the 2nd article  below - on German fascists - a  Professor Cantoni is quoted as saying: Some families or communities may preserve a more conservative outlook on the world: fearful of outsiders, nationalistic, protectionist. These kinds of views can be transmitted from generation to generation: it is generally known that children’s political attitudes are highly correlated with their parents’ attitudes. I wonder whether this is one explanation for the emergence of the far-right in Spain, in the form of Vox.
  • Loners love Spain. And vice versa, it seems.
  • Query: Why does Germany do so badly in the survey just cited? 
  • The triathlon runners have just passed this café, with Spaniards in 1st, 2nd and 4th positions. The locals were naturally pretty happy about this.
The UK and Brexit
  • After a disastrous local election result for the Conservative party and a pretty bad result for the Labour Party, both leaders are facing resignation demands. Can't see it happening just yet. They'll possibly be incentivised to hastily cobble together some agreed deal to take back to Brussels pdq, to try to get Brexit out of the way, In the form of a BINO that'll be the troublesome backcloth to British politics for the next 10-20 years.
  • Politico takes an overview here.
  • One ex Conservative Minister alleges that: If there's one thing these results scream, it’s that a clear majority against leaving the European Union is emerging. I'd be prepared to bet a lot of money that some people interpret things in a different way.
  • Another commentator - a Brexiteer - insists that What Brexit boils down to is whether you believe in democracy or not. . . The question is whether you think democratic decisions are valid because they are democratic or whether you believe they are valid only if they produce the “right” outcome. See the first (interestingly provocative) article below. Especially if you're a Remainer who wants a second referendum. Not that it's likely to impress you.
  • The rise of the far right is especially troubling in a nation haunted by its past. See the Times article below.
The EU
  • The European Union has lost its “libido”, Jean-Claude Juncker has admitted before expected gains for populist and Eurosceptic parties in Europe-wide elections in 3 weeks. Might be all the alcohol, in his case.
The Way of the World/Social Media
  • When the word ‘influencer’ comes up in conversation around the world this month, one thing may spring to mind: footage of 21-year-old Jessy Taylor crying inconsolably on YouTube when her Instagram account was deleted after a few followers reported the account as spam. She declared she was only as good as her 100,000-plus following and couldn’t possibly be expected to get a mere nine-to-five job – she was an Instagrammer, an influencer. In a few short minutes, she perfectly personified the general public’s opinion of social-media stars in 2019: spoilt rotten, self-important and entitled children.
Finally . . .
  • Life's little tribulations:-
o Yesterday, I was almost hit by a cyclist who was using the main road as a training track for today's race. As he flashed past within a metre of my face in the middle of a zebra crossing, we exchanged pleasantries in both English and Spanish. To the amusement of one or two fellow pedestrians.
o Coming out of the shower this morning, I had to go downstairs to answer the (fixed line) phone. Unusually, it wasn't my sister but some woman who - in a strange Spanish accent - wanted to help me eliminate a virus on my computer. After stringing her along for 10 minutes or more - while I got dressed - I asked her if she understood basic English. When she said she did, I gave her a 2-word instruction and put the phone down.
o This morning, I was surprised to see cars parked a couple of kilometres away from the city, but not terribly surprised to then find there was no space at all in my usual parking lot. I guessed this was a result of triathlon-related closures and made my way, past road blocks, to the car park (el parking) under the market. Only to come up against the problem of a barrier that wouldn't go up. Because my car was too close to it, I was eventually told.

These things are sent to try us . . .


1. Voters can smell the arrogance of the Remain zealots: Juliet Samuel, The Telegraph

A few months ago, I found myself at a dinner populated by vehement people campaigning for a second Brexit referendum. London dinners of people not thrilled by Brexit are, of course, not uncommon. But this was different. This was a gathering of zealots. Since 2016, most of the country’s unhappy Remainers have mellowed. This group, by contrast, had radicalised. When, at some point,  I was asked for my thoughts, I suggested that although I voted Remain, I thought the referendum had actually been an electric moment for British democracy, bringing millions of people out to vote for the first time in decades. Overturning it, I said, would be a disaster.

I knew the room would disagree, but I was still astonished when one man declared, in response, that in his experience, most of these former non-voters who had come out to support Brexit were “male convicts” with highly dubious views. Another argued that if stopping Brexit meant such disillusioned voters went back to not voting, this would be a good thing, because then we could go back to ignoring them. This is what the hardest of hard-line Remainers really think. It’s not a mainstream Remainer view. But it goes some way towards explaining why the second referendum crew have been so chronically incapable of taking on Nigel Farage.

What stops the zealots is the towering impediment of their own arrogance. Just as they can’t believe they might be wrong about anything or that voters are worth hearing, they simply cannot believe that they need one another. Unfortunately, no political group exemplifies this more than “Change UK”, polling at 8 per cent for the EU elections, 19 points behind Mr Farage. I say “unfortunately” because I had hoped, when they sliced 10 points off Labour’s poll numbers back in March, that this ragbag of anti-Corbyn exiles and ex-Tory media luvvies might keep Labour out of power.

Labour, even more than the Conservatives, is in an impossible position on Brexit. A populist, professional Remain campaign should be able either to draw enough votes away from them or lure them into the fatal error of backing a second referendum. Yet the pro-EU campaigners are hamstrung by their visible contempt for a huge proportion of the electorate. They don’t really want to persuade Brexit voters. What they want is for them to go away and stop clogging up ballot boxes with their stupid opinions. They want, as put by Gavin Esler, former BBC Newsnight anchor and now a Change UK candidate, to “get rid of Brexit”. When they say they want to hold a “people’s vote”, they mean an “our-sort-of-people’s vote”.

The sort of people they’d like to see voting are certainly not the sort who fly Union flags or rally behind other evocative symbols. As a disgusted Mr Esler told his former programme: “A few people on the far Right of this country dressed in flags seem to claim that theirs is patriotism.” This attitude explains why his new party’s logo is nothing so gauche as a tree or a rose or a lion, but a square box of horizontal, black and white rectangles, like a set of empty underlines waiting to be filled with text.

When, at their EU election launch last week, they found the logo had been printed in a variety of colours, from shocking pink to yellow, former Tory Anna Soubry exclaimed: “We’re so sorry they’re in different colours!” Yes, far more tasteful and less risky to have them all redone in clinical monochrome, like an overpriced Hampstead kitchen.

If Change UK had had any sense, they would have set out to form a coalition in which all the country’s non-Brexit malcontents could gather – Lib Dems, Greens, regional nationalists and the newly self-identified, pro-EU middle classes who feel abandoned by the main parties. They could have stuck someone like Mike Gapes in charge, an earnest, working-class, Labour lifer who defected out of disgust over his party’s anti-Semitism. But obviously, they handed the reins instead to slick, TV-obsessed vacuities like Heidi Allen and Chuka Umunna, who insist on claiming that their party is about “more than Brexit”. What this really means, of course, is that it’s about their own personal ambitions and they think the public is too stupid to notice. In fact, voters can smell it a mile away.

What this boils down to is whether you believe in democracy or not. The referendum revealed that an awful lot of our political classes don’t. In their hearts, they don’t like the messy, decentralised process of trial and error known as voting. They believe that a sufficiently clever or righteous person can, like a priest or a technocrat, work out the right course of action and deliver it, if only they weren’t stopped by silly, emotional, racist electorates. Diversity, for these believers, is a cosmetic quality that should be displayed, rather than a substantive one that involves argument and affects decisions.

This is why the second referendum zealots think so little of the risk their scheme poses to British political cohesion. They cannot see that a second vote, especially if Remain wins, would confirm every suspicion and conspiracy theory that voters have about the corruption of the political classes. They think there is nothing to lose by reversing the referendum result because they do not really understand the spirit of democracy – the notion that legitimacy comes from mass participation and the periodic, total dispersal of power away from rulers, rather than from the immediate utility of the outcome it produces.

It’s the same with Labour’s position on the Brexit deal. Corbyn thinks he is a true democrat and wants to implement the referendum result. But it only goes so far. The reason Labour not only want a customs union, but also a permanent lock forcing the UK to follow all EU regulations, is that they are afraid of democracy. Without this lock, they fear voters might install some dastardly Tories who would strike a trade deal with the US to “privatise our NHS”. This risk, they believe, is so terrible that to avoid it we must forever outsource all of our economic law-making to foreign technocrats. Remain or Leave is no longer the dividing line.

The question is whether you think democratic decisions are valid because they are democratic or whether you believe they are valid only if they produce the “right” outcome – Remain, more regulation, and so on. Second referendum campaigners are struggling to persuade the public because, ultimately, they don’t believe they should have to bother. Until they change their attitude, voters will reciprocate in kind.

2. Heir to evil: Nazi sentiments could be flourishing within Germany’s AfD: The Times

The rise of the far right is especially troubling in a nation haunted by its past, reports Oliver Moody in Jena

In the May Day sunshine, a beaming, middle-aged gentleman trundles through the city of Erfurt on a mobility scooter with a giant German flag furled up in the crook of his arm. Fixed to the front of his shopping basket is a homemade poster that says “Merkel Must Go”.

Up on the stage, Alexander Gauland, 78, the inveterately tweed-jacketed leader of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, is fulminating to wild applause against haughty socialists who sneer at ordinary Germans for eating sausages and driving diesel cars.

Marching through the streets a little later, several black-shirted men in the crowd raise their right arms stiffly into the air. This is precisely the sort of scene for which the AfD, the most successful right-wing populist party in modern German history, is infamous. And if a controversial study is to be believed, its passing resemblance to a Nazi rally is more than coincidental.

Three academics have needled one of Germany’s most sensitive taboos with a paper arguing that the long-dormant resentments of the 1930s are being reawakened by the AfD.

The central thesis is simple. Davide Cantoni and Felix Hagemeister, both economists at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, and Mark Westcott, of the consultancy firm Vivid Economics, took two maps.

One shows how each of Germany’s 10,873 modern-day municipalities voted in March 1933, at the last vaguely free election before Hitler became chancellor. The other shows how they voted at the general election in 2017. There are some glaring differences between the two, but it is also clear that the AfD is prospering today in many of the same districts where the Nazis did more than eight decades ago.

At first this link seems bizarre. Germany has been through so much upheaval since 1933 — purges, war, vast columns of refugees, followed by de-nazification in the west and communism in the east — that it is hard to see how any far-right views could have survived in one place for so long.

Yet Professor Cantoni argues that the smaller towns and villages of the countryside have changed less since the 1930s than one might think. Many have roughly the same size and demographic composition they had 90 years ago. The families that stayed in them, the theory goes, passed on a certain susceptibility to heady right-wing rhetoric all the way down to the present. The AfD is simply the first credible party to come along and harness it.

“Some families or communities may preserve a more conservative outlook on the world: fearful of outsiders, nationalistic, protectionist,” Professor Cantoni said. “These kinds of views can be transmitted from generation to generation: it is generally known that children’s political attitudes are highly correlated with their parents’ attitudes.”

If this is true, it should be nowhere more visible than in Thuringia, the east German state around the city of Erfurt. The state was a stronghold of the Nazi party, which won 47 per cent of the vote in the 1933 regional election.

Today it is one of the most important wellsprings of support for the AfD. The party’s local figurehead, Björn Höcke, has the ear of the national leadership. More than 40 per cent of the people in some of its rural communities, such as the villages of Grossmölsen and Göschitz, backed the party at the last general election.

The AfD is expected to give Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats a good run for their money in municipal votes at the end of the month and in a battle for the state parliament in the autumn.

Yet the first rule of modern statistics is that correlation is not causation. Two things can look as though they are linked without actually having anything meaningful to do with each other.

As far as Stefan Gerber is concerned, the ostensible relationship between the Nazi and AfD votes is a case in point. Dr Gerber, 44, an expert on Thuringian history at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, said the Nazis had seized power in the state because their energetic local leadership cleverly mopped up the right-wing vote in an unusually polarised political landscape.

“All of this has nothing to do with the reasons for the AfD’s electoral success more than 80 years later. The Nazi party is obviously in no way comparable to the AfD,” he said. “If there were above-average returns for the Nazis in Bucha and Lehnstedt [small towns near Jena] eight decades ago, and today there are above-average returns for the AfD, you shouldn’t just issue . . . papers based on the tenuous and dubious grounds of a statistical correlation.”

Not even the AfD’s bitterest enemies are persuaded that the party’s growing strength has much in common with the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s.

Markus Gleichmann, 33, who lives in Röttelmisch, a hamlet eight miles to the southwest of Jena, has observed the success of the AfD in the area at close quarters while campaigning for the Left party, a successor vehicle to the SED party that used to rule East Germany.

He argues that the study considerably over-egged the pudding: people are simply wary of change in the German countryside. “The voter base of the AfD has shifted in the last few years,” Mr Gleichmann said. “At the beginning they were above all protest voters. Now many conservatives are ready to vote for the AfD too.”

It may be that the AfD’s success in east Germany owes substantially more to communism than to Nazism.

After the end of the Third Reich the region spent more than 40 years in a psychological parallel universe, where it was held up by Moscow as the economic wonder of the eastern bloc, and largely spared the mass immigration that poured into the West.

For many, reunification has been bittersweet. For some it has even been painful. Uncompetitive factories were closed. There are rural towns that have lost appreciable chunks of their population as the young drifted into the big cities. The influx of large numbers of migrants came as a cultural shock.

Michael Kaufmann, 55, a technical engineering lecturer in Jena who helped to found the Thuringian branch of the AfD six years ago, said many in the state voted for the party because they were worried about a return to the political powerlessness of the bad old days. “Most people got to know slavery, ideological indoctrination and the socialist command economy in the former German Democratic Republic [GDR],” he said. “To have overcome this is a source of great satisfaction and happiness for many. [But] now people very often tell me that they increasingly get feelings of déjà vu. You feel as though you have been sent back into the GDR era. Because of political correctness and the laws around language you can no longer openly speak your mind. Anyone who makes critical remarks in the wrong place is abused as a Nazi. The reporting in the media is perceived as state-sponsored propaganda. The old parties present themselves in the important areas of policy as a single block, without any discernible differences.”

The Munich study may be unpopular and uncomfortable reading for many Germans. Yet the theory at its core is hard to discount altogether. There is good evidence that this kind of rancour can resurface after lurking in the background for many decades.

One 2016 study found Greek towns that had suffered massacres at the hands of the Nazis in the Second World War were more likely to stop buying German cars during the stand-off over eurozone debt crisis.

Another suggested that the Austrian far right had capitalised on anti-Islamic feelings in some districts that went as far back as the Ottoman sieges of Vienna in 1529 and 1683. On this sort of timescale, the grievances of the 1920s begin to look almost like current affairs.


Sierra said...

"it’s that a clear majority against leaving the European Union is emerging"

Seems to have emerged:

Colin Davies said...

Well, the only thing I know for sure is that, whatever my original view was, it's now time to stop this farce and cancel the whole shooting match.. There will, of course, be recriminations but fewer probably that with any other scenario.