Tag Archives: Politics

Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen)

The route from Manzanares Real to El Escorial took us to the foothills of the Sierra Guadarrama mountain range and directly past one of the few remaining reminders of the Franco regime – the Valle de los Caídos.  The Valley of the Fallen is a shallow green natural basin tucked into the folds of the mountain about fifty kilometres north of central Madrid.  It is the controversial last resting place of the dictator General Francisco Franco who conceived this place for himself out of his own arrogance and conceit.

For almost forty years until his death on 20th November 1975 the Generalíssimo was someone that Spaniards could not escape from.  He was there in school books, church prayers, statues, plaques, street names and thousands of other reminders of a violent insurrection that led to a vicious civil war.  Now though his face and name are being erased from public view and even the army, where nostalgia for the dictator survived long after his death in 1975, has pledged to remove all plaques, statues and monuments to the regime of a man it once revered.

From the entrance gate there is a five kilometre drive to the monument on a road that passes through lush vegetation of tall pines punctuated by a scattering of oak, ilex and poplar trees and which passes over a couple of elegant stone bridges and at the top is the most recent piece of fascist religious monumental architecture to have been erected in western Europe.  A huge blue-grey granite cross soars one hundred and fifty metres into the sky which on a clear day can be seen from the centre of Madrid and no wonder because it is claimed to be the largest in the World.  Below the cross are a series of arches overlooking a wide featureless concrete esplanade and beyond the galleries is the entrance to the basilica through two modest bronze doors.

The floor is made of granite and black marble and above it there is an interior dome lined in gold mosaic.  The basilica is longer than St Peter’s in Rome and almost as high and is built to dimensions that matched the mountainous ego of its creator.  Officially it is a war memorial in remembrance of all those who perished in the Spanish civil war and a symbol of forgiveness and peace but the monument has never actually managed to achieve this worthy status because it was built partly by using Republican prisoners as labourers and the grim intimidating monument has always been seen rather as a symbol of the victory of the Nationalists.

Today the monument is an embarrassment to the State and successive Spanish governments have agonised over what to do with it.  Since 2004 the left-leaning government, which has been following a policy of the removal of Francoist symbols from public buildings and spaces, has had an uneasy relationship with a monument that is the most conspicuous legacy from Franco’s rule.

In November 2009, Patrimonio Nacional, who manages the building, suddenly and controversially ordered the closure of the basilica for an indefinite period of time, citing as a reason deterioration and preservation issues which may affect the cross and compromise some of the sculptures. These allegations have been contested by technical experts and the religious community that lives in the complex, and had been seen by some conservative opinion groups as a policy of harassment against the monument, an opinion reinforced when in 2010 the Pieta sculpture group started to be ‘dismantled’ with hammers and heavy machinery.

Every year on the first Saturday after the 20th November old hard-line Francoists attend a religious ceremony at the monument in his memory, which is really a massive political rally, and this annual gathering of fascists is also an embarrassment to the government and to most of modern Spain.

We had read that the monument was closed but the gate was open so we swung inside anyway and pulled up beside the pay kiosk at the entrance where a middle aged lady explained that the monument wasn’t open and we should leave.  I followed some cars and drove on expecting to find a turning point but after a kilometre it was obvious there wasn’t one and the cars we were following were authorised to be there so I did a three point turn instead next to two vertical granite columns at either side of the road.

What we hadn’t known about was the significance of the 20th November and being only a week away this must have been making the people on the gate a bit nervous because as we drove down we passed the woman from the kiosk who was pursuing us in a red Seat and who waved frantically to us as we drove by.

Political rallies in celebration of the former dictator are now banned by the Law of Historical Memory, voted on by the Congress of Deputies in October 2007 and it seems that the authorities were anticipating extra trouble this year in response to the closure of the monument and back at the gate two burly guards were shaking their heads and giving disapproving grimaces.  I gave my best socialist smile and made pathetic gestures of apology but then left as quickly as possible and rejoined the road to El Escorial where we hoped we might be made to feel more welcome.

The Reasons not to Trust politicians

At the start of the UK political party conference season it appears that there is nothing but bad news for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats.

Should we be surprised?

In 2010 the UK electorate, tired of extreme politics and disillusioned by Labour (the lies of Blair and the incompetence of Brown) did something new and tried to break the mould of UK see-saw party politics.  The electorate knew that it wanted rid of Gordon Brown but it was not prepared to give the next prime minister an overwhelming endorsement. Across the whole country and across the political spectrum, in an uncoordinated electoral strategy they denied a majority to either party by transferring their votes to what they thought was the centre ground of politics – the Liberal Democrats.

The former Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan once said, ‘There are times, perhaps once every thirty years, when there is a sea change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of.”

The UK electorate thought that Clegg was someone to trust and so they gave him and his party a unique opportunity to hold the balance of power, to prevent extremism, at least in the short term, and govern in the national interest.  This was the clear message from the electorate, surely no one could misinterpret it, they didn’t want to give outright power to any one party and they thought Clegg was the man to make this a reality.

Unfortunately as soon as the polls closed, the ballot boxes emptied and the votes counted the Liberal Democrats forgot all their promises and in greedy pursuit of the power that had been denied to them for a hundred years and to satisfy personal ambition completely missed the point the electorate had made and negotiated to become part of a Government with an extreme right wing agenda.

Broken political promises are nothing new but ushered in by the Liberal-Democrats the coalition government has brought betrayals of manifesto commitments that, in number and scale, are unprecedented in British politics.  The Conservative Party did not have a mandate to implement their radical fiscal and economic policies but seduced Clegg into Government so that they could turn a blind eye to the electoral message.

If the political parties won’t pay attention to the electorate then what we need are legislative checks and balances.  A party without a clear majority should not be allowed to implement a radical programme of policies based on extreme party doctrine even with the assistance of coalition partners – no, especially with the assistance of duped coalition partners.  The electorate didn’t want the Tories to rule (they only achieved 36.1% of the vote) in the interests of the privileged few they wanted a Government that ruled in the interests of the majority.

Actually, I personally find it incredulous that the Conservatives can get anywhere near control of Government.  They represent the interests of only a fraction of the country.  The Labour Party should be the automatic party of Government.  They achieve power through false promises and lies and people who shouldn’t be voting for them for some reason vote for them.  I previously worked with people who voted Conservative and then complained when they lost their jobs in the Tory attack on public services.  They only had themselves to blame!

The General Election of 2010 will go down in history books as a missed opportunity.  The electorate almost achieved their objective but they failed to take into account the duplicitous nature of politicians who refused to receive the message that they were being given.  The Prime Minister David Cameron said that the UK’s first coalition in decades marked a “historic and seismic shift” in British politics, sadly it did nothing of the sort because the high handed Tories have presumed to govern in exactly the way the electorate told them not to!

This is a shame and cause for some despondency because I don’t believe the electorate will be so generous or as imaginative in 2015 when there will be a certain return to traditional extreme politics that we are used to, but, on the positive side at least this will be more honest because what we have now is right wing politics implemented through betrayal and deceit.

What is becoming clear is that Nick Clegg is finished and probably so are the Liberal-Democrats, they will get their just deserts when the electorate gets the opportunity to pass judgement on their blatant betrayal of trust and they will be swept away in a electoral tsunami which will return us to the two party system that we have suffered for three hundred years.  They will live to regret not embracing the alternative to coalition, which was to support the Tories on an issue-by-issue basis.  As for Clegg himself, there will be no justice and instead of the shame and obscurity he deserves he will probably be rewarded with a Knighthood and a lucrative job somewhere in Brussels!

The Privatisation of Public Services

On 11th February 1975 the Conservative Party choose Margaret Thatcher as their new leader and when she eventually became the first woman Prime Minister the country was engulfed in a wave of right wing extremism that as usual picked on local government for a real good kicking.

In the 1980s and 1990s because Margaret Thatcher thought that the private sector was, by definition, much more competent and efficient in these matters than the public sector and local authorities were required to offer certain services for open competition under what was called ‘Compulsory Competitive Tendering’.  If only she had known the truth – ‘Compusory Competitive Thieving’ would have been a more appropriate project title!

Rubbish collection was one of these services and so that the waste management companies could cope with all the new work and local authorities couldn’t cheat, the Government set out a phased three year programme and one by one local authority services were thrown into a private sector pond full of hungry piranha ready to strip the flesh off of public services, cynically reduce service standards and hopefully get fat at the council tax payer’s expense. As soon as the waste management companies spotted a contract they took a liking to they would express an interest, obtain the tender documents and specifications and go to work sharpening their pencils.

This was never a scientific process and the first thing the tendering manager did was to get up early one Monday morning and sit outside the council depot and count the dustcarts and the number of men in them as they left to go to work.  And that was about all there was to it and half an hour later over a bacon butty and a cup of tea he would write this down on the back of a fag packet and by mid morning he would have a price in his head.  Nothing else in his head, just the price!  Sometimes, if he was being especially thorough, he would go back on Tuesday morning just to check his calculations but this would be quite unusual.

The tendering manager at Cory Environmental was a man called Tony Palmer and for Tony arriving at the tender price was gloriously simple.  If the Council had ten refuse collection rounds, the company would do it with nine, and just in case the Council could do it for nine then they would do it with eight so that would immediately undercut the Council price by 20%.  Just to make absolutely certain they would find out how much a refuse collector was paid each week and then they would reduce that by 20% as well.  If the Council had three mechanics to keep the fleet running they would do it with two and so on and so on. There was no way these boys could fail to win tenders!

I worked for the private sector waste management companies for ten years between 1990 and 2000 and then thankfully was able to return to local government where services are provided properly through direct delivery so imagine my horror when ‘son of Thatcher’ David Cameron became Conservative Prime Minister in 2010 and has embarked on a similar dismantling of public services and twenty years after my first painful experience in the incompetent world of the private sector I find myself facing the same prospect all over again.