Spain: a victory for peace, or for defeatism?
The message of the Spanish elections seems to be ‘make it all go away’, ‘stop the world, we want to get off’.
The Spanish election results show how wrong the Right was to suppose that the Madrid bombings would boost support for the ruling Popular Party of José Maria Aznar. But it is equally wrong to imagine that the Socialists’ shock win marks a political victory for the anti-war movement.
The results confirm two new characteristics of contemporary politics in Spain and Europe. First, the inability of governments and politicians to connect with a deeply mistrustful public, even when they are presented with such a ready-made focus for national unity as the Madrid massacre. And second, the extent to which a mood of uncertainty and fear now shapes public opinion far more than any political notions of Left v Right.
Aznar’s government tried to seize the Madrid bombings as a rare opportunity to speak for the nation as a whole. In its eagerness to connect with the public mood it declared three days of national mourning almost before the first bodies had been removed from the wreckage. But it handled this delicate situation as clumsily as isolated politicians seem to do with everything these days, rushing to blame the Basque separatists of Eta.
The dust had barely settled over central Madrid before there were protests in the capital accusing the PP of a cover-up over who planted the bombs, and of trying to turn the tragedy into an electoral stunt. The subsequent (equally unsubstantiated) claim that al-Qaeda was responsible was widely interpreted as further evidence against Aznar. In a sense, the evidence either way was irrelevant. The powerful assumption these days is simply that you cannot trust anything a government says.
The mood-swing against the Popular Party should be seen not so much as anti-war as anti-politics. People did not seem to be voting against Spain’s support for the Iraq war as such; after all, that was not expected to prevent a comfortable PP victory just a week ago. Rather, they were voting post-bombing, in protest at the suggestion that the war had now exposed them to danger.
That looks less like a vote against the war than a vote against the idea of taking any decisive action that might have consequences. If so, it is not a victory for peace, and certainly not for socialism, but more for resignation and defeatism. It might have defeated a government of the Right, but it is a deeply conservative mood that does nothing to further the cause of real political change.
The message of the huge protests that followed the bombings had already indicated the underlying problems with the way that the response was shaping up. As we noted here last week, the government-backed slogans under which the protests were mobilised were ‘For the victims, For the constitution, For the defeat of terrorism’. But who in Spain is against the victims and for the victory of terrorism? The protests might just as well have been called ‘For Good, Against Evil’. That is a vague basis on which to give a wounded nation a new sense of purpose.
The lack of any more focused political response left the Spanish protests as an impressive but incoherent outpouring of empathy with the victims. When King Juan Carlos appeared on television before a black-fringed flag to reassure the Spanish people that ‘Your King suffers with you’, it captured the national state of mourning. Of course these are understandable emotions in the face of such a tragedy. But in the absence of anything more substantial, they lead to a situation where suffering, sadness and apprehension appear to define what Spain stands for today.
The Spanish elections quickly brought to the surface the political incoherence and confusion behind the public response. Some Spanish commentators were certain that the bombings would favour the government, others were sure that they would aid the opposition. The honest ones conceded that they hadn’t a clue.
This is not surprising, because the election was not decided by conventional political calculations over which party had the best policies. It certainly was not a vote for the programme of the Socialist Party, which everybody (including many of its close supporters) seems to agree is not ready to govern.
Instead, the anti-political message of the Spanish elections seems to be ‘make it all go away’, ‘stop the world, we want to get off’. That is a sentiment that many of us can recognise in our own societies today.
In this climate, the outpouring of solidarity with the Madrid victims seems unlikely to generate any longer-term sense of unity in society. Such sentimental solidarity seems more likely to dissipate under pressure. The danger is that the demonstrations of grief will prove to be an emotional spasm that gives way to divisions, introspection and greater anxiety across Spain and Europe.
It has become something of an instant platitude to say that Madrid will be seen as Spain’s or Europe’s equivalent of 11 September. In terms of the reactions, let us try to ensure it is not. The American experience revealed the limitations of grief as a response to such a national trauma. The 9/11 terror attacks on New York and Washington prompted the same sort of initial feelings of national unity. The Stars and Stripes suddenly flew everywhere, in a display less of traditional American patriotism (it was noted how few of them still flew during the Iraq war) than of empathy with the victims - a red-white-and-blue version of the black ribbons that now cover Spain.
That was not enough to generate any long-term sense of social solidarity in an atomised and uncertain America. Divisions quickly appeared over who to blame for 9/11 and how it should be remembered. Weeks after being hailed as the new American heroes, New York firefighters and policemen clashed in a mass brawl at Ground Zero. Instead of a genuine sense of solidarity as a memorial to the dead, America has been left with an apparently endless and increasingly empty series of memorial ceremonies.
As the scale of Friday’s public demonstrations indicates, the good thing is that Spain retains more of a sense of community than individualised America. But the underlying problems seem much the same. Everybody agrees that the Spanish demonstrations were dignified. Dignity is an admirable way to deal with private loss. In a mass public protest, however, another word for it might be passivity. As one Spanish marcher told the BBC, ‘People feel impotent, they can’t do anything’.
According to today’s etiquette of emotional correctness, anger and rage are among the few feelings we are not supposed to show. In these extraordinary circumstances, however, they might seem healthier than the mood of resignation and fear apparently symbolised by those pictures of protesters with both hands in the air. That is not the best position from which to link arms and march boldly towards the future.
Eight million on the march against terrorism certainly looks like a victory for democracy. But when the political message is mixed up with confused feelings of impotence, anxiety and defeatism, it may not be such a setback for the terrorists as some imagine. After all, they are trying to terrorise us, not persuade us to vote for them.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
After Madrid: a strange sort of solidarity, by Mick Hume
Terror for terror’s sake, by Brendan O’Neill