The funeral service has been held today for the victims of last week's awful train crash in Santiago. The judicial investigation into what happened is also just underway, although for many it's already a closed case. Despite the fact that the black boxes recovered intact from the train have still not been opened, and that no serious investigation of all possible factors has yet occurred, for Spain's government and sections of the media it's a done deal. The train driver is to blame for everything.
The accusation has enthusiastic support. La Razón and ABC, competitors in the bid to be the most servile conduit for the Spanish government's message of the day, have been the worst offenders with some truly appalling reporting. It may be the case that the driver didn't do what he needed to do in the section of the route where the crash occurred, but the reasons for pointing the finger so loudly and quickly at him have little to do with a real desire to know the truth about what happened.
In what was fairly clearly a political manoeuvre, the police were ordered by the interior ministry to arrest and hold the train driver even though he was in hospital following the crash and showed no signs of going anywhere. In Spain it's the investigating magistrate who has to present any formal accusation and so it was that yesterday the driver appeared before the magistrate and, at least from what has been reported, recognised that he failed to reduce the speed of the train as he entered the curve where the fatal derailment occurred. He's facing charges of reckless manslaughter.
The media and political campaign didn't need to wait for such needless legal formalities. The driver of the train had posted a photo on Facebook some time ago of the speed display on his train showing 200km per hour. That was enough for those looking for a summary trial, the driver had obviously caused the accident because he is a reckless, boastful, boy racer. Now I've travelled many times on Alvia trains like that involved in the accident and similar ones running on high speed tracks built for the faster AVE, and they still go very fast - frequently at more than 200km per hour. So a train driver pointing out that he has hit 200km with a train like this isn't boasting about doing something that he shouldn't do.
What is really missing in such tragic circumstances is that someone from the government appears and makes clear that all necessary steps will be taken to ensure such an accident doesn't happen again. If that has happened, I haven't seen it. There hasn't even been a single press conference yet by the heads of the public companies involved, infrastructure (ADIF) or operator (RENFE). Instead the government, in what has now become almost a trademark procedure for PP administrations, looks for someone to blame and then acts as if responsibility for rail safety has nothing to do with the national government. It's that Prestige approach to crisis management all over again with that special "how dare you call me to account for what happens on my watch" arrogance.
But there's more to it than this habitual attempt to evade any political responsibility, commercial motives have also played their part in this urgent campaign to blame the driver and only the driver. Spanish companies are bidding for high speed rail projects around the world and in some cases there are conditions for bidding that include a clean safety record. So the line where the accident occurred is no longer considered to be high speed since the accident, although it was presented as such and forms part of the planned AVE line connecting Madrid and Galicia. It's true that no AVE trains run on the line at the moment, but there are services running on it capable of travelling at speeds up to 250km per hour. That's not high speed?
The regional president of Galicia, Alberto Nuñez Feijóo, who should be fully occupied with the consequences of dealing with those affected by the crash in his region instead decided to go for the idiotic 'Leyenda Negra' argument claiming that evil unnamed foreign interests are out to get Spain's successful high speed rail industry. Despite obvious differences, I'm reminded of the Paddington train crash in 1999; a product of a stupid and disastrous privatisation plan that left passenger safety at the bottom of the priorities list way behind the bonuses and fat profits that were being earned by those in charge of the rail infrastructure. It was another avoidable accident, and as in the case of Santiago there was a concerted campaign to attribute it to 'human error' rather than to deficient safety systems.
So what do I mean when I write about deficient safety systems? How about this odd situation where, of 87 kilometres of high speed line built between Ourense and Santiago, the last 7km into Santiago were left with a safety system dating from the 1960's whilst the rest were equipped with a modern state of the art system. A modern and expensive system which is not being used at the moment, for reasons which have not been explained. Yes, the 7 km with the old system includes the stretch where the crash occurred. The driver should have braked 4 kilometres before the curve, says the president of ADIF. Which sounds like more than enough time until you do the calculation and understand that a train travelling at 190km takes little over a minute to cover that distance. An up to date safety system would have stopped that train.
At first many people were also asking what such a potentially dangerous curve was doing on a high speed line, requiring a train to slow down to a maximum of 80km in a relatively short distance. It seems that this is far from being a unique case on Spain's high speed lines. Nor is it necessarily a bad solution in itself. The alternative is to either put a special AVE station well outside of Santiago city limits (Tarragona or Segovia style), to tunnel, or to bulldoze a significant part of the city to build a nice straight line for the fast train. The drive for speed above all else is a big part of the problem.
The AVE has become, in these times of crisis, an absurd trophy project that swallows huge resources at the expense of the rest of Spain's rail network. Both in terms of investment and because other train services around the country are being cut so that fares on the AVE can be discounted for expensive trains that have to run almost full to stand a chance of breaking even. This time it's prestige with a small 'p', the AVE offers tremendous inauguration and boasting possibilities for Spanish politicians from all governments since the 1990's and has become an untouchable icon of Spanish progress. So you have the bizarre way in which the new Madrid-Alicante line was introduced just before the summer, the authorities on the inaugural ride whizzed through ghost stations where a dirt road leaves the forecourt. Then those managing the line beg, borrow or steal the rolling stock from other high speed lines so that appearances can be maintained. Everything works fine until it doesn't.
The technology already existed to prevent the Santiago accident, and it has existed for quite a long time. Placing all responsibility on the driver for anything that happens on a high speed rail line isn't just unfair, it's irresponsible. It seems hard to believe that everything will just continue as before with the driver as the scapegoat. You have to hope that, at the very least, when memories of the accident fade and the commercial bids have been submitted workers will be quietly sent in to put in place the safety system that such a section of track requires. You hope, but you can't be sure that's what will happen.
Puerto Natales, one of the places where we stayed on our trip to Chile last winter, is not a big town. In the Patagonian summer it does modestly well out of tourism, mainly from those who want to walk, as we did, the nearby Torres del Paine national park. Given the way the wind blew when we visited I can't imagine wanting to spend too much time there outside of that slightly warmer season. It's certainly not the first place you would expect to find members of the growing Spanish diaspora, those for whom economic exile is becoming the only way forward. But the waiter who served us one night in the local asador was from Barcelona, and the receptionist in our hotel from Canarias.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, we were at a family wedding in Oxfordshire. Having breakfast in the hotel the morning of the wedding my partner was talking in English to the waitress for a few seconds until, in that way the Spanish have of recognising each other, the waitress started talking to her in Spanish. Two people from Cadiz working in the middle of the English countryside. Last week it was a weekend in Innsbruck, the hotel receptionist who checked us in was Catalan. So what, some people say, young Spaniards have spent periods abroad for years and there is some truth in that. London in the late 1980's and 1990's always seemed to have a large Spanish population.
But I think some things have changed. Young Spaniards are not just going overseas now to get away from home for a year and pretend to learn a foreign language. Also, many of those who are leaving are not so young. People who would possibly be thinking more in terms of a settled life and maybe starting a family are also amongst those looking for a fresh chance overseas. This is not the rural exodus of the 1950's and 1960's, many of those making the move belong to the best educated sector of Spanish society. Many of them are going for the foreseeable future.
To the lords of the rentier economy, the Botins and others, there is no problem. They've got what they want from the crisis and everything seems to be going just fine as they pick over the debris from the crash. A complacent, and utterly useless, government seeks only to manage the situation in such a way that they don't get replaced by anyone else. Job creation is a skill reserved for friends and family only. The Spanish government even sets up websites to encourage people to look for work overseas. This weeks new government euphemism in a crisis where euphemism production has never been so healthy is to describe the growing exodus as "external mobility".
The government will be happy to get rid of those voters most likely to be critical, and emigration looks like being the only factor in the next few years (barring extensive statistical manipulation) that can make any significant dent in an unemployment figure likely to reach 27% by the end of this year. So if lots of people leave it can be presented as yet another fake signal of economic recovery. Those on the receiving end are not fooled by the talk of recovery, they can look at piles of unsuccessful job applications, their friends in the same situation, and draw a sad but understandable conclusion. It's Spain's huge loss, a well prepared generation taking their skills elsewhere.
Although I usually blog about Spanish issues here, there are always exceptional cases. I was not even planning to write anything about the death of Margaret Thatcher, but the disgraceful and ideologically incoherent decision not to privatise her funeral and to turn it instead into an expensive and wasteful military jamboree has made me change my mind.
The armed forces presence in her funeral has of course been designed above all to pay homage to a military adventure only exceeded in its pointless absurdity by Aznar's dramatic capture of the goats grazing on Isla Perejil a few years back. The Falklands War was memorably described by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges as being like two bald men fighting over a comb. Nevertheless, we are still force fed a mythical account of democracy triumphing over fascist tyranny as one set of troops conscripted by unemployment overran the positions of another group of, often very young, untrained conscripts shivering in their trenches.
Except that not too long before the Falklands War the UK was training Argentinian naval officers in Portsmouth. That's right, the same navy that was running one of the most notorious torture centres of the last 50 years. Why be surprised? Anyone who was such an ardent friend and admirer of Pinochet as Thatcher was would also surely be a friend of those who tossed their victims alive from planes into the sea? Operation Condor, bringing nasty vicious murderers together throughout the 1970's and 80's. Indeed, such was Thatcher's fierce commitment to liberty that she was also one of the most determined defenders of the apartheid regime, labeling the ANC as a terrorist organisation. For a while I was becoming concerned that she would outlive Nelson Mandela, thankfully we've now been spared that sorry and unjust outcome.
Meanwhile the fans of Thatcher's economics, of which there are many, have developed an understandable aversion to hard data. Because it's not a theoretical debate, not any more, after 34 years the results are in and it doesn't look good. Average economic growth in the 30 years following her election in 1979 has been significantly poorer than in the preceding 30 years. Then there is unemployment. Here things are even worse, high unemployment has become an almost permanent feature of the UK economy since 1979. Ironic when you consider that Thatcher used it as the main issue of her first election campaign. Even more so when you take into account the numerous changes made to the unemployment count that were designed to artificially reduce the figures.
Then there is oil. Many oil producing countries have been noticeably wasteful in the use they have made of their earnings from it. But even so it's hard to think of a country that has obtained absolutely no long-term benefit at all from it. That's the UK. Stupid Norway eh, with its sovereign wealth funds trying to use oil revenues to guarantee decent pensions and to invest in the future of their economy! What would they know? Idiots. Showing the way forward, the UK under Thatcher pissed away the country's oil wealth on corporate tax breaks and the like. Not even a balance of payments surplus to show for it. Nada, cero patatero.
I think of these things when, as I did in the days immediately preceding Thatcher's death, I travel on the finest Victorian public transport system in the world. I don't know what they did to make The Tube work during the Olympics but the sellotape and chewing gum has now fallen off again and you get plenty of time to think about all sorts of issues as the tannoy announces yet another delay or line closure. Cut long term investment for short term political gain via tax cuts and nobody notices the true effects for 15-20 years. Thatcherism in a nutshell.
It's a failure, an abject failure if you analyse the data. But the dogma survives in the form of "my theory must be correct so therefore something is wrong with the economy". We see it today with the slash and burn economics practised in the name of austerity. Indeed, the current crisis has its roots deep in the kind of economics advocated by Thatcher. The UK economy has been hollowed out and nobody has any notion of how to get it working again without generating yet another "your house is temporarily worth four times its real value so don't worry be happy" credit and property bubble. Of course we have to present the other side of the argument. There are some impressive statistics from the period since 1979. Inequality has increased enormously since Thatcher came to power. Poverty too. That deliberate redistribution of wealth to those that already had the most is what sustains the stupid, failed dogma. It works magnificently for those who wield economic power.
It's hardly surprising in this context of economic failure that the inheritors of Thatcher's political tradition promote hatred and fear of the poor to mask their failure to deliver. If a millionaire member of the Bullingdon Club turns out to be a misogynist prepared to kill his children to take revenge on a woman who has spurned him then it's an isolated case you see. Shit happens. But if the misogynist in question happens to be drawing welfare benefits then we get the vile, repugnant attempts by the likes of George Osborne to use the case to smear all welfare recipients. Likewise, if you've promoted policies that mean a huge chunk of social housing stock has ended up in the hands of private landlords then obviously the only solution to a lack of housing for those on low incomes is to blame those who are still lucky enough to have a roof and a spare bedroom. So you make their incomes even lower. There are even more vindictive policies than that.
Ah, but you don't understand how terrible things were before she came to power is the last resort of the Thatcherites. But I do know how things were before Thatcher, and it seems I have a much better memory than her fans. I don't just remember strikes and tales of inexorable decline, I remember a country supposedly much poorer than it is now yet able to provide a whole range of reasonable public services that have now become perplexingly unaffordable. Pensioners weren't expected to live out their last years on the poverty line, a health service that kept people healthy without corporate sponsorship! Industries that made things. All terribly old-fashioned I know, but if I want to look for evidence of long term decline I don't need to go back into history to find it.
So I'm glad that she's dead and I hope the coffin is made of lead. All the better for it to sink slowly, but relentlessly, down through the sticky London clay until it reaches a point where return becomes impossible. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go and check that the cava I have in the fridge is chilling nicely and that I have the right music selection ready for such a solemn day.
I said it last year, didn't I? Somewhere a bit further down the page. In the comments to what I now realise was a hopeless and pathetically inadequate attempt to parody what Mariano Rajoy might say about the EU rescue for Spain I noted just how difficult it is to parody the man. Then today he said this, I swear I haven't changed a single word: