Gibraltar is just displacement activity for Spain

Trying to distract itself from the financial crisis.

Normally Spanish late night television is like Hello magazine in debate form. A group of journalists sit around and shout at each other about which Matador is dating which model. It’s light it’s fluffy and it goes on for hours.

Last week though it was all a little different as the debate turned from Spain’s equivalent of Katy Price to a large inhabited rock at the very tip of the country. In the UK the story of Gibraltar has been covered with a hint of incredulity and as the situation in Syria intensifies is less often in the news. But Spanish media continue to cover it, and with increasing levels of belligerence.

As an example in the four days up to August 28th Spanish television channel Telecinco, always slightly right leaning perhaps, had covered the story in its news coverage no less than 8 times. It’s got the attention of the Spanish populace in a way that it never has in the UK.

However almost everyone you speak to in the Spanish capital knows it’s all a smoke screen for the major problems in the country. In particular the word on the streets of Madrid is that a dispute with Gibraltar couldn’t come at a better time for the scandal hit government of Mariano Rajoy.

Rajoy and his party, the Partido Popular (PP,) have been accused of taking backhanders and general corruption in a story that just won’t go away. Worse he’s presiding over the worst financial crisis in the country’s democratic history. Perhaps it’s significant then that it is the central government that has complained the most vehemently over alleged damage to Spanish fishing. Raising what was effectively a local fishing dispute to a matter that could yet go before the United Nations.

Significant or not, suddenly the Spanish are talking about little else (well there is one other subject but more on that later.) Rarely now do you overhear conversations in Madrid about the "crisis" or the employment situations of their friends and children. And yet in the same breath Spaniards mention that they know it’s all a distraction. The Spanish wanted, no needed, something else to occupy their minds other than one in four being out of work, over half the youth unable to find employment and a government and monarchy deeply embroiled in corruption scandals.

For many though there was a sense of disappointment that the argument was being led by a beleaguered government and on a subject normally only beloved of the right. So when the national obsession came up with a new distraction the smiles spread.

To many outside of Spain the distraction of one club seeking to buy a talented welsh footballer for a rumoured £86 million seems hardly something that would grip a nation.

Except, for the Spanish the club in question, Real Madrid is not just a football team. It’s a national icon and football is a way of life. To many it seems insane in a crisis riven economy to spend so much on one man. But the debate in Spain about the cost of Gareth Bale lasted 5 minutes.

Because Spaniards on the whole, and Real fans in particular, didn’t see it as a waste of money, they saw it as a source of pride. The reason was for the Spanish the acquisition of Bale is a different type of distraction to Gibraltar. It’s one where Spain was no longer a nation in suffering but one where they could compete with, and beat, the rest of the world. It’s just the tonic the nation needed.

Now all of us should just hope Spain doesn’t think that the Gibraltar situation is another where they can take on the world and beat them. But then they already know it’s just one big distraction, and they’d probably prefer to watch the football anyway.

Mike Cobb is a reporter at Private Banker International

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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