However much we try — and lots of us don’t — we fall for the power of the photo-image. So the news, as reported in Britain, was simple: Spanish police brutal; Catalan democracy assailed. I am not in a position to know the real facts about the violence, so I simply note that the estimates for those injured in Catalonia on Sunday vary from 844 to two in hospital. But so much was left out by the dominant account. First, the referendum was illegal under the constitutional law of Spain (reinforced by the Catalan Supreme Court). Serious votes normally need legal form, for good reason. Otherwise, they are more open to manipulation by those calling them, and therefore their results are untrustworthy. The whole of Spain has an interest in the future of Catalonia, since Catalonia is a part of it. The whole of Spain gave no permission for this referendum. Second, our media made the same mistake they make here when they speak of ‘the Scots’, but mean the SNP. ‘The Catalans’ are not the same as Catalan separatists. In the last regional elections in Catalonia, the secessionists did not win a majority of the vote. In their stunt of a referendum, even by their own count, they got less than 30 per cent of the vote of those eligible, which suggests that although a lot of Catalans want independence, a lot more don’t. We knew that already. Now this minority will declare ‘independence’. At the time of writing, no foreign power has supported the separatists’ theatrics, except for Jeremy Corbyn’s friend Nicholas Maduro of Venezuela.
I have seen Spain’s behaviour contrasted unfavourably with David Cameron’s ‘generous’ approach to the Scottish referendum. It sounds rather British to be relaxed about people having referendums if they want them, but in fact it is something which needs thinking through. In the Scottish case, Mr Cameron was insouciant about the wording of the question (much too favourable to the SNP) and about the ramifications of a Yes on all UK citizens affected by the result yet unable — because not resident in Scotland — to affect it. Even his Brexit referendum, though rendered necessary by previous broken promises, was launched almost frivolously, without proper rules or a plan of what to do if the vote went against him.
By the simple expedients of being cheerful and attacking Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson scored a deserved hit at the Tory conference on Tuesday. It is right not to be shy about questioning Mr Corbyn’s record. But while it is true that Mr Corbyn has never wavered, over 40 years, in his extreme socialist views, it is also worth noting that he has recently changed his tone a lot. It reminds me of how Ian Paisley, without ever recanting his anti-Popery, dropped his noisy and lurid 1970s expressions of it, and adopted a more modern political voice. In his speech in Brighton last week, Mr Corbyn almost completely left out one of his deepest convictions — the need for a return of trade union power. Those who know his mind will find traces of this belief if they look hard, but the public in general and the young in particular will have heard only about more public spending, the re-nationalisation of utilities and railways and higher taxes on the rich. The hard left is always obsessed with hard power, and the unions are their essential tool for capturing the economy. So when Mr Corbyn barely mentions them, his omission is entirely deliberate.
Niall Ferguson has just brought out a book called The Square and The Tower. It is about the omnipresence of networks, now and in the past. At his launch party — suitably in some great tower of wealth in equally suitable St James’s Square — Niall was introduced by a man whom he described as ‘my private banker’, thus indicating that when it comes to networking, the great professor is on the money. Civilisation has surely reached its apex when historians have private bankers. Unfortunately, my own banker is so private that I have quite forgotten who he is.
Before Niall spoke, a woman friend and I were discussing a curious phenomenon of our time. We live in an age of unprecedented woman power, and yet another, perhaps even stronger trend contradicts this. Nowadays, in a way almost unimaginable 30 years ago, women are regarded as the best people to put up front. It is almost always better for an organisation’s public face to be a woman: it inspires more interest and more trust. The counter trend, however, is that the inner workings of almost everything to do with computers, the internet, Silicon Valleys, Glens and Roundabouts, are overwhelmingly dominated by men. ‘Emotional literacy’ is highly prized in public culture and mostly associated with women. But the high-techies, who can make (and lose) the world’s money, and whose spiderlike skills weave the worldwide web, are mostly male — and often the least emotionally literate members of my sex at that. Who’s winning?
If you cross the roads round Trafalgar Square, the pedestrian lights no longer show red or green men. Currently, they display same-sex gender symbols interlocked, or the transgender sign, instead. On other occasions, I have been told, they depict two women holding hands, or two men standing together. They were introduced temporarily for the Gay Pride march last year, but seem to have popped up again. Technically, this jeu d’esprit must be capable of wide variation — one could have crucifix traffic lights when the Passion is enacted in the square on Good Friday, or a pack of red/green hounds when the next Countryside March tramps by. But on the whole, it would be better if these lights had only one, unambiguous message. They should simply tell you when to cross a road, which can be matter of life or death. Perhaps the only way of avoiding the intrusion of the politically correct equivalent of product placement is to use the plain words favoured in American cities: ‘WALK’ and ‘DON’T WALK’.