Dogs, children and town councillors are welcome

Michael Portillo once waxed lyrical in praise of Spain's community life. But he hasn't got it quite

It's almost freezing. All the children are wrapped up, swathed in scarves and woollen hats, only their restless eyes visible as they hold their Chinese lanterns absent-mindedly and stare into the night, waiting for the Three Kings. My own four-year-old daughter, heaved on to my shoulders to get a better view, is speechless with excitement and nervously twiddles my earlobe.

Through the eyes of her father, an English immigrant in the midst of a Spanish village, the small miracle that is about to take place is a social rather than a religious one. In a few minutes a municipal police car, lights flashing, will lead three whopping great floats, each carrying one of the Three Kings, his lavish throne and his entourage in matching costumes, into the village. The crowd will part and a hush will fall as the mayor climbs up three wooden steps onto a pedestal to greet their royal majesties.

Without once stepping out of character, and with no asides for the benefit of the adults, he will deliver a solemn address about the highs and lows of the last civic year. Three hours of festivities follow, including a Mass - at which the priest will make another speech which is less well attended - the queueing for a present from your favourite King in the village hall, and finally, the piece de resistance: the Kings will tour the village on their thrones throwing sweets and delivering presents (collected secretly from the parents the previous week) to the children, in person.

It has been the same as long as anyone can remember. On 5 January, in every village, town, city or barrio in Spain, the same public ritual takes place. The Three Kings is the most universal, if not the only or even the biggest, popular fiesta in the calendar.

Just before Christmas, a radio producer called and asked if I could translate an interview for Michael Portillo's latest series on Spain. I couldn't in the end, but I was reminded of the first time Portillo's surprising Spanishness emerged - a fact as seemingly implausible as the Duke of Edinburgh being Greek.

In 1994, when he was Treasury Secretary, Portillo came to Barcelona and made a speech in Spanish. "In Spain, family ties appear to be stronger and there is probably a clearer spirit of local community. Those are precious bonds," he intoned.

I could see he was on to something - until, that is, displaying the fumbling manner that characterises British attempts to understand Europe, he firmly grasped the wrong end of the stick and started on the real target of his speech: big government in general and the welfare state in particular. "Relations between neighbours," he said, "are no longer the vital bonds of interdependency, holding society together, because many people have come to look first to the agencies of the state when they are in need."

The speech was made to Spanish businessmen, during a recession, in the final years of an increasingly discredited socialist government. But even under the most favourable conditions, this argument would not cut much ice in Spain. If social spending had to be cut - as some Spanish businessmen once timidly suggested - it would be in order to make business more competitive, not to improve family life.

In fact, the current right-wing government, voted in two years later and led by the former taxman Jose Maria Aznar, has trodden extremely carefully with its reforms in health and pensions - such as rationalising the number of prescribable drugs and driving harder bargains with the pharmaceutical companies - while declaring very clearly all the way that nothing is being dismantled.

But it was Portillo's unusual intimations about Spanish social life that I remembered striking a chord. While waiting for the Three Kings, I tried to think of any social - in the public rather than drinks party sense - events in Britain over Christmas. (As usual, we had spent Christmas with my English family.) On reflection there were two, though I'm not sure if Santa's grotto in the shopping precinct in Fleet really qualifies. The one undoubted contender was a heroic performance by the vicar of Crondall, who filled his church for a children's service which culminated in Santa Claus riding in on a real horse. But I didn't get the feeling that anyone there, except possibly the choir, had ever seen each other before.

Trying to translate normal, everyday existence in Spain into English, I always face one, almost insurmountable, problem. I find myself drawn inexorably into the realm of village fetes, old biddies, bouncy castle competitions and pub darts. Seen, as it usually is in Britain, from a more elevated and almost certainly more isolated position, this setting inevitably sounds like the script for a bad television series. Spaniards, on the other hand, take their everyday life, and their immediate social surroundings, seriously - you could say it is what they take most seriously.

This is what accounts for the vitality - and power - of their ayuntamientos ("town councils" doesn't do them justice) and the survival of their popular culture. It also explains why the word "federalism" in Spain is all about giving more power to the regions, not centralisation. Portillo was using the Spanish example to point to the evils of big government when, in fact, most Spaniards want more of it, not less - as long as it's nearby and they know who's in it.

And where, exactly, has this got them? Statistics on Spain's booming economy would miss the point. The answer is absolutely nowhere. It's a way of life, not a ruse to win a competition. It's not going to show up in international league tables, or thrust Spain overnight on to the United Nations Security Council. But occasionally it does get noticed. My eye was caught recently by a headline on the back of the Barcelona daily, La Vanguardia: "The English Still Think You Ride Donkeys." Below it was an interview with the author Tom Sharpe, who lives for half the year in the small coastal town of Llafranc, on the Costa Brava, which he discovered in the late eighties.

Asked why he has chosen to live in Catalonia for much of the year he replied: "Because it is superior in many ways to London. You know the Anglo-Saxons don't want to admit that you know how to live better: the health service is better here, you're civic culture is better and you aren't so class-conscious."

Curious to know how Sharpe and Portillo had reached at least one similar conclusion, I arranged to visit him in his quiet retreat in the off-season resort.

I already agreed with him on the health service. When my eldest daughter was nine-months old, we discovered that she had a lump on her shinbone. It could have been many things, and most of them were terrifying. The public children's hospital in Barcelona not only admitted her and my wife immediately while the tests got under way; it was also expert in handling us, the distraught parents, until the doctors diagnosed, a week later and with all due caution, a rare and fortunately benign syndrome.

Sharpe splits his time between Britain and Catalonia; he is a diabetic who has had two eye operations in Spain. He is, therefore, in an even better position to make a comparison. Sitting in his large white house, set back from the town centre in what could almost be a slice of English suburbia, he can tell stories of the medical profession that could fit neatly into the absurd hyper-reality of his novels.

For instance, he explained how his Catalan doctor had changed his treatment for diabetes. "He said 'You shouldn't be on that, it's far too strong!' and gave me something else. Later, when I went to my doctor in England, they did some tests and said the effect was really remarkable. They said it was the oldest treatment for diabetes. 'Then why don't you use it?' I asked. 'Because we don't know the long-term effects,' they said. 'Then how the hell can you know the effect of a brand new thing?' I said." Sharpe turned to me: "Do you see what I mean? The best doctor I've ever been to is in bloody Palafrugell, and then they tell me you shouldn't go to a doctor in Spain!"

One of the reasons why he has stayed in Llafranc is because he was shocked by the demoralised state of hospitals in Britain. "The nurses work to get qualifications - it's no longer a question of feeling, of caring about people. The whole thing has just gone mad."

For the past two decades, Spain has been busily constructing its brand new health service from scratch, so it is not surprising that it is in many cases more modern and better equipped than its British counterpart. As yet, I can detect no adverse effects of this on the country's families. Though difficult to measure, the reverse is much more likely. A sophisticated social culture - which doesn't have to be justified by targets or incentives - is a valuable asset in the day-to-day maintenance of public services.

So why is Britain so primitive in this respect?

Enric Gonzalez, a former London correspondent for El PaIs, is an Anglophile, rather in the same way that a long list of distinguished Englishmen have been Hispanophiles in the past: fond and fascinated by their subject, but secure in the knowledge that they come from a different culture.

In his humorous and lucid book Historias de Londres, Gonzalez writes that one of the first things he noticed about London was that there were few children. "In London, animals are a fundamental element in relations between neighbours. Children are not," he writes. He and his wife got to know the other residents of their mews through their cat.

I notice this cultural gulf every time I go back to Britain with my children. Only by translating it into Spanish, or another Latin language, can you relish the glum absurdity of the sign, common in London pubs and bars, "No dogs or children allowed".

It's difficult to imagine Britain's social climate changing as long as children are routinely excluded - or segregated - in public, because it is always going to result in a slightly unreal atmosphere. You don't bring your domestic life into the local pub, you take on a new role.

Not that many Britons would want to have more of a communal, structured social life, perhaps. To British ears, it sounds like someone deciding things for you, when the effect is more likely the opposite - as long as, that is, you don't believe that you are totally free to begin with. I'm sure that this difference in priorities is at the root of Britons misunderstanding Europe. To misquote Schopenhauer: "Social life is invisible to the man who has none."