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12 January 2004

A really bad case of penis envy

Spain was also a leading part of the war coalition. But to the chagrin of its writers, it has had no

By John Carlin

Say what you like about Tony Blair, but he did go out of his way to try to convince the British public that going to war alongside George W Bush was a good idea. Blair’s best friend in Europe, Jose MarIa Aznar, the Spanish prime minister, felt under no such obligation. He gave his nation’s wholehearted support to the Anglo-Saxon alliance and then sent troops to help them occupy Iraq, with barely more democratic deliberation than Philip II would have considered necessary before despatching his armada to conquer England.

The Spanish opinion polls were 90 per cent against the war; per capita, more people were out on the streets of Madrid and Barcelona protesting against the war than anywhere else in the world. Yet Aznar saw no need to devise elaborate explanatory dossiers, much less face the wrath of local Paxmans on national television. He made a perfunctory public statement or two on the desirability of regime change in Iraq, and, ignoring the yelps of the Socialist opposition, never submitted the matter to parliamentary debate.

All of which has provided the Spanish left with the opportunity to engage with frenzy in the nation’s favourite sport: righteous indignation. The frenzy has been all the greater since the truth dawned that a) Aznar is not paying the blindest bit of notice, and b) the left may monopolise the country’s intellectual energy, but the right, as municipal elections last May showed, has a solid hold on the popular vote. With Spanish troops now firmly entrenched in Iraq, and no suggestion that they will be leaving any time soon, rage has given way to the despair of defeat – and to lamentations that Spain’s young democracy has a lot to learn from the British. Especially given what has happened since the death of Dr David Kelly.

The decision of the British prime minister to appoint the Hutton commission of inquiry and then submit to its requests for disclosure was greeted with envy by the Spanish left. Seizing on the Hut- ton inquiry as an opportunity to bash Aznar, columnists and radio commentators lined up to point out the gulf separating British and Spanish notions of democratic accountability.

“I am getting out of here. I am going to get British citizenship,” declared Maruja Torres, acerbic grande dame columnist of El PaIs. One reason she wanted to become British, she said, is that she is fascinated by the Le Carre character type she perceives in the late Kelly – “bold and repressed at the same time”, “his pain is his heroism”. (Torres, a successful novelist, suggests a film ought to be made about the Kelly tragedy, with the part of the British prime minister played by Jeremy Irons, “who is very good at doing charming fanatics”.) But the main reason why she wanted to switch nationalities, she said, is that she finds Britain’s political institutions so much more admirable than Spain’s. “From the judicial inquiry into the suicide of David Kelly,” she wrote, “the seriousness with which Lord Hutton has set about his work, and the passion with which the British public has been following the hearings, there is a lesson to be learnt that we should brand with fire on our chests. A country must be above its squalors and its temporal governments. I think I am suffering from what Sigmund Freud might have called judge’s penis envy.”

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To read and hear some of Aznar’s detractors, you could be forgiven for imagining that Spain had taken part in the war, rather than merely sending some troops after the event and offering its UN vote to Bush beforehand.

Still, for a government whose people are instinctively pro-Brussels to break ranks with Europe on the pressing issue of the day was seen by many Spaniards as an outrageous betrayal. Especially as there are no debts of historical gratitude to America, no “special relationship”, for Spain to call on as an excuse.

In that light, Aznar’s haughty disdain for popular opinion has been interpreted by his critics on the left as evidence that the Spanish still have reason to cower, as they did in the years of Franco, in the face of the superior civilisations of the north.

“I follow the inquiry into the death of the British scientist David Kelly with an old and nearly forgotten sense of envy,” wrote LuIs GarcIa Montero, a celebrated Granadine poet and sometime political columnist. GarcIa Montero pointed out that before Franco’s death the Spanish looked forward to the day when they would be able “to live without complexes”. “But,” he said, “I think that many of us felt once again the weight of national humiliation when comparing Blair and Aznar, the BBC and TVE [Television Espanola], the detail and clarity of judge Brian Hutton with the legal strategies the Popular Party has pursued to avoid inquiries of any kind.”

GarcIa Montero, condensing the views of the Spanish left, said that the sensation one has nowadays with Aznar is that the country’s fabled democratic transition has gone into reverse. “Seeing the British, one feels once again shame and envy,” wrote the poet. “Here, besides, nobody commits suicide.”

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