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26 August 2020updated 04 Sep 2020 8:16am

The long history of corruption in Spanish politics

Paul Preston’s A People Betrayed explores decades of misrule in modern Spain.

By Nicholas Fearn

Visiting Spain in 2015, when the country’s unemployment rate was still a quarter of the workforce and higher than the US experienced at the deepest point of the Great Depression, I wondered aloud what so many people were doing with themselves all day. “Er, that?” said my wife, pointing over my shoulder. Behind me, 30 or 40 men were making a sport of balancing stones from the beach on top of one another. The tallest effort could not have reached more than eight or nine inches before it collapsed, but this occupied them for perhaps half an hour before they went back to shaking empty beer cans to see if any dregs were left.

The locals did not blame greedy bankers for their predicament. They had no doubt that the culprits were their own corrupt politicians. And no wonder, because while British MPs were claiming on expenses for duck houses and X-rated movies, Spanish officials were creaming off fortunes worth tens of millions of euros from the country’s building boom. As Paul Preston shows in A People Betrayed, his 13th book on Spain, this has long been the way.

The historian writes of a nation “bedevilled by a level of corruption that involved virtually every institution in the country from the monarchy, via all the principal political parties, the banks and employers’ organisations, to the trade unions and local administrations”. Worse was the violence used to defend this system. At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1936, the fascist general Emilio Mola declared: “It is necessary to spread terror… eliminating without hesitation or scruple all those who do not think as we do.” It transpired there were at least 150,000 such thinkers. These unfortunates died so that General Francisco Franco – a man the Nazis rejected as an even bigger liability than Mussolini – could rule for four decades.

Franco believed he could solve every economic problem by printing money, large sums of which found its way to his family and cronies. When that failed, he employed an alchemist to boost the country’s gold reserves and another conman proffering a magical formula for synthetic oil. It was probably a mercy that the dictator spent most of his time hunting and fishing and watching political prisoners build his personal mausoleum, occasionally muttering about Jews and freemasons in between reloading his shotgun.

Even before the Civil War, the ruling class went to brutal lengths to protect its interests. The military ended one strike in Barcelona in 1917 with an artillery barrage. When miners went on strike in Asturias in the same year, a force of army regulars and Guardia Civil responded with a harrowing of the valleys that recalled the Norman conquest of England. But the framing is curious. What this account calls a “strike”, others (including some by the same author) call “the October Revolution”. In case there was doubt as to the miners’ intentions, they described themselves as “the Red Army”. They were 30,000 strong and armed with rifles and machine guns. Arsenals were looted, banks were robbed, towns were taken. Arthur Scargill’s lot were capitalist running dogs by comparison. Preston presents this, fairly enough, as what happens when democratic means of redress are unavailable. Unfortunately, there was no means of reprisal the authorities would deny themselves, including systematic rape of the strikers’ wives and daughters.

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Amnesties for the good of the peace are one thing, but it would stretch credulity if, say, Derry’s Bogside was content to be policed by the Parachute Regiment today. Yet the same institution that now keeps Spain’s streets safe was guilty of atrocities that dwarf Bloody Sunday. The Guardia Civil were shooting and torturing striking workers well into the 1970s. For much of the period covered here, they were glorified private bailiffs, set up to defend the mines and factories from organised labour. The author tuts that the Barcelona police didn’t even have a proper filing system until 1895, which is rather like ending a list of Adolf Hitler’s faults with the observation that he had poor handwriting (which he did).

Preston can be a capricious tour guide. It is strange that we do not get a description (or photograph) of the bizarre garrote vil method of execution, which features many times, whereas we get a full list of the ingredients of gazpacho soup. It is possible that after you have written a dozen books on Spanish history, bizarre torture devices begin to seem commonplace, perhaps even more so than gazpacho soup. Nevertheless, a helpful guide anticipates your questions and does not leave you stranded as he whisks you to the next point of interest. We learn, for example, that the 1920s dictator Primo de Rivera liked to send brief, ill-advised “official notes” to the press in the early hours, much like Donald Trump’s tweets. Yet we have to wait what feels like a further 900 pages of a 600-page book before we see any examples (my favourite was the dictator’s complaint that journalists never mentioned his attractiveness to women). Even King Juan Carlos – he of the $100m backhanders and several thousand lovers, if recent revelations are to be believed – is rather quiet here.

Primo and Franco are the only characters given any depth amid a blizzard of names and acronyms. One gets little sense that the innumerable other ministers and civil servants had personalities, or that the information has been weighted in accordance with importance. It seems that when it comes to misrule, even Britain’s foremost historian of 20th-century Spain is overcome by the wealth of material.

“Whether anyone can resolve endemic political incompetence remains to be seen,” Preston writes. For British Eurosceptics, a closer European Union meant moving towards less democratic accountability and more corruption. For the Spanish, despite the economic pain caused by membership of the euro, it still means travelling in the opposite direction.

It would seem there is a long way to go. It was embarrassing for Boris Johnson when a YouGov survey in June found that only 41 per cent of Britons thought his government was doing a good job of handling the coronavirus pandemic. Whereas when precisely 41 per cent of Spaniards said the same of their local government later that month, it was reported as a political triumph. Prior to the pandemic, Spanish unemployment already stood at “only” 14 per cent, and stone balancing had become such a popular pastime that some local authorities were reportedly considering a ban to protect coastal geology. With the full economic impact of the pandemic yet to be felt, they had better hurry up. 

A People Betrayed: A History of 
Corruption, Political Incompetence and Social Division in Modern Spain 

Paul Preston
William Collins, 768pp, £30

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This article appears in the 26 Aug 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Covid