By Graham Salter
On Saturday 1st April, I went to the FT Oxford Literary Festival to hear William Chislett’s talk “Challenges facing the New Spain” On the same day I was alarmed to read our defence secretary, on the subject of Gibraltar, suggesting that Britain might be ready to go to war with Spain over the Rock. Alarmist indeed.
I was therefore very glad that Mr Chislett adopted a calm, sympathetic, and intelligent approach to recent developments in the homeland of our European neighbours (and of many Britons of course), in his talk given in the seminar room of the Oxford Martin School. This talk developed many of the themes raised in his book “SPAIN: what everyone needs to know”.
First of all, he identified the problems:
political uncertainty; the drive for Catalan independence; corruption; unemployment; an aging population; and now, of course, Brexit.
Spain, we learned, faces the challenge of a transformed political horizon. Instead of two parties (right and left) alternating in power, Spain has recently suffered from political paralysis because it has had four parties vying for power, none of which has been willing to go into coalition with the others. The new parties are Podemos, which has outflanked the Socialists on the left, and Ciudadanos, which occupies the centre ground. Two elections came and went without a clear majority, until a split in the ranks of the Socialists allowed the incumbent Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy of the conservative PP, to stay in government with a tenuous majority. Circumstances which have spawned populist parties of the right in Northern Europe have, in Spain, taken a distinctly left-wing course. Podemos is not anti-immigrant, and certainly not anti-EU, but it fulminates against corruption, evictions, youth unemployment, and the perceived complacency of all the other political parties. Meanwhile, the 2017 Budget has still not been voted through Parliament.
Turning back for a moment to today’s edition of the Daily Telegraph (the one which sounded the war drums over Gibraltar), I read that “Spain has abandoned plans to stop an independent Scotland from joining the EU.” This is highly surprising in the light of what Mr Chislett told us about secessionism and Spain. He explained that the Spanish Constitution, framed during the Transition to Democracy in the late 70s, prevents Catalonia or the Basque Country (or any other autonomous region) from breaking away and declaring itself independent; it is hard to see how a fragmentation of the UK can make things any easier for the Spanish to uphold their Constitution. Interestingly, of the four political parties, three are opposed to any independence referendum in Catalonia, and the fourth (Podemos) says that everyone in Spain (not just the Catalans) should have the right to decide whether Catalonia gets independence. In practice, the Catalan indyref movement is being systematically and effectively blocked by everyone in Madrid.
To judge by the press, Spain is fatally mired in corruption. But this is not entirely true, said Mr Chislett. Neither the Police nor the Judiciary are corrupt. The heart of the corruption problem has lain in the relations between local politicians and construction companies, with illicit payments and bribes being the order of the day. “White elephant” projects, such as the airport at Castellón which has yet to see its first plane land, are the shameful fruit of this graft and corruption.
Youth unemployment levels in Spain are still truly shocking. In the boom years prior to 2008, too many young people abandoned their schooling to earn good money on building sites, then lost their jobs in the crash, and missed out on educational qualifications, leaving them at the back of the queue for employment. Many were saved by that remarkable thing, the strength of the Spanish family – grandparents and parents who made lasting financial sacrifices to help their out-of-work children.
Like the UK, Spain’s Social Security system is grappling with a crisis, with an aging population and a falling birth-rate. Touchingly, there has been a call for Spanish couples to go to bed earlier in future, in order to procreate; the Spanish tradition of eating dinner around 10 pm and staying up until after midnight is clearly seen as “not family-friendly”.
So many problems. But aren’t we forgetting something? Surely the Spanish are unhappy about Immigration, the issue which has been so central in Northern Europe ? Well, apparently not, for there is no xenophobic party in the Spanish political spectrum. Mr Chislett explained why. A high proportion of immigrant workers in Spain are Latin Americans or Romanians, which means that their language and culture are not perceived as alien. Moreover, the older generation of Spanish folk retain memories of the days (between 1960 and 1973) when their own parents emigrated to Germany, Switzerland or France, in search of work, and this has engendered a measure of comprehension and sympathy for the foreign migrant. Free movement of labour is seen as a good thing, so whatever the Hispanic equivalent of Brexit might be (Hispanexit?) it’s almost certainly not going to happen.
Attending this talk was a fascinating way to update the knowledge I gained by reading Mr Chislett’s indispensable handbook “Spain – what everyone needs to know” (ISBN 978-0-19-993646-5) published by OUP.
And for a guide to William Chislett’s most recent work and areas of research, the relevant link is http://www.williamchislett.com/