A story about Spain that´s not true.

This is a story I tell myself about Spain. In which, we, that is Spain and I, have taken a long journey from provincial prejudice and relative isolation, benighted by a reactionary Catholicism, into a cosmopolitan, outward looking Europe of tolerance and modernity. And it goes like this……

I first went to Spain in 1974. My mother, a financial genius if ever there was one, gave me 50p a week to give to my favourite teacher, Mr Lever, to pay the, if I remember rightly, thirty five pounds the school trip would cost. Spain was cheap and working class northern European families in Dortmund Amsterdam or Liverpool, even one like ours with four kids, could afford to send one family member anyway. Born in Ireland I couldn´t go on the pupils´ British group passport. The priest, Father Garvey, who witnessed my Irish passport application forms, had spent time in Spain. At the time the Spanish dictator, Generalissimo Francisco Franco´s, clerical authoritarian regime was held in high regard by much of the Catholic hierarchy. He was appalled, or at least pretended to be, that I didn´t know the difference between the Spanish words manteca and mantequilla, and when I told him where we were going he was mortified, or pretended to be, to be having anything to do with contributing to such a trip. The destruction of the Costa Brava, he somberly intoned as if I was the bright spark behind the whole thing, was a tragedy for Spain. But having sown a few briars of guilt about any pleasures I, as that most deceiving of creatures, an 11 year old boy, might be thinking of having, he signed. I was going to Lloret, a name that still thrills me, glorious Lloret de Mar.

It would be hard to overstate the liberating effect it was to discover a place of sun, sea, sand, and endless litre bottles of Fanta limon. Away from the exam grinder, the soutanes and leather straps of a Christian Brothers College dedicated to turning working class Liverpool Irish louts into acceptably middle class English gentlemen, Lloret, with the carefree mindlessness of hours and days spent tanning, broken up with playing in the thrillingly crashing breakers of the Mediterranean, was incredibly liberating. It didn´t matter that the hotel was gerry built and the toilets didn´t always flush. The teachers organized a relay of boys and buckets from the sea up the hill to the hotel. ‘Is it Ít´s a Knockout’ love? I can still remember a large and very pink woman from Lancashire asking as we ran, buckets splashing, by her. It didn´t matter that on the day before we were due to leave our airline, Courtline, collapsed and we were stranded in the hotel lobby for a few hours as another group of snotty nosed northern neophytes came and took over our rooms. And yes, I did waste the last few pesetas getting my name put on to a bullfighting poster next to that of El Cordobes which somehow was supposed to be a present for my mum, but nothing really mattered because I had never known that such a sun, such a light existed. And the lesson I took from Lloret was that the outside world could be a really brilliant place. And maybe the few courageous, risky decisions I´ve taken which turned out to make all the difference were all taken somehow in the light of LLoret.

Though it may sound faintly ridiculous, we were like elements of what the cultural theorist Raymond Williams might have referred to as an emergent culture, a specifically European one. And this new culture, despite Father Garvey´s misgivings, was welcomed by most Spaniards, and certainly most Catalans as opening up Spain to Europe and its values of democracy, free speech and tolerance. Barcelona, the Catalan capital, not far from Lloret, was the last city to fall to Franco´s fascist forces in 1939 and Catalan identity and culture was rigorously repressed. In the years immediately after the end of the Spanish Civil War somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000 leftists, and those maybe just suspected of being so, were summarily tried and quietly shot across the country. Post war Spain was a land of fear and of rationing, hunger and corruption. Deliberately isolating Spain the cold, dead hand of Franco´s clerical authoritarian regime held the country in a sleepy rural half-life from which, over time many Spaniards came to believe, only Europe could awaken it. Hard to imagine now but even into the late 70´s Gaudi´s masterpiece, El Templo de la Sagrada Familia, the signature building of Barcelona, was barely being worked upon and received only a modest number of visitors. As a sixteen year old, in 1978, having run out of money and with a few hours to kill before my flight, I sat on a bench in front of it and had it entirely to myself. Until a little old lady came and sat beside me, and told me off for referring to Spanish as Spanish, not Castellano. Her language was Catalan! Maybe she too was part of that emerging culture.

When the dictatorship finally ended with Franco´s death in 1975, Spain, along with Greece and Portugal, now freed also from their respective dictatorships, could prepare to be brought into the European Community. Greece acceded in 1979 and Spain and Portugal in 1985. And I have no doubt that while they all wanted economic development of their largely agricultural economies, they just as much wanted the EC as a guarantee of basic democratic rights and a future free of unconstitutional, repressive governments. And the story explains a little I think of why the Spaniards, along with the Portuguese and the Greeks are the most passionate of Europeans and so attached to the European Union.

The only problem with the story is that it´s not true and the comforting illusion that it was is now collapsing slowly around us as the implications of the recent humiliation of Greece and Greek democracy sink in. Or at least many of the assumptions that I had about Spain and about the European Union were not true.

For a start, the post 1945 wave of social democratic prosperity across the West eventually raised all boats including Spain´s. The opening of Spain to tourism, by the time I arrived in 1974 had been a policy of the Franco government since the early ´60s, and while Franco did not resolve the rural poverty and unemployment of Andalucia or Extremadura, he oversaw a massive internal immigration to the booming industrial areas of Madrid, the Basque country and Cataluna, to the extent that in the early seventies 38% of the population were working in industry or construction. Between the year of my birth, 1962 and 1975, the year of Franco´s death, Spain´s economy expanded on average each year by 7%. In 1960 only 1% of Spanish households had a television, and only 4% a refrigerator; by 1975 the figures were 87% and 90%. Much of this industry protected by trade tariffs, was of course, as the tariffs began to come down after Franco´s death, internationally uncompetitive. And while I imagined myself, in the mid ´80s inter railing between the great Islamic sites at Cordoba and Granada to have briefly escaped Thatcherite Britain, the textile factory were my Dad had worked in Liverpool was one of the early victims of a pound deliberately held at a high value to make its exports uncompetitive and had closed in 1981, Spanish Premier Felipe Gonzalez, and his Socialist party (PSOE) were at that very time using an overvalued peseta to perform the same trick and deindustrialize Spain.

Part of my complacency maybe came from being aware that Spain was at that time negotiating entry into the European Economic Community, with all its modernizing benefits, and, I assumed, support for new high tech industries, research and development, and science. But in fact the negotiations served to seal the process of deindustrialization, to the obvious advantage of the industries of other Community nations, especially Germany, in return for a massive yearly subsidy from the EEC, amounting to 1% of GDP until 2006. And while I celebrated too the entry of Barcelona onto the world stage at the Olympic Games of 1992 and I shared the view of it the city as a signal success for a post modern economy built on tourism I was ignoring Cataluna´s ongoing decline as an industrial region. But, on the other hand, in return for accepting the loss of native industries Spain was granted a massive yearly subsidy from the EEC up until 2004. Surely this would be the means of a leap into a balanced high tech economy based on the industries of the future?

What both the Spanish Socialists and the conservatives, the Partido Popular, actually did with the money, in fact, reached back to a clear strand of thinking of Franco´s administration, and one we´re all too familiar with in Britain and Ireland. As Franco´s Minister for Housing, the Falangist Jose Luis Arresse, put it in 1957,

“We want a country of proprietors not proletarians.”

In the 50s rented accommodation was still the norm in Spain, by 1970 private ownership accounted for over 60% of housing, 10 points above the UK. But now property development could be facilitated by the miles of motorway and high speed rail links that were paid for by the EU subsidies, making parts of the country easily accessible for new housing that had never been so previously. Again in parallel with Britain, Gonzalez made from 1985 to 1991, the first attempt at economic growth through a financial and property asset bubble that would have a positive knock on demand and domestic consumption without any significant support from industrial expansion. Although house prices slumped in both Britain and Spain in the mid 90s, I remember taking an effective substantial loss on a home in Lancashire at that time, the trick was repeated in both countries between 1997 and 2007 when the amount of housing in Spain increased by an astonishing 30%. Much of this was bought as second homes by wealthy Spaniards, Brits and Germans. In 2008 the British property bubble burst then the Spanish one burst too and the ongoing crisis began.

A crisis that has in Spain undermined belief not in European unity and cooperation but rather in the good will and intentions of the politicians and administrators who effectively govern the European Union. And it has been in particular the direct threat to force Greece out of the euro by German finance minister Wolfagang Schäuble, with its danger of driving literally millions more Greeks overnight into poverty that will frighten many Catalans and Spaniards. It will take a while for the edifice of beliefs and assumptions that exist across Europe about Europe to crumble but we are now living in a different time.

The highly respected and influential head of the Munich Institute for Economic Research, Hans Werner Sinn, in an interview with ´Die Welt´, (6.7.15) made clear the implications of positing a Greek exit in terms of setting an example to others.

“Spain, Portugal and Italy will then find their way back to more saving in their national budgets and introduce the necessary changes to lower prices and wages, and so their competitiveness will be improved. That will reduce the danger of an exit for them.”

Which to me sounds a lot like holidays for Germans and Brits on the Med are going to become cheaper and while the German government invests heavily in the R and D for the high tech industries of the future, Spaniards can expect to return to the relative poverty of the past. And certainly do not expect as the experience of Greece has shown that democracy will help. The currency of Spanish democracy, like that of all member states of the euro zone, has been significantly devalued. Acquiesce to the highly dubious economic austerity espoused by the IMF, the ECB and Dr Schäuble or face the consequences. Well, I suppose Father Garvey who never had a problem with authority would be ok with it, and would it be so surprising if, perhaps not in Barcelona, but in many other Spanish towns and villages one began to hear dark mutterings about how all this would not be happening if Franco was still in charge.


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