Life expectancy in Spain is eighty-three years — amongst the highest in the world. Deep, trusting relationships with family and friends surely contribute to this longevity. Orwell emphasized the “essential decency” of the Spanish people, “above all, their straightforwardness and generosity. A Spaniard’s generosity, in the ordinary sense of the word, is at times almost embarrassing… And beyond this, there is generosity in a deeper sense, a real largeness of spirit, which I have met with again and again in the most unpromising circumstances.”
Bakunin, the nineteenth-century revolutionary Russian anarchist, noting the Spanish people’s kindly and generous feelings for those near them and their instinctive talent for cooperation, reasoned that they were particularly well-suited to an anarchist commune. Sure enough, anarchism flourished in Spain until Franco snuffed it out. And today surveys confirm that Spaniards have little time for abstractions like “government” and “society” and a great deal for their friends, neighbors and, above all, their families.
Most Spaniards only occasionally stir themselves to take an interest in national politics. Foreign observers invariably overestimated their opposition to General Franco’s dictatorship (1936-75): in fact, while some liked it and others hated it, most just shrugged their shoulders and accepted it — at least it allowed them to live in peace with their families. And today civic engagement and affiliation to political parties and trade unions remain low.
This lack of scrutiny contributes to the notoriously poor quality of Spanish governance. The title of a recent book by Paul Preston, professor of contemporary Spanish history at the London School of Economics, says it all: A People Betrayed: a History of Corruption, Political Incompetence and Social Division in Modern Spain 1874-2018.
Corruption remains rife partly because there is so much administration. Governed at five levels (local, provincial, regional, national and European), Spain has an estimated 300-400,000 politicians. Relative to population, that’s twice as many as France.
The politicians, while very numerous, are remote and unaccountable. Spaniards can’t vote for a particular member of parliament; instead, they have to vote for a party. When it’s clear how many votes that party has, the new members are then elected in the order that they appear on a list prepared by that party’s leadership. Anybody who wants to be high on that list (and so have a good chance of being elected) has to toe the party line.
Toeing the line involves, above all else, showing unremitting hostility to the parties on the other side of the right-left divide. Since the main party of the left, PSOE, relies on the support of Sumar, even further to the left, no compromise with the right can ever be countenanced. Similarly, since the largest party on the right, the Partido Popular, depends on the support of Vox, even further to the right, it cannot afford to cooperate in any way with the left. Spain, then, has two highly polarized political camps separated by an abyss.
Since these two camps are of almost equal size, the general election on July 23 resulted in political paralysis. After weeks of negotiation, neither side has so far been able to cobble together an alliance with the small regional and separatist parties that would give them the 176 votes needed for a majority in a parliament of 350 seats.
For many Spaniards the obvious solution is a grand coalition between left-wing PSOE and the right-wing Partido Popular. More than two thirds of the electorate voted for these two parties which together won 258 seats in parliament. Such a coalition, then, could in theory form a stable, centrist government, allowing Spaniards to forget about politics. But the open hostility between the two parties makes that unlikely.
Instead Pedro Sánchez, leader of PSOE and acting prime minister, is continuing to angle for the support of Junts, the radical Catalan Independence Party which scraped seven seats in the general election. Sánchez’s persistence smacks of desperation; after all, the founder of Junts, Carles Puidgemont, the driving force behind the illegal referendum on Catalan Independence held in 2017, is now a fugitive from Spanish justice, living in Waterloo.
In return for his support Puidgemont is demanding an amnesty for himself and others and will doubtless also want a binding referendum on independence for Catalonia. It takes a great deal to upset the normally placid Spanish electorate but a government that depended on Puidgemont’s support would be more than many could stomach.
For the moment, however, nobody seems unduly bothered. The negotiations are set to drag on — with a great deal of posturing, grandiloquent declarations and mutual recriminations — for weeks yet. After which, if, as seems entirely likely, nobody manages to form a government, Spain will have to hold repeat elections. And if that happens, no one will be at all surprised if the rerun produces a very similar result.
Most Spaniards remain quite unperturbed about all this. In this overwhelmingly Europhile country, membership of the European Union is widely regarded as an unquestionably good thing and a guarantee that nothing serious can ever go wrong. Indeed, it sometimes seems as though the many Spaniards who no longer attend church have, at some unconscious level, transferred their belief in the infallibility of authority from Rome to Brussels.
Confident that somehow everything will be alright in the end and that if it isn’t there’s little they can do about it, Spaniards see no reason why they shouldn’t continue to enjoy life.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.