After the Fall
By Tobias Buck
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 320pp, £20/$24.50
Last month, Spanish political parties failed, yet again, to come to an understanding as to who should govern the country. The current political landscape was deeply affected by the financial crisis which has struck Spain, and much of southern Europe, over the past decade. The crisis itself seems to be a thing of the past now, but it has changed Spain in more ways than one.
Tobias Buck shows himself to be very familiar with, and fond of, Spain. He is not, however, uncritical, and in After the Fall we are treated to a very good summary of what went wrong with the Spanish economy, and where.
The degree of corruption and wastefulness in Valencia, for example, is breathtaking but also enlightening. This was the prevailing position not only in large parts of Spain, but also in Greece and even my home country of Portugal, which were hit particularly hard when the housing bubble burst.
Other examples have less to do with corruption and more with lack of foresight. We read about entire towns where children dropped out of school to get high-paying industrial jobs, all of which depended on the housing and construction sectors. Of course, when it all imploded they were left in despair and, worst of all, bereft of qualifications.
As a correspondent for the Financial Times, Buck is at home with the economics, but he manages to keep it simple enough not to lose those who are less informed. The same can be said for the other sections of the book, where he delves into the political landscape or the Catalan issue, for instance.
Catalonia is given a lot of attention, with the two opening chapters dedicated to explaining the conflict, and its different angles. Refreshingly, Buck doesn’t take the easy and romantic path which tends to present the Catalans as enlightened and oppressed by ruthless politicians from Madrid. No election or survey has ever shown a majority of Catalans favouring independence, and we get to hear from important Catalonian figures who think the whole movement is a waste
The point Buck makes, convincingly, is that the Catalan crisis, too, is to a large extent a result of the financial crisis. His description of how the media and education system in the autonomous Catalan region have shaped minds and narratives is also an eye-opener.
Even more fascinating, however, was the chapter dedicated to the Basque country and how it is recovering from the demise of the separatist group ETA. Because of the violence employed by the group, Basque nationalists never received as much sympathy as the Catalans, who thankfully have never embraced terrorism.
On the other hand, the Basques, their language and their culture are much more distinct from the rest of the Iberian nations. Buck’s description of how people on either side of the issue are dealing with the aftermath, and still fighting over the historical narrative, is gripping.
After a complete tour of the political side of the country, the book ends on an upbeat note about how Spain has been spared the plague of populism and racism which has been gaining ground in other parts of Europe.
Where I was perhaps less convinced was with Buck’s treatment of the question of Franco and the current debate about what to do with his remains. The Spanish Civil War was a horrendous affair but it did not simply start, as he implies, with Franco’s uprising.
In fact, Franco was a second – and arguably poorer – choice to lead the uprising, having come to the fore only after the death of Carlist General José Sanjurjo, who died in a plane crash three days after the start of the rebellion.
The fact is that the war was largely provoked by genuine disgust with the extent of what came to be called the Red Terror. Buck seems to dismiss the mass killing of Catholics and right-wingers in Republican Spain, even though it is documented in detail by Hugh Thomas in his history of the war, which the author must be familiar with, since he quotes from it at least once.
I would also have liked to see more attention given to religion. Several times Buck mentions the importance of the Catholic Church, but he also makes it clear that he is not very knowledgeable in respect of religion. This is fine, but you cannot underestimate the importance of a hierarchy which in recent years has not hesitated to call people to the streets to participate in mass demonstrations and to flex its muscles against the government of the day, in a country which is becoming increasingly and aggressively secular and progressive, but where the Church still packs a punch.
As Spanish politicians continue to be unable to form a stable government, I am reminded of the words of General Galba when trying to bring the peninsula under Roman rule. Referring to the Lusitanians, a warrior tribe which inhabited parts of what is now Portugal and western Spain, he described a strange nation who neither governed themselves nor let themselves be governed by others. Perhaps that spirit lives on after all this time.