A People Betrayed

Paul Preston’s A People Betrayed is a searing and thorough account of how the Spanish state developed with corruption endemic to its functioning, finds Chris Bambery

Paul Preston, A People Betrayed: A History of Corruption, Political Incompetence and Social Division in Modern Spain, 1874-2018 (William Collins 2020), 768pp.

The Iberian Peninsula is the one part of Western Europe which did not experience what Marxists call a bourgeois revolution. There was certainly no equivalent of the Great French Revolution, but nor of German unification in 1870 or the 1868 Meiji Restoration in Japan. In all these cases a state would be created which created the superstructure necessary for capital accumulation, for instance, the creation of an independent judiciary. Not independent from society, senior judges in Britain are still in the main ex-public school and Oxbridge, but independent in arbitrating between sections of the ruling elite or dealing with fraud.

Fraud and corruption are a feature of every capitalist state, but in Spain it is on an industrial scale. Unlike Italy, this is not a consequence of the grip of organised crime but the existence of a close relationship over the last century and a half between the political elite, big business, particularly the banks but more recently Spain’s multinationals, and the supposed servants of the state, judges and civil servants for instance.

This is the subject matter of Professor Paul Preston’s new book, A People Betrayed. It is a searing description of how corruption became embedded at the very highest level of Spanish society and how the Spanish state has not just betrayed its own citizens but on regular occasions waged war on them. Coming from the foremost historian of modern Spain, accepted as such in Spain, this book is a powerful blast which will reverberate through the corridors of power in Madrid. That it is thoroughly researched adds to Preston’s indictment of Span’s ruling order.

Military coup and restoration

The book begins in 1874 because that was when a military coup brought down the First Spanish Republic and restored the Borbón monarchy. The liberal led Republic had been ushered in by another military coup and had from the first faced outright opposition from the great landlords whose estates dominated southern and central Spain, the Church and much of the army. The industrialists of Catalonia and the Basque Country, appalled by mounting unrest on the land and in the cities, as landless labourers and workers in Catalonia, demanded follow through on promises of reform, deserted the Republic.

It had promised a federal Spain with the separation of Church and State and the creation of an independent judiciary. The army saw its historic mission as preserving the unity of Spain. In truth, the Spanish army had little to boast about. It would fail to defend the last vestiges of Spain once-mighty colonial empire when the Americans wrested effective control of Cuba and the Philippines in 1898. But it had become thoroughly politicised, launching a series of coups to enforce government change throughout the 19th century.

What Preston describes is how Restoration Spain became based on a parliamentary system based on corruption. Formally, a Conservative Party and Liberal Party contested elections, but both were shifting coalitions of the dominant class, which remained the great landowners with their latifundia in Andalucía, Murcia, Extremadura and New Castile. They could buy and rig elections or intimidate voters. Both parties alternated in office with the King selecting his ministers.

Because these ‘parties’ had few members they relied on donations from the banks and the wealthy. Civil-service and judicial appointments were handed out by ministers. Soon, government contracts were for sale, army officers sold off equipment and the food provided for their men, and ministers saw their priority as building up their personal fortune. The King set them that example. So, for Preston, this was the first stage in the institutionalising of corruption within the Spanish state.

The rise of an insurgent working class in Catalonia and of Catalan nationalism, a response to the virtual exclusion of the Catalan elite from the running of Spain was added to this mix. The army and the paramilitary Civil Guard were deployed repeatedly in Barcelona (as they were against rural unrest in Southern Spain).

Franco’s dictatorship

Step two came under the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, the victor of the 1939-1936 Spanish Civil War who was to rule until his life terminal was turned off in November 1975. Franco used corruption among his generals and ministers as a means of controlling them, just as he played divide and rule between them. He and his family accrued a king’s fortune which they have held onto since his death.

Step three came with the transition from the Franco dictatorship to democracy and the subsequent restructuring of Spain’s economy. Preston spells out how the opposition eventually agreed in negotiations with ‘reformist’ Francoists, supervised by West Germany, that in return for parliamentary elections the institutions of the Francoist state would remain in situ. There was no purge of the army, civil service or judiciary; police and Civil Guard torturers kept their jobs.

As a two-party system emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, made up of the Socialist Party and the centre-right Popular Party both appointed senior judges on the basis of political allegiance, both began taking kickbacks for contracts and both built up very close and beneficial relationships with finance and industry.

What accelerated corruption was the privatisation of the old Francoist state-owned corporations. As would happen in the former USSR, the same Francoist families who had sat on their boards kept their place in the new private set up joined by cronies of the ruling politicians in charge of the sell off. The opportunities for corruption swelled, buoyed by the property boom of the 1990s and 2000s which went bust spectacularly with the financial collapse of 2008. Spain suffered a dramatic recession and the usual draconian austerity measures, but the ruling elite carried on in their old way.

One casualty was the two-party system which has fractured and remains so. The exposure of spectacular corruption cases, which Preston details, was a large part of that. In Catalonia, that and above all the decision of Spain’s most senior judges, many being political appointees, to strike out key clauses of a new Statute of Autonomy, agreed by both the Spanish and Catalan Parliaments and by a referendum in Catalonia, led to an explosion in support for independence.

The reaction of the Spanish state was repression. Some things never change.

This book details this and much, much more. If you want to understand Spain, you need to read it.

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.