Thoughts from Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain: 30.7.21

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 

– Christopher Howse: ‘A Pilgrim in Spain’ 

Cosas de España/Galiza 

In the blow to the tourist industry here, (North) Americans have been advised not to travel to Spain and neighbouring Portugal, despite the fact that vaccination rates in both these countries are higher than in the majority of other countries.

On the issue of vaccination . . . Given the importance of the tourism industry, it’s hardly surprising that Spain has put immense effort into this. Facing this challenge, it’s benefitted from having fewer anti-vaxers than in, say, next-door  France, and from a round-the-clock campaign. These 2 charts show Spain’s excellent performance relative to other countries, and the PM yesterday claimed that Spain – with 400,000 shots a day – has moved up the rankings, giving it ‘the gold medal in vaccinations’, with 66.6%  of the population having had one jab and 56.3% having had 2. But Chile(63%) and Canada(57.4%) would surely dispute this, at least for a few days. But no one Spanish believes what our politicians say anyway . . .

From a point of view of both economics and art, Spain’s 16th century was truly ‘golden’. More recent centuries have been of baser metals. I cited reviews of Paul Preston’s book ‘A People Betrayed’ in March 2020 and in January 2021 but I’d missed Isambard Wilkinson’s of October 2020, included below. Taster: Preston’s thesis is that corruption and  political incompetence have created the social division that has blighted Spain from the 19th century to the present, impeding the country’s progression towards liberal democracy. I’m not sure many would argue with that. Though both corruption and political incompetence might well be at a rather lower level nowadays, if not exactly negligible.

At a local level, infections continue to rise and restrictions have been re-imposed in several councils, against the backcloth of 80% of cases being among those below 40.

The UK  

Latest Office for National Statistics figures suggest that nearly 92% of adults now carry antibodies to coronavirus, representing about 73% of the population as a whole. Some say herd immunity has been reached but others say it hasn’t for important variants. Who knows?   University College London, for one, estimates total population immunity is now at 87%, although they believe the delta variant has shifted the herd immunity threshold to 93%. 

In Britain, we have at least achieved success with vaccine roll out, but little good does it seem to have done us, with policy on international travel stuck in the muddled, neither fish nor fowl, halfway house of the current traffic light system. What’s really behind these absurd and restrictive foreign travel rules? See the article below for a cynical(?) answer to this.

Possibly good news, though not for Norfolk trees . . . A baby beaver has been born there for the first time in more than 600 years.

The UK and the EU post Brexit

Northern Ireland. For those (very?) few interested, here’s Richard North today: One can hardly avoid noticing that talks are at an impasse, with no common ground and not the slightest sign of agreement. The EU is saying that the protocol is the solution to the problem of Northern Ireland, while the UK government argues that Northern Ireland’s problem is the protocol. You can’t get much further apart than that. Possibly a good example of British understatement.

The Way of the World

Caitlin Moran. The South Korean TV coverage of the Games has given viewers a bit of a surprise. There, MBC decided to “jazz up” the section in the opening ceremony and illustrated the Ukrainians’ entry with pictures of a devastated Chernobyl; Romania got a picture of Count Dracula; while Haiti got shots of the street protests following the assassination of their president. In this respect, Italy got off lightly: no pictures of Mussolini hanging from a lamppost, but a nice pizza instead.

Finally  . . . 

My niece and I sat down to Spag Bol and pasta last night, without the 2nd carbohydrate of bread. It struck me that very few Spaniards would do this. Though they might not actually eat the stuff. I often thrown to the birds virtually all of what I’ve put on the table for Spanish guests. Who’d display withdrawal symptoms if I didn’t supply their meal-time comfort blanket to break up and leave on a side-plate.

Note: If you’ve landed here looking for info on Galicia or Pontevedra, try here


1. ‘A People Betrayed’ by Paul Preston. The pain in Spain continues to reign: The country’s history is a tale of corruption and violent division:  Isambard Wilkinson, The Times

Paul Preston has written a Spanish history about a period so steeped in assassination, mob violence, civilian bloodshed, corruption and failed governments that about halfway through reading it I wondered if I had the grit to carry on

I hadn’t even reached the civil war of 1936-39, but General Francisco Franco had just put down a largely unarmed rebellion of Asturian miners with artillery and bombs. Women were raped, prisoners tortured and executed. “This war is a frontier war and its fronts are socialism, communism and any force that attacks civilisation in order to replace it with barbarism,” Franco commented of the bloody suppression of the miners in October 1934.

March, dubbed the “Sultan of Spain”, embodies the corruption, that, according to Preston’s thesis, along with political incompetence, has created the social division that has blighted Spain from the 19th century to the present, impeding the country’s progression towards liberal democracy.

He pops up like a bad penny in the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, the Second Republic and Franco’s rule, bribing his way out of jail, avoiding arrest dressed as a priest, bankrolling rebels and governments, buying a parliamentary seat or paying off debts run up by Queen Victoria Eugenie with Parisian jewellers. March is also representative of a gallery of rare breeds, including light-fingered prime ministers, fornicating aristocrats and a somnolent dictator, that give life to the narrative of this hefty tome.

The story begins with a portrait of an impoverished country riven by social inequality, civil strife and coups d’état. Preston, professor of contemporary Spanish history at the LSE, notes that between 1814 and 1981 Spain witnessed more than 25 military coups. The first of four civil wars began in 1833 and the last ended in 1939.

The unrest did not only lead to the rise of a militant left. By the 1830s Spain had lost the bulk of its empire and in the Carlist Wars of that decade and the next the “forces of reaction” — the army, the church and establishment — were on the march. In the 1860s there were fewer than 50,000 priests; at the end of the century, more than 88,000; by 1930 there were 135,000.

Preston, the author of an acclaimed biography of Franco, has a reputation for being pro-left, pro-republican. The clue to the tenor of the work is the title, which belies the fact that many Spaniards did not feel betrayed by a lack of social progress. Still, the book’s depth of research cannot be faulted, and the examples of grand malfeasance and political corruption are extraordinary. For example, after years of turmoil, in 1876 a new constitution was drawn up by the conservative Antonio Cánovas del Castillo, a cultured man who learnt by heart the speeches of Gladstone and Disraeli. It instigated an idiosyncratic form of British democracy, known as the turno pacifico, whereby the two main monarchist parties took turns in power, marginalising republican parties.

This sham strengthened the cacique, the local strongman, usually a landowner, who had the tax collector, the mayor and the judge in his pocket; such was the vote fixing that there were examples of the cacique’s favoured deputies being returned to parliament with majorities bigger than the electorate. Flying squads of voters were deployed in Madrid, with one man voting more than 42 times. To deter undesirable voters, voting urns were put in fever hospitals, pigsties or on a high roof.

The turno, however, could not stop the spread of anarchist ideas and protests. In 1897 Cánovas, then prime minister, was assassinated by a young anarchist journalist. A wave of bombings and shootings led to mass arrests of anarchists, republicans and freethinkers. Alejandro Lerroux, the editor of El País, then a scandal-mongering and left-wing newspaper, came to prominence by exposing the abominable treatment of prisoners in the bleak fortress of Montjuic, “the Spanish Bastille”, in Barcelona. A civil guard officer accused of being a torturer challenged Lerroux to a duel; he refused, but they ended up fighting with walking sticks when they met on the streets of Madrid.

Lerroux entered politics, becoming prime minister in the 1930s; he was outrageously corrupt and was on March’s payroll. As Preston puts it: “A lifetime of shameless corruption reached its peak when, as prime minister in 1935, Lerroux brazenly sponsored a system of fixed roulette wheels.”

Before that the fallout from the loss of Spain’s last colonies in 1898 had led to economic crisis, a collapse of morale and repression. Fears over the political influence of the army, which was heavy-handed in dealing with rising Basque and Catalan nationalism and unpopular because of the use of conscription to fight its north African misadventures, intensified opposition to the ancien regime.

Symptomatic of the desperation of the time, the conservative elder statesman Antonio Maura, whose reforming efforts seem quixotic in the context of Spain’s apparent ungovernability, at first welcomed the coup in 1923 of Miguel Primo de Rivera, who saw himself as the “iron surgeon” needed to cure Spain’s body politic.

The scion of a large landowning family, Primo, prime minister from 1923 until 1930, was viewed by the middle and upper classes as a bulwark against disorder. He was also “a gargantuan eater, an inveterate gambler, a heavy drinker who loved binges”. His semi-official biography stated that “among his loves there have been women of high and low origins”.

His sexual appetites caused a scandal when he formed a relationship with La Caoba (the Mahogany), an Andalusian cabaret artist alleged to be a prostitute and drug addict. After a relatively popular start, his dictatorship ended, amid strikes, coup threats and the collapse of the peseta, with his resignation, which led to the Second Republic.

Preston charts the republic’s doom and the rise of Franco out of the ashes of the north African campaigns, recording that, besides Nazi German and Fascist Italian support, his flight from semi-exile in the Canary Islands to Morocco and his Africa Army’s onward passage to Spain to join the coup that led to civil war, were financed by March.

Preston offers potted histories of the civil war and Franco’s 38-year rule until 1975, from its pernicious and economically harebrained origins to its corrupt end, when the ageing siesta-prone caudillo could just about lift an eyelid to sign off on garrotting political opponents.

Buried in the narrative lies ample treasure: Franco’s brother, Ramón, a famous aviator and republican, in 1930 set off to bomb the royal palace, but aborted after seeing children playing in the gardens; Pablo Picasso’s uncle was a general who compiled a key report on a military disaster in north Africa; one of the tutors of the future King Juan Carlos was a member of the extreme right who once plotted a suicide attack on the Spanish parliament with poison gas.

Preston’s account takes us through the close-run, coup-endangered transition to democracy in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He concludes that the long history of corruption scandals and political incompetence — left, right and monarchical — is the cause for Spain’s polarisation and fragmentation today. Perhaps he oversimplifies the reasons for the country’s present woes, not giving due weight to wider influences such as the global rise of populism and international economic pressures. Nonetheless, after I had finished reading A People Betrayed, I applauded Preston’s — and my own — heroic feat.

2. What’s really behind these absurd and restrictive foreign travel rules? Following the money seems as good an explanation as any for the traffic light system. Jeremy Warner, The Telegraph

“Leave thine home, oh youth”, urged the Roman courtier Petronius Arbiter in a poem made famous by the celebrated British travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, “and seek out alien shores; a wider range of life is ordained for thee”.

In the homogenised sameness of today’s world it is regrettably ever harder to find any genuinely alien shores yet to be explored, but just the chance to travel in the last year and a bit of on/off lockdown would have been a fine thing.

For some of this time, there has been an absolute ban on non-essential travel overseas; though the restrictions have now been partially lifted, the Government continues – to the dismay of a once thriving travel industry – to discourage it, and indeed seemingly to make it as difficult as possible.

At every stage, moreover, there has been the threat of bringing back the more hardline constraints. This in itself has been a major deterrent to booking an overseas holiday. Rumours of another crackdown this winter are already rife among beleaguered tour operators and airlines, many of whom won’t survive another year like the last one.

The fault is not entirely with the UK Government. There is plainly not a great deal ministers can do about policy in the US, New Zealand and Australia, all of whom have in effect banned non-residents, including UK citizens. Attempts to persuade the Biden administration to reciprocate on freedom of travel for the fully vaccinated have run into the sand.

As an aside, it is worth noting that when President Trump began the process of closing American borders by imposing a ban on travel from China in the initial stages of the pandemic, he was almost universally condemned. The World Health Organisation claimed that there was no evidence that border controls would halt the spread of the disease.

Seemingly taking his instruction directly from Beijing, the WTO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that because of the actions already taken by China, it was wholly unnecessary to interfere with international travel and trade. And yet when the saintly Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand, similarly closed her borders, with the aim of going beyond suppression to complete eradication of the disease, she was hailed as setting a shining example to all.

What we now see is that failing to combine zero tolerance strategies with an effective vaccination programme – only 14 per cent of Australians and New Zealanders have been fully vaccinated – condemns a country to never-ending isolation, and as in the case of Australia (where there is now a growing public backlash against the eradication strategy), lingering and repeated economic lockdown. Once buoyant tourist industries have been all but annihilated.

In Britain, we have at least achieved success with vaccine roll out, but little good does it seem to have done us, with policy on international travel stuck in the muddled, neither fish nor fowl, halfway house of the current traffic light system.

Britain’s most popular tourist destinations have all been left stranded at the amber to red end of the spectrum of continued restrictions. Even when those destinations are relatively open to UK holiday makers, the conditions attached to returning home are costly, bureaucratic and off putting, seemingly deliberately so. The threat of a sudden change in status adds to the deterrent effect.

All this might be just about tolerable if properly justified on public health grounds; as it is, there appears to be no rhyme or reason to the various categorisations. Infection rates in many amber designated countries are considerably lower than here; we are much more likely to give it to them than them to us.

Though it pretends otherwise, the Government would, it seems, much rather you stayed at home. No, no, no, say ministers. We fully understand that these restrictions are bad for the economy, and we wouldn’t be imposing them if there were not good public health reasons for it. We cannot risk another wave.

Well perhaps, but I can’t help but think that the Treasury would be rather more active in pushing the case for a further lifting of constraints were it not for one rather important fact.

Time was when international travel was largely the preserve of the rich and particularly intrepid, but that all changed from the 1960s onwards when the age of mass tourism arrived and an overseas holiday started to become accessible to all. Today, Brits are more likely to holiday overseas than almost any other nation, if they could, that is. As a country we take almost as many trips abroad as the whole of the US, which has five times as many people.

The upshot is that we run a huge trade deficit in tourism. In 2019, British nationals made 93.1 million trips abroad, spending an astonishing £62.3 billion. There were on the other hand only 40.9 million trips to the UK, with spending of £28.5 billion. If the money we spend abroad were instead disgorged in the UK, it would theoretically be a huge net boost to the economy, even if we lost all those tourist pounds from overseas.

That in essence has been the effect of the pandemic and the travel restrictions policymakers have deemed necessary to counter it. Small wonder that Spain, Portugal and Greece are so keen to welcome us back. By the month, they bleed billions of British euros. Small wonder too that the Treasury would much rather we spent its furlough largesse here in the UK than a Benidorm or Mykonos nightclub.

From an overall economic perspective, it would of course be better if things returned to the way they were; hundreds of thousands of UK jobs depend on overseas tourism, both outward and inward bound. But the magically shrunken tourist deficit does at least provide some consolation as a positive both for the balance of payments and for tax revenues. It also provides support for the levelling up agenda; relatively rich southerners who would otherwise be splashing the cash abroad will be spending their money in the UK regions instead.

I’m not suggesting this is the underlying reason for keeping us all locked up. Yet it is ever harder to see any other justification. If there is one, please tell.