‘Now we are just another European state,’ said a friend in Seville. ‘We are a country without ideals and beliefs. The passions have all gone. People are interested only in making money and being comfortable. They want to make us a third-rate America.’

I had returned to Spain after an absence of five years. Seville did not appear to have changed much, its atmosphere had not become noticeably more European. At its heart it remained a city of exotic courtyards and narrow ways: the violence of colour, the swallowed consonants, the competing smells of garlic and jasmine were as I had remembered them. Surely the introspection of centuries, the agonies her intellectuals had suffered in their quest for the Spanish soul, could not have ended like this – the essence of Spain dissolved without residue in a tepid bowl of liberal materialism?

‘Yes, yes. Go to a Madrid dinner-party and everyone will be talking about their new cars and the state of the economy.’

I did go to dinner-parties in Madrid and nobody tried to talk to me about cars. But no one wanted to talk about politics either. At the beginning of the decade old Francoists were still cursing away about Marxism and the advance of the Reds. People on the left, with far more justification, were terrified by the antics of the military. But now there is no political fear at all. The government is only nominally socialist, headed by a popular and intelligent prime minister who faces no serious challenge from either the left or the right. Not even the most intransigent of the Old Guard can see any danger in Felipe Gonzalez.

Spain may be a less interesting place now but it is much more prosperous. The most obvious physical change in recent years has been caused by the emergence of the foreign car as a status symbol: the streets of Madrid are clogged by rival fleets of BMW and Mercedes Benz. Many new fortunes have been made, often in dubious circumstances, their size much greater than any success in the stock market could account for. An ingenious method of explaining their sudden accumulation is to tell people you have just won the state lottery; one businessman even claims to have won it twice.

Yet political apathy combined with economic prosperity is not a new formula. Franco tried it, with considerable success, during the second half of his dictatorship. For two decades he had insisted on austerity, autarky and the spirit of self-sacrifice. Then in 1958 he abandoned the ideology of the Falange and told people to forget politics and concentrate on making money. One of his ministers called this era ‘the twilight of ideologies’, and argued that ‘the health of free states can be measured by the degree of political apathy.’ Franco’s death caused an ideological explosion, hundreds of little sparks glowing with grandiose claims to be the popular, liberal, Christian, social and of course democratic party of Spain. Nearly all of them are now extinct; only the conservative Alianza Popular has survived as a real national party.

Politics may have become boring, but the politicians do not seem to have noticed. Many of the same faces are carrying on as before, intriguing with former rivals, plotting new coalitions, even changing parties if such a course might rescue them from political oblivion. I remember two election meetings in the 1982 campaign: at the first, Jorge Verstrynge, secretary-general of Alianza Popular, delivered a powerful denunciation of the Socialist Party, and at the second, Alfonso Guerra, the socialists’ deputy leader, called Verstrynge a young Nazi. The two men are now close friends and Verstrynge is enlisting Guerra’s support for his application to join the socialists.

During that same campaign I went to a meeting held by the Government party (UCD) in Lebrija, an Andalusian town with a large Gypsy population. The UCD, which knew that it was going to be destroyed in the election, realised that it could not fill the hall by itself, so it had hired an excellent local band, Los Romeros de la Puebla, to attract the Gypsies. These then arrived in their hundreds and evidently unnerved the first speaker who began his speech with the words, ‘Dear friends from Ecija ... ’ (the town he had been speaking in the evening before). The Gypsies howled with pleasure and only stopped laughing when Soledad Becerril, the liberal minister of culture, stood up and made an eloquent attack on the politics and principles of Alianza Popular. Soledad is now a leader of Alianza Popular in Seville.

The two pre-eminent conservative leaders of post-Franco Spain, Adolfo Suarez and Manuel Fraga, are like two ends of a curtain cord: if one goes up, the other must come down. For the last 13 years the curtains have been opening and shutting dramatically. Fraga had been ambassador to London during Franco’s last years (one of his favourite photographs shows him in a bowler hat in front of Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square), but on the dictator’s death he returned to Spain with the intention of becoming prime minister. He spent a few months as minister of the interior and was expecting promotion to the top post when the King, inexplicably for Fraga, appointed Suarez instead. At the 1977 election Suarez’s party won 165 seats and Fraga’s Alianza Popular only 16, a disparity which at the subsequent election was even greater. But before the 1982 contest the UCD dismissed Suarez and his new party won only two seats while Fraga’s strength leapt up to 106. After the following election, however, it became clear that Fraga had reached his ceiling and he was persuaded to resign as the party leader. Meanwhile Suarez was making an impressive recovery, destroying a rival group in the centre and emerging once again as an alternative to the socialists. This prospect is evidently too much for Fraga, who has just announced his decision to return to Alianza in order to ‘rescue’ the Party from his feeble successor. One prediction is pretty safe: if Suarez and Fraga fight each other in the next election, Gonzalez will win again – easily.

One town that has changed as little as any since the Francoist era is Jerez. This means, not that it is unspoilt – the Sixties was a decade of appalling architectural vandalism – but that certain attitudes have not altered. Jerez was the ancestral town of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, and the romantic figure of the young fascist leader retained a sentimental appeal long after his execution in November 1936. In Madrid I used to be able to spot señoritos from Jerez the moment I saw them, because their appearance, particularly their hair, parted near the middle and glistening with oil, came directly from the Thirties. So did their political views and their interests; they seemed to know everything about horses, bulls and sherry, and nothing about anything else. Fifty years ago Gerald Brenan described Jerez as ‘the province where a hard-drinking, whoring, horse-loving aristocracy rules over the most starved and downtrodden race of agricultural workers in Europe’. Conditions have much altered since then, but it is not difficult to recognise that aristocracy’s grandchildren today.

Another example of changelessness in Jerez is the main police station, which I had to visit after my suitcase was stolen from a friend’s car. It had the tired, listless atmosphere of a place in one of Graham Greene’s Latin American novels. The afternoon was warm but no windows were open. A number of large policemen with bulky hosters on their hips were sprawled in chairs; occasionally one of them stood up heavily and lumbered aimlessly out of the door. After a wait, I was called into an inner room and told to give my denunciacion. The chief inspector behind the desk, massaging his thick black moustache, seemed a caricature of a Spanish policeman. Painfully, with two fingers, he typed out my passport details and a lot of unnecessary information on an antique typewriter. When I suggested giving a telephone number in case my belongings turned up, he displayed no interest; he was busy typing out my mother’s maiden name and the date of her birth.

After having put up with British louts in the Balearics and British crooks on the Costa del Sol, the Spaniards might not have felt particularly enthusiastic about the first visit ever made by a British monarch to Spain. In the event, the Queen received an astonishingly friendly and respectful welcome, the newspapers devoting pages to the historical significance of her visit. One writer, the distinguished philosopher Julian Marias, took the opportunity to argue that England and Spain were in many ways very similar: they both had had American empires (true), they both possessed great literatures (perhaps not quite so true), and they were the two earliest examples of political and national unity in Europe (not true at all – Spanish ‘unity’ of the 15th century was a union of crowns, not a political union, and it can be argued that many of the problems of Spanish history, from the Catalan revolt of the 1640s to the civil war three hundred years later, were a consequence of the Hapsburgs’ failure to create a unitary state).

Many Spaniards discussed the Queen’s visit as if it marked the reconciliation of two historic enemies after four centuries of almost permanent hostility. They were particularly delighted by the excellent exhibition on the Armada at Greenwich because it was displayed without any spirit of partisanship: indeed, someone who knew nothing about the Armada could have spent hours at the exhibition without learning which side had won. I think few people in Britain saw much historical significance in the Queen’s visit because no one thinks that a reconciliation is still needed. The British do not consider Spain as their Historic Enemy partly because they remember the cooperation of the Peninsular War and partly because their main opponents since the Armada have been the French and the Germans. But the Spaniards have had fewer international enemies since then: most of their fighting has been done between themselves or in their empire or against the Moroccans. When they look back to their century of European predominance, they naturally remember their rivalry with France and the battles against the Turks. But their bitterest memories are still directed against ‘the pirate Drake’ and the depradations of the Elizabethan sea-captains.

Britain’s real colony in southern Spain was not the unappealing town of Gibraltar but the province of Huelva between Seville and the Portuguese border. A hundred years ago the Rio Tinto company, exploiting the ancient copper mines north of Huelva, was the world’s major producer of pyrites. Today the mines are still working, though at a much reduced level, and the Rio Tinto Foundation has been set up to help the area adjust to a post-mineral existence, as well as to preserve its extraordinary industrial archaeology. A conference held at Rio Tinto at the end of October discussed ways of promoting the region’s future. The chief problem is that although it is worth visiting for the landscape alone – hills of pine and cork-trees surrounding the great red and yellow pits – it lacks a beach, a leaning tower or anything obvious to attract people all the way from Seville. My only suggestion was to hire out Rio Tinto’s British colony (‘Bellavista’) to film companies eager to stage more epics of the Raj. It has all the right ingredients: neat English houses with verandahs and red roofs, neat English gardens with hydrangeas and trimmed lawns, two Anglican chapels, an exclusive club (still exclusive today though in Spanish hands), a manager’s house with basket furniture and apple pie on the menu – and all in an almost tropical atmosphere of palm trees and cicadas. Of course it is not India, but does that matter? The captain-general’s office in Seville was not built until 1929, but neither its architectural style nor its date of construction dissuaded David Lean from using it in Lawrence of Arabia: little more than Jack Hawkins and a few khaki figures was needed to transform it into Britain’s Cairo headquarters.

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