Author Q&A:
Tobias Buck

After The Fall (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, hardback £20, ebook £10.99, audio £19.99)

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Tobias Buck arrived in Madrid in December 2012 to become Financial Times correspondent – when economic shock had brought Spain to its knees – and spent five years combining his access to prime ministers and captains of industry with his commitment to on-the-ground reporting from the country’s furthest-flung towns and villages. Subtitled Crisis, Recovery and the Making of a New Spain, this resulting book brings together affecting human stories, digestible economics and authoritative politics.

How did the historical Spanish exceptionalism you describe come about?
I think most countries have a history that is exceptional – and Spain certainly belongs in that category. Perhaps the most obvious characteristic that sets Spain apart from most countries in northern Europe is that it took until the late 1970s to become a fully-fledged democracy. The dictator Francisco Franco ruled until his death in 1975, and it took several more years for the transition to democracy to really take hold. In other words: Spain arrived late – very late – to the European political mainstream. It did so, moreover, not by way of a revolution or sudden rupture but through a pact between the regime and the opposition that achieved what many thought was impossible: a shift from dictatorship to democracy that took place without bloodshed and that was orchestrated, to a large extent, by representatives of the former regime. That peculiar – and in many ways successful – transition helps explain some of the distinct features of modern Spain.

Where did the recent impetus for Catalan independence come from, because polls have always showed limited support. And did the government’s heavy-handed response to the 2017 referendum in itself give nationalism more momentum?
Nothing happens for a single reason alone, but I do believe that the economic and financial crisis after 2008 played a key role in stoking separatist sentiment. It exacerbated an already widespread view in Catalonia that the central government was taking more money out of the prosperous northern region than it should – and that Catalonia would be better off financially as an independent country. The crisis, and the seemingly endless stories of political corruption that broke in the post-crisis years, caused bitter disillusionment all across Spain. In Catalonia, however, the separatists were able to offer a seemingly simple way out of the mess: just break free and form an independent state.

But there are countless other factors that help explain the surge in support for secession. Critics of the independence movement will highlight years of pro-separatist bias in parts of the Catalan media and a corresponding campaign by Catalan political actors. Among supporters of independence, many will point to the intransigence of successive governments in Madrid – culminating in the heavy-handed crackdown by Spanish police on the day of the illegal independence referendum in October 2017.

Both sides of the Franco argument – that Spain can’t move on without coming to terms with him and that Spain can only move on by forgetting him – put their arguments eloquently in the book. Do you agree with one over the other?
Having grown up in Germany, where coming to terms with the country’s Nazi past has long been seen as a national as well as individual obligation, I instinctively side with the former approach. I do find it strange, to say the least, that Franco’s grave continues to occupy an exalted place inside a massive basilica outside Madrid, which is funded and supported by the Spanish state. The absence of a national monument or museum dedicated to the victims of Francoism or the Civil War is equally striking. At the same time, I have some sympathy for the pragmatic argument made by Spaniards who argue that the past 40 years have been the best in the nation’s long and troubled history. Spain is an open society and liberal democracy, fully integrated into Europe, and a respected member of the international community. According to this view, Spain has fully renounced Franco – and renounces him every day – through what it is, and what it has become.

“The only people who didn’t have a BMW were the ones who didn’t want one,” window company worker David Perez from Cebolla in Castile-La Mancha tells you. What were the pitfalls of so many young people easily being able to get such well-paid jobs in the boom years?
Perhaps the worst aspect of the Spanish crisis was the suffering it inflicted – and still inflicts – on young workers like David Perez. For more than a decade, Spain enjoyed an extraordinary housing boom that sucked in capital and workers from everywhere. Teenagers like David would leave school to work on building sites or in construction-related industries. They were tempted by the allure of dinero fácil – easy money – and they earned very well indeed, as long as the boom lasted. When the crisis hit, however, millions lost their jobs. At the worst moment, more than a quarter of the Spanish workforce were on the dole. And while some were able to find work in the years of the recovery after 2013, the future continues to be rather bleak for those who left school without any meaningful qualification. Even if they find work today, they have lost a decade of their lives.

Do you think people in the rest of western European countries grasp the importance of corruption as a political issue in Spain?
Corruption exists everywhere, from Fifa to the Houses of Parliament. It is also worth noting that Spain has relatively few instances of petty corruption: no one in Spain would ever dream of offering a bribe to a teacher, doctor or policeman. But Spain did suffer an extraordinary run of high-profile political corruption cases that affected top party officials, most notably inside the conservative Popular Party. The scandals took different forms, from kickbacks for public contracts to lavish perks for politicians serving on the boards of banks and similar bodies. What is indisputable is the damage these scandals inflicted on public trust in politicians and institutions. I suspect it will take many more years for that trust to be rebuilt – assuming we don’t get another wave of corruption revelations in the meantime.

The Palacio Vistalegre arena in Madrid hosted two highly significant political rallies in recent years. Why is it that left-wing party Podemos burned brighter than any western equivalent, bar Syriza, but then peaked, and far-right party Vox only emerged much later than its western equivalents?
I think the rise of both Podemos and Vox tells you a lot about how Spain changed over the course of the crisis. The anti-establishment Podemos party – which soared to prominence in 2014 – was a direct response to the crisis, and to the corruption scandals that rocked the country at the time. It offered a radical break with the old, and held out the promise of social justice, financial redistribution and a kick against the capitalist system. The far-right Vox party is also a child of the crisis, but it emerged above all as a political vehicle for Spanish anger with Catalonia and growing anxiety about immigration. It was also helped by the electoral collapse of the centre-right Popular Party, which broke the PP’s decades-long iron grip on conservative voters from the liberal centre to the far-right fringe.

Spanish politics has become notoriously volatile, so it’s hard to say anything definitive about the future trajectory of Podemos and Vox. But it remains striking to me how long it took for the far right to gain a foothold in Spain – and how small, comparatively, that foothold is even today. I think the relative weakness of the far right in Spain has to do with the fact that the country remains overwhelmingly pro-European and, despite recent signs to the contrary, broadly supportive of immigration. That means two of the key factors that drive voters into the arms of the far right in other countries are absent in Spain.

What was it that brought such a violent conflict as Basque independence to an end and are there lessons for conflicts in the rest of the world?
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Eta’s murderous campaign for Basque independence is just how long it lasted. The group formally announced the end of its “armed activity” in 2011, more than a decade after the end of the IRA. Since its first victim in 1968, Eta had killed more than 800 people, most of them in the small slice of land that it claimed to be fighting for. Its end came about through a combination of factors. Enhanced police co-operation between Spain and France, which had long served as something of a safe haven for Eta militants, played an important role. But so did the growing fatigue and disgust with the group’s actions, even among Eta’s erstwhile band of sympathisers. As one mayor in the Basque country told me: “Eta was not the gunmen. If it had only been the gunmen they would have been nothing.” The group drew its strength to a large degree from the support it enjoyed – material and ideological – from a small but significant section of the Basque population. When that support disappeared, Eta disappeared.

What is it about Spain that you admire so much and that gives you hope, and will it sustain the country, if, as seems possible, Europe stands on the brink of another recession?
Spain is a hard country not to love. Its cities and landscapes are beautiful, its people among the most friendly and welcoming I have ever met. The one thing that impressed me perhaps more than anything else was that – even in the worst moments of the crisis – there was little sign of a backlash against foreigners or other minorities. For all the anger swirling around Spanish society in those bleak years, there was a rare and admirable refusal to look for easy scapegoats. Support for the European Union remained remarkably high throughout. As I write in my book, Spain came through the crisis with reserves of solidarity and grace that were at times hard to fathom, and harder still to forget.

I think that experience helps explain why I remain fundamentally optimistic about Spain, despite the evident political and economic challenges. How Spain will be able to meet those challenges is not easy to see right now, especially when it comes to the very serious problem posed by the Catalan campaign for independence. But I certainly hope for a sensible outcome.

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