Royal Mail chief aims Spanish slur at striking workers

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The old British habit of insulting the Spanish has not died, even though centuries have passed since Philip II had his predatory eyes on the throne of England.

Yesterday, the chief executive of Royal Mail, Adam Crozier, weighed in by accusing his recalcitrant staff of indulging in hundreds of "Spanish practices" – a dated expression implying that they have invented all sorts of ruses to avoid doing a full day's work for a full day's pay.

Oh dear. It was a "mistake" on Mr Crozier's part to revive this out of date notion, a Spanish embassy official said yesterday. "It is always bad to voice any kind of reference to other countries in this negative way," he added tactfully. Another staff member said the expression was "not very nice to the Spanish people".

This is not a new row. Spanish officials and expatriates have tried before to cure the English of this insulting linguistic habit.

A few years ago, when the CBI boss Sir John Egan, also referred to "Spanish practices" on the BBC, the embassy is reputed to have lodged a complaint.

The expression was once commonly used in newspapers, with special reference to the working practices of the old print unions but, after complaints from readers, newspaper style books have cautioned against it.

Its origin goes back centuries, to an era when a few maritime European nations, notably England, Spain, France and Holland, were competing for global supremacy.

Insults directed against each of the main rivals found their way into common English usage. During the 17th century wars with Holland, it was suggested that the Dutch fought bravely only when they were blind drunk, or fired up with "Dutch courage".

In the following century, a myth arose that French foot soldiers were rather good at disappearing when battle was imminent, or taking "French leave."

The insults we direct at the Spanish go back to Elizabethan times, when venereal disease was the "Spanish pox", a chastity belt was a "Spanish padlock", and people who were prepared to abandon their sense of duty for the sake of gold were guilty of "Spanish practices".

When two English nobles, Lord Vaux and Sir Thomas Tresham were locked up in Fleet prison a few years before the Armada, because their loyalty in the growing conflict with Spain was under question, a government spy reported that though the pair were undoubtedly devout Catholics, they were also "very good subjects and great adversaries of the Spanish practices" – so there was no risk of their being bribed by agents of Philip II.

Unfortunately, the same could be said of some of the English sent to the Netherlands to fight the Spanish, according to a letter sent home by the English commander Lord Willoughby. He accused some fellow soldiers of having "made themselves the Beelzebubs of all these mischiefs... "

Later, the threat from Spain receded and "Spanish practices" came to mean customs which ensured the workers got paid, irrespective of whether they worked. The implication was that Spain had lost its great-power status because its people were lazy.

Modern Spain's economy has grown so quickly since it joined the EU that it is now one of the 10 largest in the world.

The former Europe minister Denis MacShane said: "Given Spain has the best record on economic growth in Europe in the past 10 years, and has achieved it without strikes, perhaps Mr Crozier ought to fly to Spain and learn the Spanish practices of successful labour relations."

Old 'Spanish' phrases enshrined in English


According to the definitive Dictionary of Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose published in 1811, this was current slang for ready money.

Spanish coin

This was what we might now call "sweet talk", or false flattery. A woman might reasonably fear that all the fine words she hears from her suitor are nothing more than Spanish coin.

Spanish faggot

An old name for the sun, the one that shines, not the newspaper.

Spanish gout/Spanish needle/Spanish pox

All different expressions to describe venereal disease that soldiers brought back from the war.

Spanish padlock

The 1811 Grose dictionary defines this as "a kind of girdle contrived by jealous husbands of that nation, to secure the chastity of their wives".

Spanish practices/Spanish customs

Defined in Encarta as "irregular practices that are in the interests of workers, e.g overstaffing and excessive overtime." Former Daily Mirror owner Robert Maxwell is reputed to have been the first to use the expression to describe the old deals between print unions and newspaper proprietors.

Spanish worm

A carpenter who jagged his saw or chisel on a nail concealed in a board called it a "Spanish worm".

Montezuma's Revenge

Diarrhoea. The English though it very amusing that it hit the Spanish conquistadors after they conquered Montezuma's Aztec empire.