Lessons of History: Shadows lengthen for Felipe: Spain's move to democracy may be sealed in the forthcoming election, writes Hugh Thomas

A story is told how, during the Spanish civil war, a man from Santander went down to Seville with the intention of going to South America. But either because he could not get a passage, or because he liked Seville and the sevillanas, he found a job looking after the cows on a little farm just outside the city. The mother of a friend of mine used to go for lunch at this farm. She remembered, years afterwards, how the cook in the farmhouse would look out of the window and sigh and say 'look how attractive that cowman is'. The result was marriage, and the consequence of that, Felipe Gonzalez, the brilliant Spanish Prime Minister who is, in June, asking his people to give him a fourth term in office.

Gonzalez's capacity for improvisation (including last-minute changes of plan), for adventure, and for hard work probably comes from his father. His Andalusian capacity for eloquence, persuasion and charm perhaps derives from his mother. His lack of rancour, so important in Spain during the era of the transition, comes from his family. But another important influence was Professor Gimenez Fernandez, a left-wing Christian Democratic minister of agriculture during the second republic before the civil war. Gimenez Fernandez might have been a minister in that coalition government which was never formed in 1936 but which just might have been able to prevent the civil war. In the 1940s and 1950s Gimenez Fernandez wrote the greatest work of scholarship of the Franco era, a study of the great apostle of the Indies, Bartolome de las Casas. It was, provocatively for the time, dedicated to 'all who hate violence, fruit of hatred and a prop of tyranny'. Gimenez Fernandez inspired a group of Christian Democratic students in Seville, of whom Felipe Gonzalez was one before he became a socialist.

With this past, Felipe Gonzalez was the ideal man to complete the democratic transition in Spain. The ground had been prepared by Adolfo Suarez, who had also been right for his time: he had grown up in the old Franco machine, so at least he knew what he was seeking to dismantle. In his 10 years in power, Gonzalez has presided over a country which, until the recession, prospered greatly.

Economic policy has been the reverse of doctrinaire. The state sector, associated with Franco, has been diminished. Spain entered the European Community and Nato, the latter change the result of the personal persuasiveness of Gonzalez in a reversal of policy which left many in the socialist party aghast. Basque terrorism, though not yet beaten, has certainly been held, at least since the French police were persuaded to collaborate with Madrid. The autonomous governments in what is almost a new, federal Spain have established a real place for themselves. Foreign investment in Spain continued throughout the 1980s. Spain has been modernised, but without any abandonment of the traditional side of life which keeps society together.

Recession or no recession, the carnival in Murcia, for example, was this year on a more elaborate scale than ever, I was assured by a girl in the crowd, as I watched the handing over by the mayor on his balcony of the ritual sardine to the fantastically garbed sardineros (and sardineras) for safe-keeping until its formal burial two months later. Felipe IV, King of Spain, enjoyed pageants on a lake outside Madrid in the 17th century. Juan Carlos, King of Spain, enjoyed pageants on a new lake in Seville at the 'Expo' last year, which, like the Olympic Games in Barcelona and the celebration of Madrid as the European City of Culture, were triumphs of organisation in a nation previously not renowned for it.

The Spanish right would be horrified by this enthusiasm for Gonzalez's Spain. What about the corruption, they would say, especially seen in the activities of Juan Guerra, the brother of the long-serving deputy prime minister Alfonso Guerra? Have not the socialists been trying to stay in power forever as if they were a European version of the Mexican PRI? Do I not realise that these autonomous governments are expensive little bureaucracies, bringing to the regions the centralised horrors of state socialism at a local scale, their chief activity being the restoration of old palaces to house their own officials? Is it not dangerous for Spanish democracy that the best opposition to the ruling socialists are precisely autonomous leaders such as the cosmopolitan and astute Jordi Pujol, who is establishing a real Catalan international presence? Have I forgotten the huge unemployment, especially in Andalusia? Do I not realise that crime has risen to record levels, whereas under Franco it was minimal?

One has only to go into a bank, some would say, to see that speed of communication within Europe has increased the paperwork with few compensating benefits. Felipe Gonzalez may have been a success with his European fellow statesmen but he has not worked very well with his own trade unions. The uncritical enthusiasm for membership of the European Community is said by some to be ensuring a great deal of trouble ahead, when it becomes clear that, even when the recession is over, many industries will be seen to have vanished. The slavish support for the ERM is not popular, since the peseta has greatly weakened.

These arguments are all reasonable. Some of them, though, can be answered effectively. While it is true that the socialist party has been in power for 10 years and more, the ministers have all changed, except for Felipe Gonzalez himself, and for Narcis Serra, the deputy prime minister. Felipe has had three foreign ministers, for example. Given a popular national monarchy, the rise of the autonomous regions may not turn out so dangerous - and here is a really important role for the monarch as king of 'the Spains'. The Spanish state itself remains a rock of stability in comparison with that of Italy: understandably so, since it began to assume its present form 400 years ago. Other things (the corruption, the depth of the recession, the continuing bureaucracy) can only be given debating replies: do not most developing societies suffer from corruption, is not bureaucracy inevitable considering the Spanish past, and is the recession worse in Spain than elsewhere?

But the historical context of these elections gives the reply to the strictures. First, the fact is that Felipe Gonzalez's is the country's first long-lasting government which was also democratically elected. The coalition governments before the civil war in the second republic were short-lived and weak. Before the republic there was brief military dictatorship (1923-1930); before that a constitutional monarchy whose administrations, if often led by interesting and high-minded men, derived from a tiny electorate. Then these 10 years have certainly shown the maturity of the Spanish socialist party, even if there will continue to be arguments as to whether Felipe Gonzalez has not dominated the administration excessively. To those who remember the small group of inexperienced but dogmatic young men who took over the government for the first time in 1982, their time in power must seem a triumph of moderation.

All these disputes within modern Spain (with the exception of the Basque question) are being argued within a constitutional frame. This was not anticipated. When Franco died, less than 20 years ago, those 'experts' who anticipated violence and vengeance in Spain far outnumbered those who thought that gradual reform had a chance. Everyone interested in the subject remembers being assured, in the last years of Franco, that Juan Carlos would be known as Juan the short-lived. Sometimes this pessimistic view was expressed within Spain itself.

Spain has taken to democratic politics rather easily. For over 10 years now, the Army has played no part whatever in politics (it began to be neutralised by Franco, who hated political generals as much as he hated political parties). The same is true of the Church and the anarchist movement, two other extra-constitutional forces which made the politics of co-existence impossible in the 1930s: the one is now neutral, the second is non-existent.

After 10 years, all parties in power become spoiled. The case for change becomes overwhelming. New men are bound to bring new brooms. That seems to be the likely judgement of the Spanish voters on 6 June. The opposition is led, as the socialists were in 1982, by rather inexperienced men. The potential prime minister is Jose Maria Aznar, nephew of a well-known editor of El Pais before the civil war, who was subsequently an ambassador of Franco. Several of those around him, however, played a part in the governments of Adolfo Suarez and Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo, and drawing on these, and perhaps on some outsiders, an excellent and moderate administration from the right could easily be formed, whose economic policies in practice would probably make no substantial change from Gonzalez's. Just as the passage from dictatorship could not be said to be complete without the experience of a real government of persons who had been in opposition to Franco, so the confirmation of that transition can hardly be complete if one party remains in power indefinitely.

If Felipe Gonzalez is defeated next month, he will emerge as a possible successor to Jaques Delors at the European Commission. The British government may devise some reason for opposing this. But the benefit of an undogmatic statesman with a proved record of success in national politics would be a good choice; especially in a country where 'subsidiarity' has worked.

To liberal Spain, the idea of Europe has always signified enlightenment. The need to change the constitution from dictatorship to democracy may have made it easier for Spain to move from the splendid isolation of the old nation state to seeing the benefits of confederation. A Spaniard at the top in the next stage of political movement in Europe would benefit Spain as much as, probably, it would Europe. For Europe needs a leader with the gift for communication, a sense of culture, the strong sense of place (Seville) and the experience which Felipe has to offer. The bull-fighter Belmonte once went to Paris with a girlfriend, all the way from Seville in a taxi. 'Hey, Juan,' said the girl, when they arrived in their hotel, 'the lemonade is not as good as it is in Seville, let's go home.' Now, northern Europe, Brussels as well as Paris, can produce all sorts of things needed by Spain. Perhaps the lemonade is better too. Felipe's mission to make Spain respected abroad might thus be fulfilled.

The author, Lord Thomas of Swynnerton, is a historian whose books include 'The Spanish Civil War' (1961), 'The Cuban Revolution' (1977) and 'An Unfinished History of the World' (1979).

(Photographs omitted)

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