16 MAY 1987, Page 15


jaundiced view of Spain in the British yellow press

Madrid-Seville MANY Spanish people I know feel that their country is particularly badly under- stood by outsiders, especially by people from the British Isles. I once doubted whether Spain was much more misunder- stood than other European countries. Now the efforts of what the Spanish call our `yellow press' are beginning to make me wonder.

The Star of 14 April published a double spread of disgusting xenophobia. Under the headline 'Push off, Pedro', the Star's `reporter', Mike Parker, listed '21 things you never knew about Spanish bull'. Star readers eager for information about the inadequacies of `manana-land' could learn that 'Spanish garlic has long been regarded as a cure for were-wolves' and, in case they had slipped up on history lessons at school, that 'when the Spanish armada tried to invade England they missed'. One might well ask what all this was, or is, in aid of. Parker's 'Push off, Pedro' piece purported to be an indignant reaction on behalf of British holidaymakers to the wave of strikes, which, more reliable sources have informed us, has been crip- pling the country for the past two months. The Star's line was that it was disgraceful and unforgivable for the 'stroppy senors' to cause inconvenience to tourists, and above all, potentially, to the royal couple, by going on strike — and only weeks after the same senors, or others like them, had committed the unmentionable crime of sitting on a donkey. Blackie, you may remember, was saved from being pre- maturely turned to mortadella by the Star's fearless team of investigative reporters. Now the paper seems to be applying its crusading zeal to the rather more dubious end of rescinding the Spanish workers' right to strike.

This right, inscribed in the Spanish constitution only after Franco's death, in 1977, has certainly been fully exercised in the past weeks. There have been strikes by students, doctors, pilots, railway workers, and even judges, demonstrations by agri- cultural workers and students, and, most violently, pitched battles between steel workers and the Guardia Civil in the depressed town of Reinosa near Santan- der. All this might seem to amount to a widespread expression of discontent.

The reality, though, is rather harder to gauge. On my recent visit to the country I found few signs of 'chaos' (or at least, of any higher degree of chaos than is normal) and only one 'furious' tourist. This was a bleached American who was angry at having to pay £7.50 rather than £2.50 a night for a room in Seville during Holy Week. Certainly transport was affected on the days when Iberia and Renfe, the Spanish national railway, Went on strike (and there will be more), but minimum services were provided, and in Spain things generally work out for those who share Ortega y Gasset's view of life as a perpet- ual shipwreck.

Indeed the overwhelming impression was of a country, for the time being, given over to holiday, in a much deeper and more universal sense than is readily im- aginable in England. The statistics about the huge numbers of foreign tourists visit- ing Spain (over 40 million) can obscure the fact that the Spaniards themselves . are perhaps the world's greatest tourists — but only in their own country. Madrid on Maundy Thursday was empty and silent. Good Friday morning in the Retiro Park had a magical air of 19th-century decorum — family groups, meditative rather than crazed solitaries — under the chestnuts, elms, oaks and planes coming into full leaf just a week earlier than ours. The Talgo Express to Seville went gently past the picnickers in the gardens of Aranjuez, and arrived an hour or two late — nothing to signify. In the operatic city and home town of Felipe GonzAlez the climax of the Christian tragedy was being celebrated; half-mile long processions of hooded peni- tents and rich floats were watched by a most theatrical audience as they crawled at snail's pace from the cathedral to their home parishes. Some of the penitents smoked and held hands with their trouser- clad girlfriends, but others, bare-footed, dragged double crosses. Here was a vestige of the ascetic, almost masochistic side of Spanish Catholicism, though the flagellants of former years were not to be seen, and the general atmosphere seemed more car- nivalesque than solemn. The last thing which was apparent in the midst of a contented, possibly incongruous, gusto (and consumeristic enthusiasm) was social unrest.

Back in Madrid, the visit of 'Carlos y Di' was providing a field day for the newspap- ers and colour magazines, the latter orgias- tically celebratory, but the former, on occasion, mordantly satirical. El Pais, Spain's most prestigious daily, was im- pressed by the evident interest in art shown by Carlos during his visit to the Prado, but less taken with Lady Di, who was de- scribed as a mixture of a china doll and the white cliffs of Dover, distant and icy.

But where, oh where, were the signs of social unrest, to whose existence so many media reports and photographers bore witness? There did seem to be more beggars in the (extremely efficient) metro, and more young ones than old pros. Two boys around 20, on different occasions, came out with a line which I hadn't heard before, 'Ladies and gentlemen, I have just come out of jail. I cannot find work and the government is giving me no assistance. I do not want to return to robbing but I will have no alternative, if I do not receive some help.' They spoke politely and well; one of them proceeded to play the theme from the finale of Beethoven's Ninth on a recorder; they received a few coins — the Spanish attitude towards begging is not generally disapproving, but I seemed to detect a greater reluctance to give money than before.

The level of unemployment in Spain stands at well over 20 per cent, and rising, and only one in three of the unemployed receives any benefit. I asked a spokesman from the Labour Ministry whether the government was concerned. 'Of course we are concerned. But our performance on jobs is very successful. We are creating a large number of new jobs.' Why then is unemployment still rising?' Because more and more women are registering as unem- ployed, which is itself a good sign. It shows that because the economy is performing well, they are becoming more optimistic about getting work, and putting their names down on the list.' The spokesman looked at me with benign condescension.

Felipe Gonzalez complains increasingly these days about incomprension, the peo- ple's failure to understand him. I was beginning to see why some people accuse the Socialist government of arrogance. But what about the strikes? 'First of all the number of days lost in strikes in the first three months of this year is greater than in '85 and '86, but less than in '84, the last year when there was no agreement be- tween the employers and the employees. Then, you must distinguish three kinds of conflict, first, strikes about pay, which are a matter for employers and workers and not for government, secondly, conflict, like that of Reinosa, involving the loss of jobs in industrial reconversion, and thirdly de- monstrations, like those of the students, which are not strikes in the strict sense.' Once again I felt I had failed to understand something fairly simple, and that I really should trust a government which so clearly knew what was best for the nation.

But the spokesman was sidestepping one issue: many of the strikes are in public sector industries (railways, airlines) and they are in protest against the limit of around five per cent on wage claims imposed by the government. This limit was based on a projected inflation rate of five per cent, which now appears optimistic, to say the least. The Central Bank estimates that inflation will be at least two points higher by the end of the year. More embarrassingly, a Bank of Spain report suggests that the five per cent estimate might have been based on a statistical error. Private sector settlements are run- ning at between seven and eight per cent. My rather bland, confident, intelligent informant admitted that this was not en tirely satisfactory, but said that the govern- ment was standing by its original estimate. Then he sent me on my way back through the marble-floored corridors of the minis- try with a great wadge of statistics.

In the linoleum-floored corridors of the offices of Spain's two main unions, the Socialist UGT and the Communist Com- isiones Obreras, things did not seem quite so bland and peaceful. Comisiones, led by the veteran activist Marcelino Camacho, whose 14 years of prison and concentration camps under Franco make him a hero of the old guard, has always been noted for its intransigence. A leading Socialist politi- cian, Txtitxi Benegas, has recently coined the word `camachismo' to describe and decry its attitude of belligerent opposition. It is Comisiones which has orchestrated most of the recent strikes, and Camacho makes his position quite clear. 'The gov- ernment has not fulfilled any of its basic promises. It has supported economic pow- er, not the workers. Its anti-social policies have created anti-bodies, which are social movements of protest.'

Opposition from Comisiones was always predictable, given an economic policy of monetary austerity and industrial restruc- turing. Until very recently, however, the government has managed to keep the other, more or less equally powerful union, UGT, as a compliant bedfellow. What is new in the present conflicts is that UGT, albeit somewhat obscurely, has signalled the end of its honeymoon with the Socialist Party. The Secretary-General of UGT, Nicolas Redondo, has gone so far as to say that the social pact between government and unions is now, for practical purposes, broken. Where will things go from here? Another round of transport strikes has been called for the coming months, so it seems that labour disputes will continue for the time being. On the other hand, sum- mer has come early to Spain, and summer means, according to Jose Martinez Soler, head of the Efe news agency, the beginning of the holiday season and the relaxation of tension in the streets. For all that, a strong government, facing no credible parliamentary opposition and confident in its rightness, has been given its first taste of concerted social opposition. Felipe Gonzalez and his party, seeing their proportion of the vote seeping slowly away in elections and polls (one million fewer votes in 1986 than in 1982, an estimated one million fewer now than in June '86) would be wise not to ignore completely the unsatisfied demands of the forces of labour and youth which swept them into power, amid such high hopes, in 1982.