Selling arms to the enemy

A few days after the victory of the PP and Vox in the país valencià on May 28, I received a furious e-mail from a friend in Castelló. She raged about the politicians and the “brainless idiots” who had voted for them

Preston documents the corruption of the ministers. No minister left office poorer than when he (always ‘he’) took office

Why do people value boozing and packing out the terraces of bars over social policies of equality, respect for migrants who’ve risked their lives to come here, or respect for nature and animals?… A bull killer as conseller of Culture!” She was despairing of her fellow-citizens. I sympathise with Susanna’s feelings, but argued in my reply that one should distinguish between the rulers – today, the neo-Francoists of Vox and the PP – who over many decades have systematically rendered masses of people impoverished and uneducated and the voters, who are often the unwitting victims of the people they voted for. Not ‘idiots’, but idiotised.

Paul Preston’s A People Betrayed argues along similar lines. In this magnificent survey of the governments of Spain’s last 150 years, Preston distinguishes between the state’s corrupt, incompetent politicians and the peasantry and working class that have been abused and kept ignorant by these rulers.

Lining their Pockets

Fortunately, in his old age, Preston is using his vast knowledge of Spanish history to write a series of excellent books. A People Betrayed steps beyond his main area of expertise, ie the Civil War and Franco years. It goes back to the start of the Restoration monarchy in 1874 and follows through to today. Preston’s method is to combine a rigorous account of political events with juicy, illustrative anecdotes, which makes for compulsive reading. It’s no dry tome.

The Restoration of the Bourbons in 1874 was organised by Cánovas del Castillo and Sagasta, head of the Conservative and Liberal parties respectively, agreeing to alternate in power. Massive electoral fraud of every kind – stuffing ballot-boxes, losing ballot-boxes, threats, enticements – ensured this alternation, which of course excluded representatives of the working class or of the nations within the state. Preston documents the astounding corruption of the ministers of these governments. No minister left office poorer than when he (always ‘he’) took office. The most extreme case that sticks in the mind was that of Foreign Minister Santiago Alba during the 1920s war in Spain’s last colony, Morocco. The patriot Alba organised the sale of arms to the enemy, the Rif independence fighters (p.135). Times have changed, but not as much as the ruling class would like us to think. Remember Vicente Sanz, the PP’s General Secretary in València in 1990, who boasted: “I’m in politics to line my pockets”.

The powerful conclusion of Preston’s book is that the corruption of 150 years ago has persisted right down to today. His final chapter is entitled ‘The Triumph of Corruption and Incompetence, 2004-2018’. The Primo de Rivera (1923-1930) and the Franco (1939-1975) dictatorships were especially dark periods, but the post-1977 democracy hasn’t cleaned up the venal politicians and businesspeople.

Catalonia is not different

Catalan nationalists adore such books that explain the egregious faults, corruption and incompetence of the Spanish political system. However, they are not so cheered to read the real history of the Catalan bourgeoisie, which Preston also includes. One striking example is that the architect and president of the Mancomunitat, Puig i Cadafalch, along with some 4,000 Catalan dignitaries and politicians, assembled at Sants railway station on September 14, 1923 to cheer Primo de Rivera on his way to Madrid to be ratified as Dictator by Alfonso XIII (p.154). They wanted the dictator to suppress the anarchists. He did, but unsurprisingly this Spanish nationalist then suppressed the Mancomunitat. Another notorious example is Francesc Cambó, leader of the Lliga Regionalista, “bulwark of the monarchy” (p.214) and predecessor of Pujol’s Convergència, who financed Franco’s rebellion. Catalan business has always been ready to side with Madrid and abandon any limited Home Rule aspirations when it fears its property might be affected by revolt or revolution. Most recently, this occurred around October 1, 2017.

Preston documents contemporary corruption, often with its roots in Aznar’s eight years in power (1996-2004): the ‘Gürtel’, Bárcenas, Rodrigo Rato, the dozens of cases in València etc.. Catalonia is no oasis. In 2014, Jordi Pujol was obliged to admit his tax evasion. Pasqual Maragall was right about the 3%, the standard commission for the award of Generalitat contracts. When it comes to ‘betrayal’ of its people, Catalonia IS (alas!) Spain.

Preston’s book largely omits analysis of the mass movements threatening the ruling class; but nor does it pretend to be a full history. Rather, it is an enthralling account of the elite’s venality and incompetence, written with the rigour of a fine historian and the passion of a man of the left.

book review

A People Betrayed Sub-title: A History of Corruption, Political Incompetence and Social Author: Paul Preston Pages: 750 Publisher: William Collins (2020) A People Betrayed races along in riveting fashion, replete with eye-catching and often bleakly humorous anecdotes.” Professor Helen Graham, The Guardian


Paul Preston is the Anglo-Saxon world’s leading historian of modern Spain. Born in Liverpool in 1946, he was among the youngest of the foreign historians who were able to investigate in the last years of Francoism: older Spanish historians were in exile and a younger generation had not yet emerged. Professor at the London School of Economics, Preston has published numerous books over the last four decades, mainly on the Civil War and Francoism though not exclusively: an early success was The Triumph of Democracy of Spain (1986), which analysed and praised the 1970s transition.

He has written several biographies: the essential Franco (1993), which nailed the dictator’s lies and dismantled the myths of his austerity; the embarrassingly hagiographic Juan Carlos, A People’s King (2004); or the original and moving Doves of War (2002), portraits of four women in the Civil War, two on each side. We Saw Spain Die (2009) is an account of foreign journalists in the Civil War. The ferocious The Spanish Holocaust (2011) daringly uses the word ‘holocaust’ to describe Franco’s attempted extermination of all communists, anarchists, separatists, freemasons… indeed, all democrats, because it was liberal democracy that allowed these noxious creeds to breed.

The ongoing interest in the Spanish Civil War in Britain has meant that his stylish (with no tinge of dry academia) and well-written books have sold to a much wider public than academics and students and that he has been awarded a CBE and knighthood. Ardent defender of the Spanish Republic, Preston is no Stalinist – his The Last Stalinist (2014) is a scathing critique of Spanish Communist Party leader Santiago Carrillo – but he is a supporter of the Stalin-designed Popular Front in the Civil War. This means that his books on the war are favourable to the Communists’ choice for president in May 1937, “the brilliant” (p.316) Juan Negrín, and defend both the suppression of the 1936 revolution and Negrín’s removal of Home Rule powers from the Catalan Generalitat. Paul Preston is an honest historian in that he does not bend facts to suit his argument, but history is not only narration of events, but selection of what is relevant and interpretation of those events.

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