John Elliott: “Franco still casts a shadow over dialogue in Spain”

The British Hispanist discusses modern politics and the Catalan separatist challenge

British historian John Elliott in Madrid.
British historian John Elliott in Madrid.ÁLVARO GARCÍA

John H. Elliott may well be the most prestigious of all the 20th- and 21st-century British historians who have studied Spain.

Winner of the 1996 Prince of Asturias Award, the Oxford professor emeritus first came to this country because of Catalonia, where he once had teachers and now has friends.

Now, the author of Imperial Spain and The Revolt of the Catalans: A Study in the Decline of Spain (1598-1640), is working on a new book that compares Scotland and Catalonia, calling them “nations without a state.”

During a recent visit to Madrid to take part in cultural events organized by the Prado Museum, of which he is a patron, Elliott spoke to EL PAÍS.

Question. This is an historic moment for Spain: it’s been 40 years without Franco.

Answer. And look at all that’s happened! And what is happening now!

Q. What’s significant about what has happened?

A. The enormous transformation, both economic and social. This is a very different country from back in 1975. And extremely different from the one I knew in 1950!

To me, the future of Spain is not a federal state, which I don’t think would work, but rather an asymmetrical state

Q. Did you expect that, at a time when there was talk of new civil clashes?

A. I think that no historian could have imagined it; they were generally pessimistic. But there was a feeling that things were changing ever since the 1960s: in the new generations, in people’s habits. Tourism had an enormous impact on that final Franco period. Franco belonged to the past. But neither I nor anyone else expected how smooth the transition to this democratic Spain would be. That was sensational, and it was due to the common sense of a generation of politicians and to the king, who was key.

Q. What should the current king do in order to play a key role?

A. He is already doing it by talking about the unity of Spain and putting into practice, as king, the fact that he is above politics, understanding what’s going on in Spain, and trying to reconcile positions and get people to talk. A lack of dialogue was the rule in Franco’s Spain. So the current king is trying to go back to the kind of consensus that earned victory for democracy in 1975.

Q. You used the term “reconcile.” Should we Spaniards be worried that this word is still necessary?

A. It’s necessary in every society, it’s not just a Spanish thing. And there are times like this one, when it is required once more: now you could say that the country is experiencing a generational transition. Today’s youth is tired of the old generation of politicians; they want something new, and so besides things like the Catalan issue, there is this need to reconcile the generations. And the king speaks for a new generation, like Juan Carlos did in 1975.

I think the first challenge is pulling out of the economic recession, which has influenced politics so much

Q. What is Spain’s pending challenge?

A. I think the first challenge is pulling out of the economic recession, which has influenced politics so much. That phony prosperity, based mostly on construction, triggered corruption. It is everywhere. It would be good if the new generation were able to deal with the corruption and keep talking to one another, seeking a consensus and viewing the Transition for what it was and not the way it is deformed by memory. Young people are not very well informed about Spanish history in general, and particularly not about the Transition era.

Q. Are you concerned that we are now facing a declaration of independence in Catalonia?

A. Of course it is a cause for concern, as the Scottish referendum was for us. It’s curious, this combination of globalization and nationalisms you see in the West. The global and the fragmentary. You see it everywhere.

Q. Three years ago you told me: “Catalans have not played the role I would have liked for them in the life of the state.”

A. Oh, really? Well, I still agree with myself!

Q. How did we reach this situation?

A. I am not an expert on what’s happening right now. I said some time ago that this was a result of a combination of an economic recession and the rise of pretty mediocre, demagogic politicians who want to manipulate the situation. I think this sort of thing is happening in many places. I really love the Catalans, and Spaniards, but I feel that this is what’s happening in Catalonia. It is not an impossible situation by any means, but you need common sense on both sides. Both in Catalonia and in Scotland, there are people who don’t want dialogue, but there are many others with common sense.

More information
Spanish PM: “There will be no Catalan independence”
Remnants of the Franco era
What is left of Franco’s legacy?

Q. Are we once more witnessing the climactic end of Castilian Spain?

A. Castilian Spain has never been that Castilian: the Basques played a tremendously important role in the history of this country, as did the Galicians, the Andalusians... I am sorry that Catalonia is not more integrated into the general life of the country these days.

Q. How do you manage that? By putting more emphasis on loving care, as we like to say around here? You the British seem to have dealt with the Scottish issue.

A. Dealt with it for now, but I’m not so sure about the future... Scotland was an independent state for centuries. Catalonia was never an independent state, and the Scots have a lot of national pride. They were integrated into British life in 1707. I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. When you vote in a referendum, you do so for many reasons: many Scots were voting against Cameron’s austerity policy. It’s always a little dangerous for a center-of-the-spectrum politician to ask for a referendum.

Q. Those who demand independence in Catalonia hold up the year 1714 as the date when its aspirations began.

A. That is frankly a manipulation of history. Catalan society was very divided, as was all of Spain, between supporters of the Bourbons and supporters of the Habsburgs.

Q. You said earlier that there are now mediocre politicians who make it harder to find common ground.

A. Exactly. Because maybe they don’t want to find it.

Today’s youth is tired of the old generation of politicians; they want something new

Q. And history will show that the mediocre have often led the way...

A. Yes, unfortunately there have always been and always will be mediocre politicians.

Q. And you also said that the “coffee for everyone” attitude of the Transition ended up not working so well.

A. No. To me, the future of Spain is not a federal state, which I don’t think would work, but rather an asymmetrical state. In Great Britain we have no problem calling Scotland and Wales “nations.” Over here, it seems like a nation has to also be a state. But nation is a very flexible word that changes meaning throughout the centuries and across different spaces.

Q. Could it be that Franco’s shadow continues to loom over our national dialogue?

A. Yes, Francoism has had a major importance on that, it casts a shadow over dialogue in Spain. There is still the idea of a centralized, authoritarian state. That image of the Madrid government has greatly influenced reactions in the periphery, as in Catalonia.

English version by Susana Urra.

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