As the son of Spanish immigrants, born and raised in the UK but having spent most of my working life doing business in Spain and the last seven years living here, I have given a lot of thought to try and understand what gives the Spanish the character they have - loud, opinionated, proud, autocratic, confrontational and individualistic. Yes they can be kind, helpful and hopelessly optimistic but, in my experience, that is the exception not the norm.
Ok, so this is a rather negative view of them and is perhaps less true the further north you go, but it happens to be one shared by many outside observers who know them well - both professionally and socially. I think the way they "ran" their Empire, in South America and Europe and the way the Civil War was conducted by both sides, provide ample evidence of some of these characteristics.
More recently, the disputes and posturings of the larger autonomous regions are continuing examples of these characteristics - at least at a political level. Also, just watch and listen to a group of Spaniards talking - it invariably descends very quickly into a shouting match - with no one listening and everybody expressing an opinion. In fact, even after all this time, I keep expect to see a murder committed in front of my eyes but thankfully they all usually end up best friends - at least on social occasions!
So what influences have contributed to the characteristics identified above? My own view is that the main factors which provide the foundation for the character and culture of a race are:
- Climate and natural resources
- Geographical location
These in turn affect economic, social and political development. In all three cases, Spain suffers from extremes - hot and cold with very few natural resources - other than sunshine; it is at the Western extreme of Europe; and, it is the second most mountainous country in Europe.
The size and topography of the country means until recently, and I mean the last 30 years or less, much of the country was remote and relatively inaccessible. This, combined with poverty, meant that ordinary people did not usually travel. Hence, although finally united under Isabella and Ferdinand, in the 15th century, Spain remained a country of insular and isolated regions. At the same time, until the late 20th century, Spain was a largely agrarian society and wealth, mainly in the form of landownership, was concentrated in the hands of the state, the Church and a small minority of powerful families.
I believe that the method of managing this "wealth" also had a significant impact on the evolution of the Spanish character and culture. For example, in the north a system of tenure/leases over small plots predominated which gave the workers - dare I say peasants, some sense of involvement and ownership, as well as economic benefit. In the south, absent landlords owned vast estates which were worked on their behalf, and for their benefit, by the workers - leading to poverty as well as tension between the haves and the have nots. These systems prevailed until relatively recently - Spain only became industrialised in the 1960s and was, in fact, one of the top 10 largest economies in the world in the early-mid 70s (before the oil crisis) - even then this was largely limited to Catalyuna and the Basque country.
Therefore, what we have is a large, geographically diverse country, with poor communications, few natural resources, where the land ownership (and hence wealth) was concentrated and which industrialised very late compared to most other western European countries. Sounds like a recipe for disaster and I think goes a long way to explaining the characteristics I described above.
So, once united under Isabella and Ferdinand, how did the ruling classes stave off revolution a la francais or Cromwell? Well I suppose the sheer size of the country and poor communications made it difficult for the peasants to revolt. At the same time, the lack of natural resources forced Spain to look beyond its borders for wealth, mainly by conquering countries richer than themselves. Spain's Age of Expansion as it was known, occurred between 1506 and 1700 and maybe this colonialism reinforced some of their more aggressive and autocratic characteristics? One thing it definitely helped to do was to create a complex, and quite autonomous, set of regional bureaucracies, which meant that taxes, infrastructure improvement, etc. were defined independently by each region, leading to many internal customs barriers and tolls, and conflicting policies - sounds familiar?
Unfortunately, most of the wealth "acquired" from the New World was squandered in wars and Spain's economic position became weaker and weaker. As a result, starting in the second half of the 17th century, it experienced a gradual political and cultural decline. From here on in it was largely down hill with a series of civil wars, the Carlist Wars, racking the country in the 19th century. As Spain's political and economic influence abroad waned, the country became poorer while wealth and land ownership remained concentrated in a very small minority.
Downtrodden, poor, with no political power and with the rest of the world around them going through industrial revolution and economic growth, Spaniards turned to republicanism and anarchism in the first half of the 20th century. And then came Franco. I'm not going to delve into that particular can of worms. All I will say about him is that he delayed Spain's socio-economic-political evolution - not always deliberately - but he did not create the Spanish character as we perceive it today. The seeds for that were sown centuries before and he was just the result of a long and slow process towards, strange as it may seem, democracy.
In 1976 Spain became a tentative democracy and a constitutional monarchy and in 1986 joined the then EEC becoming the single biggest recipient of EU funds, whilst having only gone through a short, sharp learning curve in political and economic terms. This has had its pros, for example, reinforcement of democracy, a huge improvement in the national transport infrastructure network, etc. but also its cons, for example, a false sense of economic security (made worse, in my opinion, by joining the euro), which in turn has led to an unwillingness to take difficult decisions to improve the long term competitiveness and flexibility of the economy - a situation which exists to this day.
I think these are the most important factors which have shaped Spanish character and culture to date. I have, perhaps, omitted one important factor which most people I have spoken to believe contributes to the Andalucian character - the Moors. There is no doubt that 700 years of occupation will have had a huge impact on culture and also the genetic pool and this does go someway to explaining "typical" Andalucian behaviour, e.g. warlike/aggressive, but I'm personally not so convinced that this is a lasting legacy of the Moors. The occupation ended over five hundred years ago, and as we have seen, a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. My own sense is that it is geography, climate and economic underdevelopment which continue to be the main drivers for the Andalucian character.
In talking with Professor Andrew Kakabadse, Professor of International Development at Cranfield University School of Management, about what influences the development of culture, national characteristics and leadership skills (he is writing a book on the reality of cultural differences using several countries as examples) one of his principle conclusions is that the re-distribution of wealth, combined with sustained investment in social and economic "assets", e.g. education, healthcare, infrastructure, etc., are major factors for any country.
He cited Germany as a good example where, over a relatively short period of time, approximately two generations, such policies have successfully created a unified country whose citizens, on the whole, feel they are part of one large family. As he puts it - it has moved from a shareholder to stakeholder model. On the other side of the coin, Ireland appeared to be moving in this direction with its new found wealth after joining the EU but this is now coming under pressure as the economy crumbles with "legacy" socio-economic characteristics coming to the surface because the re-distribution of wealth has not been sufficiently wide spread and investment has been poorly targeted.
Using all the information above, and your own knowledge and experience of Spain, I'll leave you to come to your own conclusions about why Spaniards are the way they are and what the future holds for Spain!