‘Each country has the government it deserves,’ the Savoyard writer Joseph de Maistre observed in 1811. Whether or not the French really deserved Napoleon is an interesting question, yet the remark is usually quoted by conservatives eager to stress the difference between the form of government in their own countries and those of other people’s. It is, however, a very dubious claim, and Paul Preston would certainly deny its validity if someone applied it to the Spanish.
The leading British historian of 20th-century Spain, Preston uses the title and subtitle of his latest book to assert that the Spanish emphatically do not deserve their long history of misgovernment. He quotes with approval the claim of the Sevillian poet Antonio Machado that ‘the best thing in Spain is the people’ and goes on to present an immense dossier of corruption and political incompetence, the two often combined in the same politician.
Sometimes one ‘statesman’ may have been corrupt yet reasonably competent, and occasionally one may have been honest but absolutely useless, like the socialist leader Francisco Largo Caballero, a vain and obstinate figure who was a disaster for the Second Republic in peace and in war. Yet a large