Tragedy inevitably leads to reflection, and given the horrible events in London, Britons will no doubt have a lot on their minds: Iraq, Afghanistan, and their role in the War on Terror. The attacks conjure up great historical imagery of the Luftwaffe testing the resolve of her majesty’s subjects. We can only wonder: Will Albion go the Iberian route chosen in March of 2004? Many see Spain’s precedent as a disturbing forecast, but one look at 20th century history will show that the example will ultimately prove inapplicable to the United Kingdom.
For a country so highly esteemed as macho, Spain is a craven mouse. By sheer coincidence, a few days ago the Spanish Parliament released a report chastising the Popular Party (PP) for not heeding an increased threat of Islamic terrorism resulting from Spain’s involvement in the Iraq invasion (read: involvement in the war brought suffering to Spain). And if it is in a report, it has got to be true. It was for this lapse that the PP was politically defenestrated only days after the Madrid bombings, which killed 191. The pro-war Jose Maria Aznar, whose liberalization of Spain’s economy resulted in unprecedented growth, was forced out of office by Socialist Jose-Luis Rodriguez Zapatero whose promise to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq Spaniards found irresistible. The report is hardly the product of bipartisan efforts — all Popular Party members voted against its approval, while it is loftily supported by Zapatero’s party — and ought to be looked at as a purely political document. (Major outlets are leaving this detail out.)
Politics determines outcomes as much history does, and al Qaeda was smart enough to engineer an election towards their own end through violence, in a country that would be responsive. They wanted Spain out of Iraq, and they got it (confirming, once again, the absence of any connection between al Qaeda and Iraq!). But Britain, faced with a similar ultimatum, has the momentum of the ages behind it, ages that tell stories of resistance and victory.
By comparison Spain has been an isolated, war-ravaged country since the beginning of the 20th century, starting with the Spanish-American War (which effectively rendered its Navy and ability to trade useless) and running through a Civil War that ultimately kept Spain out of both World War II and the subsequent Marshall Plan. Francisco Franco’s position as a fascist dictator in post-war Europe held off economic modernization until the ’60s, which carried slowly and steadily to today. Just before Franco died in power, Basque separatists (ETA) announced their own prominence in the new era by assassinating Admiral Juan Carrero Blanco with enough dynamite to send his car over a four-story building. Rather than retaliate, Franco, the great counter-revolutionary scourge, ignored the threat. Would that Churchill were in his stead, we just might today only know ETA from footnotes.
Britain has a much more defiant — and triumphant — visage. Who can forget Churchill, pledging to fight anywhere the Germans landed? The obliteration of communist insurgency in Malaysia? Or Thatcher’s bold liberalization of her country’s economy? Spain was dominated by Franco, and thereafter by a quiet but stern King Juan Carlos. The 1978 Spanish constitution is too young to be the locus of devotion and support that Britain’s age-old traditions yield.
Not that Britain has always presented the world with such a resolute and firm stance. It was Neville Chamberlain who gave up on Czechoslovakia at Munich, and both Thatcher and Churchill were voted out of office despite their world-changing tenures. But both were removed only after once stability was achieved, and not as a result of instability. Zapatero’s Socialists have been in power in Spain mainly as a reaction to Franco’s totalitarianism, afraid of any party with an ideology even slightly reminiscent of Franco’s.
The strength that Aznar put on display, in his actions both in refusing to negotiate with ETA and joining in the fight on Iraq, was an unusual spectacle in an otherwise pacifist performance. Appeasement in Spain is alive and well, and it may be because so few Spanish heroes exist, let alone remain vocal about maintaining Spanish strength in the face of adversity. The matador spirit is restricted to the bull ring.
That African relief was at the forefront of the G8 agenda shows there was a tendency to overlook more immediate concerns in favor of politically correct causes (Mugabe, not condoms, should have been the real issue). The only word to describe such a lapse is “squishy,” which Britain, we can hope, will realize it cannot be. The attacks were a sufficient reminder that the U.K. cannot be Spain. What is coming over the airwaves from England appears to be resolve. Exiting the G8 conference in an assertive tone, Tony Blair might have appeared more bull than poodle. More than ever, Blair will wind up being more of a matador than the matadors themselves.