Former prime ministers tend not to retreat from the public eye never to be heard from again. They cast shadows on successors in a way that one might compare with Sir Alex Ferguson. Moyes, van Gaal, Mourinho and Solskjaer; it is their lot to endlessly be compared. But there are differences between Sir Alex and ex-prime ministers. Despite what he might think about the team, he keeps his powder dry. He also went out as a winner. Former prime ministers are invariably losers.
In Spain, one-time prime ministers (otherwise known, by the Spanish, as presidents) are more evident than their British counterparts, including Tony Blair. Since Franco died, there have been eight of them, the first three - Carlos Arias Navarro, Adolfo Suárez and Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo - are no longer with us. Felipe González’s victory in 1982 ushered in what was the recognisable pattern of Spain’s politics for the next thirty odd years until that pattern started to be disrupted.
González and his successor, José Maria Aznar, rarely seem to be far away from the public eye, forever offering their opinions about their respective parties - PSOE and the PP - and any number of issues. When they were prime ministers, as was also the case with José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the political pattern and scene was consistent in that there was never any real disruption to the two-party state. It was while Mariano Rajoy was prime minister that things changed.
The causes of the disruption are well enough understood - the corruption and the financial crisis that bred austerity. Ciudadanos, although founded before the crisis, were to latch on to anti-austerity politics, while Podemos were very much a product of the crisis - a reaction against austerity and corruption, an aspect of which was the perceived corrupt nature of the two-party dominance plus the powerful regional parties, such as the CiU in Catalonia. It was a reaction against the “casta”.
Although their roots and political principles were very different, the Cs and Podemos became prime movers in the disruption for similar reasons. Ciudadanos, despite having been defined by some as right-wing (mainly it seems because of their anti-independence stance), were always a party of the centre; left in some respects. While the PP saw support drift, the disruption was more on the left, until Vox came along - the right-wing counterpoint to Podemos.
Aznar is arguably the most active of the ex-prime ministers. The foundation over which he presides, FAES, the Foundation for Social Studies and Analysis, is a think tank dedicated to “nurturing the political ideas of the liberal and reformist centre”. This foundation is just one reason why Aznar remains a powerful figure and why he was never reticent in voicing his views about Rajoy’s government and is similarly not backward in coming forward with his assessments of the performance of the current PP leader, Pablo Casado.
There are times with Aznar when his interventions can be tiresome, but the views he expressed at the online meeting of the Nueva Economía Fórum on Monday merit consideration because they go straight to the heart of the consequences of the disruption that started under Rajoy.
In one respect, Aznar was appealing for a return to the old days of the political status quo. As such, and I’m sure this will be the case, he will draw opprobrium for being of the old school and of failing to appreciate the dynamics (or wanting to appreciate the dynamics) of recent years. Yet his thesis is similarly an assault on what he sees as a regression, one that goes much further back.
There was, he argues, “convergence”, by which he means that there was a form of political pact between the PP and PSOE. Right versus left, there was nevertheless agreement on certain fundamentals, not least the nature of the Spanish state. During his address to the forum, he attacked a “populist and authoritarian tendency” and a Spanish government which “welcomes radical forces and even legitimises the secessionists and the children of ETA”.
He went on to observe that there is a “constitutional deconstruction process”. In its stead, there should be a “generational pact”, the guides for which must be the Constitution and Europe.
It was a withering attack, and it certainly wasn’t without some validity. I don’t disagree with much of what he had to say, but in presenting a plea for that one-time convergence, and although the disruption didn’t start when he was prime minister, should he not acknowledge that he was intimately associated with a political pattern that ultimately led to the disruption and therefore to a situation which he defines as regressive?
The conclusion is drawn that all was good when he was PM, just as they were under Fergie. But Sir Alex would never suggest that he could reinvent Giggsy, Becks and the Nevilles. Things move on but are hostages to the past, and so they are with both what Aznar advocates and what he denounces.