A notion of Spanish history as psychomachia – “an age-long Manichaean struggle” of “Santiago the slayer” against “Santiago the seeker” – animates the book; but occasionally a third, detached, rational Santiago shatters the false dichotomy. Bafflingly, Webster adopts the illogical rhetoric of Spanish “rupturists” who claim that there was no democratic “transition” after Franco because there was “no clean break”. He thinks that democracy must “allow the country to break apart” – but there is no majority for secession in any region (only 40 per cent of the electorate participated in the Catalan independence referendum in 2017). He predicts violence in any case for Spain and therefore, by his logic, for the rest of the West. The most horrific aspect of this nonsense is that – for reasons that elude Jason Webster – it may vaguely prefigure the truth. As dichotomy-politics grind moderation out of Western democracies, conflicts will get ever nastier. To comprehend and contain them, we shall need better, more balanced history than is offered in Violencia.
Violencia examines Spain from prehistory to the present. It is a delightfully engaging read and a good introduction to Spain’s turbulent history. Webster, rather like John Julius Norwich, combines considerable knowledge with wonderfully irreverent personal observations. He enjoys, for instance, telling the story of Juan, son of Ferdinand and Isabella, a “shagged-out crown prince” who copulated his way to an early grave.