The government of civil servants

It is a well known fact that the Spanish government is mainly composed of senior civil servants from State institutions. Well known and often commented on. I myself spoke about this in an article published in this newspaper a few months ago. It made reference to the difficulties that this profile, which many of its members have, could create when introducing structural reforms in Spanish public institutions.

But now I would like to establish a relationship between the dominant culture in some of those institutions and the possible reaction of the State apparatus against the Catalan process. I want to be clear that I'm speaking of the culture of the organization, not the personal or professional qualities of many of their members. In fact, I often make the joke that the Spanish government's problem is not that it includes many civil servants, but the person who picked them. As an example, in one of the most admired companies in the Ibex-35, two of the main executives are former high-ranking officials (a Sate Attorney and a Tax inspector). One of them is a friend, and it would be difficult to be more creative and dynamic than him. What happened is that the person who made the selection, the founder of the company, probably (surely!) has a better eye than Mr. Rajoy when it comes to putting together a team.

Usually these are well prepared people, efficient at enforcing the usual rules of the game of established institutional power. People who are normally tough and have a tendency to act without a shadow of a doubt about what they do. In some areas closest to power, or within the power group itself, showing doubt can cause you to be seen as not committed or trustworthy enough.

But to carry out their know-how with full efficiency requires that the field of play be defined. If it isn't, as is happening in Catalonia and will probably happen in the whole of Spain next year, the situation becomes more complicated.

What is it that defines this so-called field of play? It is characterized by the sense of inertia that has developed over many years, the unquestioning obedience to authority, the refusal to question certain ideas of the State (felt as dogma, not just as a legal requirement), and an enormous sense of institutional stability. In a word, conservatism in its widest, rather than a purely partisan, sense.

Now, in addition, this cultural trait fits in well with the electoral advantage that the party in the Spanish government thinks it can gain from the situation in Catalonia in the various elections in 2015.

How could the change of context that is in progress, especially in Catalonia, affect this civil service culture? How can these two phenomena --change of context and traditional culture-- interact? Well, normally the tendency that the high level civil servants have will be to punish those who defy the established order that they serve, which is the formal representation of what they believe that institutional Spain is supposed to be, conceived with little margin for change.

It is difficult for them, as a culture, to consider a broader view of reality, something that would be necessary in order to adopt a political approach to the situation. They probably think that it's inconvenient, either as former high-ranking civil servants (a feeling of betrayal of their own, if they don't do what they are doing), or electorally. The two things go hand in hand.

The application of traditional methods, those that they know, will be carried out with one argument in their favor --the defense of the law, albeit set in stone-- and one against-- that the law must adapt to changes in reality and society. Especially if the wishes and objectives that drive a large part of society are pursued peacefully and through dialogue and, what's more, go hand in hand with what is considered normal, respectable and protected in countries with more of a democratic tradition--like the United Kingdom and Canada: respect for the right to self-determination of stateless nations. And the list doesn't end there.

What we can expect, then, is a fierce defense of the status quo, with threats against and punishment of those who want to change the existing conditions. In fact, the training that they have received has this objective. And if we think about it a little bit, it almost seems logical. What is not logical is that this culture occupies the political space completely.

The brilliant strategy of the Generalitat that allowed the 9N vote is a perfect example of the correct and intelligent visualization of the change that is happening on the field of play, which alters the correlation of traditional forces. From the way it looks, it caught more than one of them off guard. Many of them.