In denial

This week, former Conservative prime ministers José María Aznar and Mariano Rajoy reminded everyone of how unencumbered by principles their party once was (or "is"?), by appearing as witnesses in another trial concerning kickbacks and bribes. Testifying for the second time, an uncharacteristically animated Rajoy even claimed that there was "never a slush fund in the Popular Party (PP)", something which there are excellent reasons to disbelieve.

If there has never, ever been any dodgy financing within the Conservatives' upper ranks, then Spain's National Court owes them an apology. In 2017, as part of the sprawling Gürtel case, several judges ruled that a slush fund HAD existed during Rajoy's premiership, functioning as part of a "system of institutional corruption". "Caja B", as the judges dubbed it, was an "accounting and finance structure that ran in parallel to the official one and which had been in use since at least 1989" - in other words, since the very year in which the PP was formed, with a fusion of the Francoist People's Alliance and several smaller parties.

The PP as a whole was fined 240,000 euros for running this alternative accounting system - small change when compared to the multi-million-euro fines handed to Gürtel's ringleaders, many of whom also received lengthy prison sentences. Yet despite having effectively been found guilty of fraud as an entity, the PP responded by saying that it remained committed to the "fight against corruption" (the fight against its own corruption?), and that the fact that Rajoy had testified showed that he'd had nothing to do with the slush fund.

It remains unclear whether Rajoy or Aznar knew about widespread corruption during their stints as party leaders or prime ministers (Aznar also denied this week that he'd taken illegal bonuses during his premiership). What does seem beyond doubt, though, is that kickbacks, bribery and parallel accounting were part of life at PP HQ from the moment it was created in 1989. Given that the Conservatives are facing a tough election to retain control of Madrid early May, this week's high-profile testimony couldn't have come at a worse time.

The party's current leader, Pablo Casado, wants everyone to believe that these underhand practices and their shady practitioners belong to a bygone age. He's declared his intention to sell the party's current Madrid HQ building (allegedly refurbished with money from the slush fund), in an attempt to show that things have changed since the old days, when black cash and favours counted more than policies.

This would have considerable symbolic impact, much as the relocation of Franco's remains did in October 2019, but it wouldn't change anything by itself. After all, it wasn't the building that was corrupt - it was the culture that prevailed within it.