The phrase Spanish practices is a collective noun which, according to Brewer's Twentieth Century Phrase and Fable, is (British) "industrial slang for restrictive practices", although its suggestion that this is "because of the punitive treatment meted out by the Spanish Inquisition" is clearly nonsense.
The Oxford English Dictionary makes no reference whatsoever to Spanish Practices although it does include the phrase 'old Spanish customs' which the OED states was "used jocularly to justify a long-standing practice which is unauthorized or otherwise irregular". Another source claims that this was originally a piece of American slang, "introduced by a song hit in the Thirties" (although it doesn't specify the song) and claims that the phrase relates to the traditional courteous manners of the first colonists of California. Whether this is true or not is another matter, but the timing seems to be correct as the OED dates the phrase to 1932.
In any event the phrase 'old Spanish customs' came to refer any habitual practice that was not formally sanctioned, and in particular it came to be applied to the kind of unauthorised but habitual practice conceded by management in the interests of a quiet life when pressurised by a particularly well organised and militant trade union, as evidenced by The Listener of the 25th November 1982 which referred to "the 'old Spanish customs' of Fleet Street print unions".
The man responsible for coining the phrase 'Spanish practices' was a certain Robert Maxwell which was of course, simply the name assumed by the Czechslovakian born Jan Ludvik Hoch. According to his own admission Maxwell was "self-educated", which is to say that his command of the English language was sometimes a little uncertain, and it was Maxwell who gave birth to the phrase 'Spanish practices' in an interview in the Financial Times on the 3rd September 1985, when he used it to refer to (and complain about) being forced to conceed a settlement buying out the bonuses paid to compositors. The rest of Fleet Street subsequently adopted the phrase 'Spanish practices' with gusto to refer to the various working practices current in the newspaper industry until, of course, such Spanish Practices were swept away in the post Wapping world.
Nevertheless occasional use of the phrase has continued even if the media now use it with reference to industries other than their own. The Observer used the phrase in 2002 in an article about the reform of working practices in the police force. This led one Spanish reader to write in and complain that "the usage is insulting". Indeed such reactions now appear to be automatic whenever the phrase is deployed. When John Egan the head of the Confederation of British Industry again referred to "Spanish practices" on the BBC in 2005, the Spanish embassy is reputed to have lodged a complaint. Whilst when the chief executive of Royal Mail Adam Crozier, accused his staff of indulging in hundreds of 'Spanish practices' on the 10th October 2007, once more an official of the Spanish embassy stepped forward to complain that his country had been referred to in this "negative way".
- The Oxford English Dictionary at http://dictionary.oed.com
- Stephen Pritchard, Adios to these lingering Spanish practices, The Observer, January 6, 2002
- Andy McSmith, Royal Mail chief aims Spanish slur at striking workers, The Independent, 11 October 2007
- Spanish Practices
- Spanish Practices