It’s as if he’d never existed

Anthony Pagden

  • The Transformation of Spain: From Franco to the Constitutional Monarchy by David Gilmour
    Quartet, 306 pp, £12.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 7043 2461 X

As Franco lay dying in the winter of 1975 wild conjectures circulated in Madrid as to what would happen when the old dictator who had already been twice rescued from what had looked like certain death, but who could not hope to escape a third time, finally departed. As in most societies where all but the most anodyne political debate has been rigorously forbidden and the only available political vocabularies have been emptied of any possible meaning, these conjectures often took the form of jokes. One which appeared as a strip-cartoon in the pages of La Codorniz, a semi-clandestine Spanish version of Le Canard Enchaîné, went as follows: the young prince Felipe asks the king, whether there will be a public holiday when Franco dies. Yes, he replies. And, papa, will there be a holiday when you are declared king? Yes, says the king. And, papa, will there be a holiday when the Republic is restored? I suppose so, replies the king somewhat alarmed. Oh good, says the prince: a whole week off school.

Juan Carlos, who was often referred to during the Franco years, but never afterwards, as el nene, ‘the kid’, was at best an enigma. At worst he seemed to be little more than the willing instrument of Franco’s closest associates – ‘the Bunker’, as they were popularly called. Although Franco had never allowed him any authority, except for 45 days in 1974 when the old dictator appeared to be on his deathbed, he had been raised by Franco to succeed him and – as everyone knew – Franco, whose sense of history was at best restricted and whose understanding of modern political societies was practically non-existent, wished only to perpetuate the archaic and increasingly corrupt and incompetent regime he had created. And even if el nene should prove smart enough to realise that it was no longer possible even to wish to re-create the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabel, he was too close to the generals to have the will to carry out the reforms that would be required if Spain was to become, as nearly everyone outside the Army and the Bunker recognised that it had to become, a democratic state. Something had to give, and since few people seriously believed in the possibility of another civil war (‘Spain is already too modern for that to happen,’ a Madrid banker once explained to me: ‘civil wars only occur in primitive countries’), the most likely outcome was either a coup by the Army following on the King’s inability to fill the power vacuum created by Franco’s death, or a swift transition to some form of republican government – though how the latter was to be achieved without provoking the former was never explained.

Nearly everyone, except perhaps his closest associates, underestimated Juan Carlos; they undervalued his political intelligence; they misjudged his ability to control the Right and the Army; above all, they failed to recognise, although in the circumstances it is difficult to see how they could have done otherwise, his own wish to be not an absolute monarch but the constitutional head of a modern democratic society. In less than six years Spain went from being a dictatorship guided by a man who saw his political role – much as Philip II had seen his – as the defender of the ‘Spirit of Spain’ from outside enemies (heretics in the case of Philip; the agents of the ‘Judeo-Masonic conspiracy’ in the case of Franco) to become a modern and – something which Spain had been only very briefly in the 18th century – a European nation. This transition is one of the most remarkable events of the post-war years and, as David Gilmour says in what is by far the best general account of the phenomenon to have appeared so far, it was the King who made it possible.

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