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.

The greatest threat to Spanish democracy came, and still comes, from the Army. Franco had risen to power through the Army and it was the loyalty of the Army which, in the early days of the dictatorship, when most European governments did their best to encourage Franco to go the way of Mussolini and Hitler, kept the regime in power. Spain also remained until Franco’s death in part a military dictatorship. Forty out of Franco’s 114 ministers were members of the Armed Forces, as were nearly a thousand of the members of the Cortes. There were also army officers in the largely state-owned motor corporation SEAT, in the post office and the telephones, on the board of the state railways. The Spanish Army had long been accustomed to political power. Between the Liberal Constitution of Cadiz in 1812 and Franco’s uprising of 1936 it had been involved on more than fifty occasions in attempts to change or cajole the civilian government; and for long periods during the Carlist wars of the 19th century it had provided the country with its only effective government. It may not, in fact, be quite so old as the liberal general Gutierrez Mellado and David Gilmour seem to think – like most European armies it is, in its present form, principally a creation of the late 18th century – but its sense of being the defender, not only of the territory of the state, but also of some vaguely-conceived notion of the moral and political values which the state was supposed to embody was deeply entrenched; and it was further reinforced in this self-image by Franco, with his persistent references to the Armed Forces as the guardians of the nation against its enemies, which, after the defeat of the Axis, seemed to be just about the entire Western world.

Franco eventually passed himself off as an enemy of Communism because this made him acceptable to the Americans. But, as David Gilmour points out, in 1936 the Communists, who had only 16 Deputies in the Cortes out of 473, presented no conceivable threat to anyone. Franco’s real enemy was liberalism, and the battles he was still fighting in the late Seventies were the battles of the early 19th century. For Franco, and for the Army, the Civil War had been a ‘crusade’ against liberalism, Freemasonry, anti-clericalism and Judaism. In the official histories of the regime the Republic is often referred to as ‘the Reds’ or ‘the Rebels’. Franco, who, by any modern understanding of what constitutes political legitimacy, had led a revolt against a legitimately-elected government, could not be a ‘rebel’ since only he and his men represented the true Spain. Most of the generals accepted this account as the literal truth. For them, politics was a matter of upholding ancient Catholic values, values which in the Church of John XXIII even the Pope had his doubts about. The Army was a threat to democratic government, not only because it had the force required to overthrow a civilian government, but because dialogue with it was impossible. Although highly-politicised, the generals knew nothing of political issues, nor of political debate. Like Franco, they simply regarded all those who disagreed with them as enemies of the state. Juan Carlos, by virtue of his role as Franco’s heir and of the fact that he had been educated by the generals as part of the military establishment, was the only person able to persuade them to accept changes which were repugnant to them.

Throughout the period of transition the Armed Forces were treated by all political parties with almost fawning deference. The generals met openly with their Argentinian and Chilean counterparts, publicly declared themselves to be dedicated to the same political and social goals and dismissed any criticism of the methods used to achieve those goals as liberal pusillanimity. When Basque terrorists killed two high-ranking officers in Madrid in 1980, the state radio and television services broadcast politicians’ tributes to the Armed Forces almost non-stop throughout the day. That men like Santiago Carrillo, the leader of the Spanish Communist Party, were prepared to go on record as champions of the Army’s ‘historic destiny’ in defending the Spanish state is a measure of how seriously most Spaniards took the possibility of a coup. Basque terrorism, the Government’s inability to cope with the impact of the world economic recession, and the relative failure of the attempts by the Vice-President, Gutierrez Mellado, to de-politicise the Army, only increased those fears. After the military coup in Turkey in 1980 and a renewed offensive by ETA, the Right began to speak of ‘the lesson of Ankara’, and even the Left began, at least in private, to consider the possibility of what was known as ‘Operation de Gaulle’: the installation of an interim government of national unity run by civilians but presided over by one of the more moderate generals, as the only way to prevent the creation of a military junta along Turkish or, worse still, Chilean lines.

In the end, this possibility was forestalled by the Army itself. A number of officers around Milans del Bosch, the captain-general of Valencia, duly staged a coup which turned out to be – although only just and only because of the King – a ridiculous failure. On the afternoon of 23 February 1980, Antonio Tejero, a lieutenant-colonel in the Guardia Civil, a man who, as Gilmour says, ‘looked – and behaved – like a foreigner’s caricature of a Spanish policeman’, accompanied by a number of his men, many of whom had no idea what they were supposed to be doing, burst into the Congreso brandishing a pistol and ordered all the Deputies onto the floor. As soon as he heard that the building had been occupied, Milans del Bosch issued a manifesto in the name of the King and placed Valencia under martial law. Within half an hour Milans and the King were battling it out for support on the telephone, Milans calling on his fellow generals to declare for the coup in the name of the King, the King ordering them, in the name of the monarchy and the patria, not to. At one o’clock, nearly seven hours later, Juan Carlos went on television to assure the Spanish people that he would tolerate no interruption by force of the ‘democratic process determined by the constitution and approved by the Spanish people by means of a referendum’. The coup was all but over. The failure of the Tejero-Milans assault on the Government did much to allay people’s fear of the Army. It had shown that the majority of the generals, whatever their views of the Government or the democratic process, were not prepared to betray their loyalty to their commander-in-chief. It had shown, too, if anyone outside the army high command had doubted it, that Juan Carlos was not prepared either to abandon the process of democratisation or to go the same way as his father Alfonso XIII or his brother-in-law Constantine. But it had also demonstrated how fragile the constitution was, and how much it depended on the courage and political intelligence of one man. David Gilmour quotes Claudio Sanchez Albornoz, a former leader of the Spanish Republican government in exile, as saying; ‘if one is a Spanish patriot now one can only be a monarchist.’ There can have been few at the time who would have disagreed with him.

The Army was treated, and is still being treated today, with undue respect. Tejero and Milans were both sentenced to thirty years’ imprisonment, although both were kept under luxurious house-arrest and Tejero – in one of the few comic interludes in an otherwise sober campaign – was even allowed to organise a political party to contest the 1982 elections. Few now seriously fear the possibility of another attempt and it is possible that Tejero’s efforts were, at least in part, responsible for the uneventful rise to power of the Socialist Party (the PSOE) in 1982. In the aftermath of what has come to be called the ‘Night of Tejero’ people also began to ask what it was that the old Franquista Right now stood for. They had no policies beyond a threat to use ‘effective measures’ against ETA and no political objectives beyond a constant harping on the need to ‘restore’ the values of the ‘true Spain’. But those values, most of which were sexual rather than political (the Right was almost as obsessed with pornography as it was with Freemasonry), were almost as remote from their world as the age of Ferdinand and Isabel had been from Franco’s. No one in Spain except the generals themselves, the members of the Bunker, whose numbers were decreasing daily, and the lunatic fringe composed of such organisations as the ‘Guerrillas of Christ the King’ and the more menacing, though politically no more plausible, neo-fascist Fuerza Nueva, would have benefited from the coup. Certainly no group of any political significance outside the Army, neither the Church, nor the financial nor the industrial sectors, would have had the least thing to gain by it. They had, indeed, a very great deal to lose, not least of all Spain’s political credibility as a modern nation and potential member of the EEC, admission to which they had been carefully nurturing ever since the mid-Sixties.

During the last decade of Franco’s regime the need to modernise, not merely the industry and the agriculture of Spain, but its politics and the whole fabric of its culture, became everywhere starkly apparent. Most of those who had been born after the end of the Second World War had had some experience of Europe by the time they reached their twenties, and they very soon grew tired of living in a society which persisted in remaining aloof from the 20th century. ‘Spain,’ as the Spanish Tourish Board used to say, ‘is different,’ but it was a difference, associated as it was with such activities as bull-fighting and flamenco, which most Spaniards found distinctly embarrassing. By his insistence that politics in Spain could only be understood in terms of cosmic struggles against the enemies of the Christian God, Franco had also effectively emptied political debate in the country of the possibility of any contemporary meaning. By 1975 the ideology of Franquismo, like the values it purported to uphold, no longer existed for anyone outside the Army and the Bunker. The absence of any intelligible ideology from the Right was matched by a corresponding lack of ideological commitment from the Left. The only man who was likely to provide a counterpart to the Franquistas was the veteran leader of the PCE, Santiago Carrillo. But Carrillo had gone over to Eurocommunism almost immediately after his return to Spain and had pledged his party to the democratic process. On Franco’s death Spain, therefore, found itself in an ideological vacuum. It is not surprising that the largest party to emerge on the left, the PSOE, had been almost non-existent during the Franco years (they had only 4000 members in 1974, half of whom were in exile), that the Communists are now reduced to a mere four seats and that the largest party on the right, Alianza Popular, although founded and run by a former minister of the old regime, stands for essentially conservative and self-confessed Thatcherite policies. In the years between 1975 and 1982 a new consensus emerged in Spanish political life and it is perhaps not insignificant that Spain, which was once ruled by the oldest man in Western Europe, should now be run by the youngest – and arguably the most intelligent.

It is not the least of the merits of David Gilmour’s excellent book that he has understood what so many students of these years have failed to grasp: that the transition was not merely the sloughing-off of an old and archaic dictatorship. For most Spaniards it represented one – many would hope the final – stage in a long internal struggle between those, like Franco, who spoke in terms of a ‘national destiny’ and who saw that destiny as isolation from Europe and defiant repression in support of the moral values of the Tridentine Church, and those who wished Spain to espouse essentially secular, pluralist European values and European ways of life. In Franco’s selective reading of Spanish history only Ferdinand and Isabel and their Habsburg successors had represented the true Spain. From the 18th century until the 1930s Spain had been subjected to foreign ideas which were alien to her ‘national character’. In 1940, when he paid a visit to the archive of the Indies in Seville, he wrote in the visitors’ book (an entry which was still proudly on display in 1974) beside his signature: ‘before the relics of an empire, with the promise of another’. The ‘crusade’ or ‘war of liberation’ which he had begun in 1936 had been intended to restore the country to its true identity and rid it of the evils of ‘foreign’, i.e. liberal, ideas. As George Orwell observed at the time, ‘the military mutiny ... was an attempt not so much to impose fascism as to restore feudalism.’ But by 1975 there were few Spaniards outside the narrow world of the Armed Forces who were still pining for the 16th century. Nearly everyone, whatever their political views, wished to see an end to cultural and political isolationism – they wanted, quite simply, to live in a modern state. When they went to the polls in 1982 for the third time since Franco’s death it was clear that the Socialists were going to win. Suarez’s centre-right party, which had been at best an unhappy coalition, hardly existed any longer, and although Alianza Popular fought its way into second place as a credible opposition, it could not hope to form a government. But it was not only the weakness of their opponents which assured the PSOE of victory, for, as Gilmour rightly points out, although there are many who do not like the present government, there are very few who are not glad it was elected. In order to prove its modernity the country had to elect – not a Communist government, for that too would have been to raise the spectre of the political struggles of the Civil War – but, what the PSOE in effect is, a liberal one.

The problems of transition were therefore less ideological than practical. But the practical problems were overwhelming. Although the regime had brought prosperity for many, no attempt had been made to distribute this new wealth in either class or regional terms. In the industrialised Basque provinces the per capita income in 1973 was more than twice that of the largely agricultural regions of Andalusia and Estremadura and the gap between the richest tenth of the population and the poorest tenth was twice what it was in Britain, and three times what it was in Holland. As the economic recession of the mid-Seventies got under way, the regime had neither the understanding nor the will to deal with it. Inflation and unemployment tripled during the last five years of Franco’s life, the balance-of-payments deficit reached its highest ever during 1975-1976 and a growth rate of 6.5 per cent a year had dropped by 1975 to 1 per cent.

The new government was, therefore, expected to improve economic performance, although neither of the first two prime mininsters, Carlos Arias Navarro and Adolfo Suarez, had much more understanding of, or interest in, the economy than Franco had had, and at the same time to provide a higher level of distributive justice, legalise an opposition, create trade unions, restructure the legal system and give some measure of autonomy to Catalonia and the Basque country while keeping both the Army and the Bunker in check. None of these tasks could be carried out to everyone’s satisfaction and perhaps because Spaniards had never had any direct experience of democracy they expected greater things of theirs than it could possibly deliver. There were many, even in the centre, who had wished to see a definitive break with the Franquista past (something which the transitional governments of Arias and then Suarez were doing their best to avoid) and many more who had believed that democracy would put a swift and sudden end not only to the social injustices of the Franco regime but also to the economic problems it had created. The regionalists in Catalonia by and large got the measure of autonomy they had asked for. But the Basques, whose claims went far beyond the moderate demands of the Catalans, did not; and now in the aftermath of escalating attacks by ETA, it is by no means clear what they do want or who has the power to negotiate on their behalf. To many it seemed that all democracy had brought was freedom of speech, an uncensored press, stricter control on the police, and the citizen’s right to read the dreaded pornography if he – or she – so wished. These are clearly all highly desirable social goods: but they have to be set against inflation, unemployment, terrorism and an increase in the crime rate. Yet the transition could hardly have been achieved in any other way. After years under one of the most repressive right-wing regimes in Europe – surpassed only by Salazar’s Portugal – Spain now has a most successful socialist government. Franco’s ‘organic state’ has been dismantled far more effectively than Italy has managed to dismantle the Fascist state on which Spain’s was so closely modelled. And, unlike Italy (or Britain for that matter), Spain is not now divided between primitive parties of the right and equally primitive ones on the left. It has an informed and educated electorate, if also a rather apathetic one, but then it seems to be the case that all successful democracies are constrained to tolerate a large number of free-riders. Franquismo is well and truly dead. As one Madrileña said to me recently, ‘it’s as if the man had never existed.’