The tarnished crown of Spain’s reforming king

photo credit: Irekia. Licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution 2.0 Generic licence

For the crowned heads of Europe, 2020 is proving a difficult year. While the Windsors fight fires here in the UK, they are as nothing compared to the turmoil that has beset the royal family of Spain.

Since he abdicated the throne in 2014, the allegations of corruption and money-laundering around the former king Juan Carlos have become louder not quieter.  Last month he announced his voluntary exile to the United Arab Emirates, just as the revelation surfaced that he had given €65m to his mistress as a gift. It is an ignominious final chapter in the life of an individual who guided Spain’s transition to democracy and is also, arguably, one of Europe’s most consequential living figures.

Modern Spain presents itself as an open and prosperous European democracy. An EU member since 1986, in Schengen and the eurozone, Spain is fully integrated into the European project. She has benefited greatly too, enjoying strong economic growth and greatly increased living standards with a solid commitment to freedoms and human rights. The Spain of today is a far cry from that of the dictator General Franco.

But nothing was inevitable about the metamorphosis of Spain from fascist dictatorship to a pluralistic democracy. The guiding hand of this transformation was that of the king, arguably Europe’s last absolute monarch. A monarch whose crown was handed to him by Western Europe’s last dictator.

The dead hand of Franco

Franco ruled Spain from the end of the civil war in 1936 to his death in 1975. In common with that of most dictators, Franco’s regime was authoritarian, corrupt, and murderous. Unlike other despots, however, Franco had done something remarkable. He had actually planned his own succession. In the decade before his death, Franco had groomed the grandson of Spain’s last reigning monarch for the crown, proclaiming Juan Carlos de Bourbón his heir in 1969. He had cut Juan Carlos’s father, Juan de Bourbón, out of the succession for being too critical of the regime. Juan Carlos, wisely, had kept his opinions to himself.

Franco had hoped, and perhaps expected, that his successor would keep the basic structure of Spanish government intact. But within eight months, the new king had sacked the hard-line Francoist prime minister, Arias Navarro, and replaced him with a reformer.

Playing safe, Juan Carlos appointed Adolfo Suárez, who had previously been a minister in Franco’s government. But with royal encouragement, Suárez set about organising Spain’s first parliamentary elections in two generations. In 1978, only three years after the end of the dictatorship, Spain had approved by plebiscite a new constitution enshrining the rule of law, democratic elections, and human rights.

Democracy on the precipice

The new constitution and emerging democratic institutions, however, were put under acute strain on 23 February 1981. Suárez had resigned as prime minister after a turbulent few years and a recent drubbing in municipal elections. His successor was about to be sworn in during a parliamentary session when armed paramilitary officers of the Guardia Civil stormed the chamber, holding parliamentarians hostage for twelve hours. The stand-off was interrupted only by the firing of live rounds by the rebels.

In that room in Madrid, on that February evening, Spain stood on a precipice. Large parts of the Spanish military were still sympathetic to Franco and his legacy. Five years of democratic transition had been a rocky road, strewn with political assassinations, economic woes, and an increase in separatist terrorism. Whether Spain was set to carry on down that road, or make a U-turn back to authoritarianism, as the rebels wanted, was about to be tested.

After midnight, the king appeared live on national television to address the nation. Wearing the full ceremonial uniform of the head of the army, he denounced the coup: “The Crown, symbol of the permanence and unity of the nation, will not tolerate, in any degree whatsoever, the actions or behaviour of anyone attempting, through use of force, to interrupt the democratic process of the constitution, which the Spanish people approved by vote in referendum.”

The coup failed and Francoism died. Long after 23 February, Spaniards of all political persuasions recognised the immense unifying force of King Juan Carlos. His popularity looked as though it would never be dimmed.

Feet of clay

But by 2014, after a series of unforced errors, Juan Carlos had abdicated the throne. His legacy is now looking decidedly shaky.

In March, Juan Carlos’s son, King Felipe VI, stripped his father of an annual €200,000 stipend and vowed to refuse any inheritance from the former monarch, as corruption investigators zoomed in on allegations of a massive bribe being paid by Saudi Arabia. The latest revelations concerning his mistress, whose relationship to the king had been kept secret until an infamous elephant-hunting trip to Botswana in 2012, have damaged his reputation still further.

All nations have their heroes. But as the British debate the legacy of imperialist Churchill or slave-owning Gladstone, Spaniards, too, are realising that their idols’ feet are made of clay.

Follow @SussexBylines on social media