Cracking the Fascist carapace

Juan Carlos of Spain - The Government and Politics of Spain

October 4, 1996

The origins of Spain's transition to a liberal, parliamentary democracy lie in the vast and vertiginous social and economic changes of the 1960s. After Franco had reluctantly let the market rip in Spain to assure the survival of his dictatorship, European boom-aided industrial take-off saw significant population shifts from country to city and the emergence of consumer capitalism and of a new labour movement in the industrial centres. This process saw the exposure of new generations of Spaniards to cultural alternatives - through the media (especially television), through the new booming tourist industry and through personal experience as migrant workers abroad. Beneath the rigid carapace of Francoism there thus emerged a more complex and plural civil society that ultimately rendered the authoritarian form of the regime obsolescent. Once the overt political scaffolding of Francoism was dismantled by renovationist insiders, creatively pressured by the mass political mobilisations of the 1970s, then the huge, daunting task of building up a workable liberal democratic superstructure could be undertaken. Such a process was the sine qua non of Spain's integration with Europe -the political goal of Francoist modernisers and the liberal-left democratic opposition alike. The twin processes of structural democratisation and of political and economic rationalisation were overseen across the 1980s by Spain's modernising social democratic party (PSOE) and these processes together form the basis of Paul Heywood's timely and illuminating analytical overview.

He begins by establishing the specificities of the national historical context in which the democratic transition took place, thereby explicitly indicating its inapplicability as a model for Eastern Europe after 1989. (Spanish economic integration into the western capitalist framework long predated Franco's death, thus no fundamental reorganisation of basic economic principles was required.) Conversely, Heywood's examination of national developments in Spain is throughout informed by an acute awareness of the impact upon them of international political and economic agendas (mainly those of the European Union, and, latterly and most specifically, convergence criteria).

The bulk of the book is devoted to an analysis of the Spanish state's post-1978 political disposition, with particular reference to its territorial organisation. From 1978 there has occurred a substantial regionalisation of political and economic power within the "state of the autonomies" - whose form was more or less the product of the delegitimisation, political and cultural, of Francoism's monolithic centralism. The new territorial organisation (and its shortcomings) is examined in terms of the institutional-political conflict within Spain between strong autonomists/federalists and their political opponents at the centre (whether in the PSOE or the now-ruling conservative Popular Party (PP). The federalists often look towards a Europe of the regions as a favoured solution. But, as Heywood points out, the ambiguity around the future developments of the EU's political structure makes that something of a double-edged sword: a federal Europe may well end up in practice as much more highly centralised than the autonomists' old enemy, the unitary national state.

At times Heywood tends to assume a rather too centralist-functionalist perspective. This facilitates a too-rapid relegation of the rationalisation process, reconversi"n industrial (slashing heavy industrial capacity). Yet its high social cost has already had material political repercussions. In the Basque country, which has been particularly hard hit by reconversi"n, the long-term fall-out is a significant factor in the ongoing support for radical forms of nationalism. In view of the tangled web of political, economic, social and cultural factors that sustain these, it is not credible to suggest, as Heywood seems to, that the acute political problem posed by radical Basque nationalism can be "resolved" purely by a disarticulating police action implemented from Madrid.

But overall Heywood's book is an impressive achievement, distilling a mass of primary and secondary sources into an accessible study.

In the foreword to his biography of Juan Carlos, Charles Powell proclaims his central purpose as being to explain the king's role in the democratic transition for a general English-language readership. For all the descriptive elaboration of Juan Carlos's early life, there is little to give the reader any sense of his political ideas, nor how, or into what, these may have been transformed over time - in short, there is no sense of process here. It is indisputable that the king's was a pivotal function: from his initial endorsement of the political reform process underpinning the democratic transition, through to his decisive intervention in 1981 that not only deprived those attempting a coup d'etat of their symbolic justification but also achieved the no-less-crucial return to barracks of all troops. But the degree to which the biographer presents the whole of his subject's past life as a seamless prehistory of this later democratic protagonism is methodologically problematic, to say the least. There is an unresolved tension between the authorial assumption underpinning the book's title ("self-made monarch") and much of its content which simply reiterates the already well-documented role of political advisers in allowing Juan Carlos to navigate the difficult waters of late Francoism.

Powell is most comfortable dissecting the fraught politics of the power elite in the last years of Francoism. But the king remains a shadowy figure as Powell presents the conspiracies and animosities in Franco's court that divided immobilists from the shrewder renovationists who saw the unavoidable need for some kind of democratising reform. But the weakness of this approach, in addition to belying the title, is that it portrays the political transition purely as a piece of political engineering from above. In his brief historical introduction, Powell explains how the collapse of the Spanish monarchy in 1931 - which saw Juan Carlos's grandfather, King Alfonso XIII, take the route to exile - was intimately bound up with the failure of the old regime to assimilate newly emergent sectors of a modernising society. Yet in the course of explaining a process of political change in the infinitely more complex and variegated civil society of the 1970s, he virtually excludes mass actors from the script. While the "pact of forgetfulness" (in terms of what the Franco regime had done and meant) may have been the necessary price of a bloodless transition in Spain, we should not extend this retrospectively to the very fabric and process of the transition itself. As Heywood is acutely aware, but Powell seemingly not at all, the cultural and political preconditions of democracy in Spain were not delivered from above, they were made from below.

Helen Graham is lecturer in history, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Juan Carlos of Spain: Self-Made Monarch

Author - Charles Powell
ISBN - 0 333 54726 8 and 649 29 X
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £40.00 and £13.99
Pages - 253

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.