Paradoxically, Spain has a monarch to thank for steering it away from authoritarianism after Franco, historian Paul Preston tells Huw Richards in the first of a series examining democracies around the world.
Paul Preston is used to attracting attention in Spain, but one request for an interview that followed the publication of the Spanish edition of his biography of King Juan Carlos - out next week in Britain - was rather unusual. It came from the king himself.
Preston, who is Principe de Asturias professor of Spanish history at the London School of Economics, was a little uncertain about the meeting. He had met the king before, but he chose not to interview him for the book. "I don't have the skills of an investigative journalist," Preston says, "so I would have had difficulties - even without the issues of protocol - in confronting him with some of the difficult and painful episodes from his past. I was aware that once he had given the interview, the palace would want to intervene in how it was used. And I knew that he was a charming, rather seductive individual. Previous biographies had been rather hagiographic. My intention was that this should be a critical biography - not in the sense that it set out to criticise, but that it would go wherever the research took me."
He expected that, like most previous encounters with the king, this would be a brief formal occasion. Instead, he spent all day with him. Juan Carlos said that although the book had brought back many painful memories, it was a reminder to the people of Spain of the sometimes desperate personal and political struggles that were needed to make him king after the dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975. "Thank you for giving me back my life," he told Preston.
It is, even the most ardent republican must admit, some life. It encompasses a childhood in which he was separated from his parents for long periods and used as a political pawn. There is the death in 1956 of his brother Alfonso, killed by a bullet from a gun held by Juan Carlos. Preston has little doubt that it was a ghastly accident, noting that the mystery that has cloaked the incident suited Franco, who was always concerned to keep potential rivals or successors in check.
And there were interminable years of waiting on the devious Franco, a struggle for the succession made personally more difficult by the fact that Juan Carlos becoming king involved the passing-over of his father, Don Juan, who was never acceptable to Franco and his followers.
The wonder is that Juan Carlos emerged from this as a functioning human being, let alone one with a warm personality whose easy, natural empathy with his people has been evident in good times, such as the Barcelona Olympics, and bad ones, such as the aftermath of the March 11 bombs in Madrid.
Still more remarkable is that Franco's designated heir, whose inheritance included a constitution designed to perpetuate a dictatorial rule, should have played so conspicuous a part in restoring democracy. Preston warns that his role should not be overstated: "He certainly did not do it by himself. He was responding to the popular will, as there was an immense amount of pressure from below. But his judgement, courage and stamina were crucially important to the success of the process."
Preston points to the weakness of his inheritance: "In theory, he had Franco's powers, but this meant very little because he was not Franco - he had little alternative but to accept Carlos Arias Navarro as prime minister. He had to deal with Franco's constitution, armed forces that believed they had a divine right to intervene in the running of the country and 200,000 falangists with the right to bear arms. He had to reassure them while at the same time convincing the democrats that they could trust and do business with him." The king's political balancing act, maintaining trust across a brutally divided polity, was akin to Nelson Mandela's in South Africa.
Preston says he had had little faith in Juan Carlos' method of seeking space for manoeuvre within the constitution. "He had teams of constitutional experts going over it in detail, looking for loopholes. I couldn't see how he could do it, but I underestimated him."
Preston's Juan Carlos is in essence a political biography, with the twist that the central character's great triumph - gaining power, and using it to brilliant effect in foiling the military coup of 1981 - was to give it up.
"He was able to start with the appointment of Adolfo Suarez in 1977, but he still had to intervene almost daily. He did not reach his goal of becoming a constitutional monarch until about 1983. It becomes routine after that, and routine is not terribly interesting, so the story rather peters out," Preston says.
There is also the paradox that Juan Carlos' greatest admirers are often those most historically and intellectually wary of monarchs. While Francoists and traditional monarchists have felt disappointed, even betrayed, socialists and liberals have appreciated his role in changing the country. "You could call him a king of the republicans," Preston says.
That irony has been apparent in his dealings with premiers. "He had a very difficult time with the Popular Party and Jose Mar!a Aznar, who acted as though he were head of state, but always enjoyed excellent relationships with Suarez (1977-82) and Felipe Gonzalez (1982-96)."
Preston has little doubt that Spanish democracy and its constitutional monarchy are robust. One question Juan Carlos asked was whether the monarchy would long survive him: "I said it depended on the circumstances, but the odds are that unless his heir, Prince Felipe, who is extremely gifted, makes any serious errors, he should be OK."
Spain needs little convincing of the importance of democracy. "In Britain we can take it for granted," Preston says. "Spain had 36 years of Franco, then a reminder in 1981 of what it might lose." He cites the demonstrations that followed the March 11 bombs - "There were 11 million people, about one-third of the mobile population, on the streets" - as evidence of democracy's continuing strength.
And he believes there is no real likelihood of military intervention. "The army was changed in the 1980s by a brilliantly executed series of reforms.
The academies have changed, and membership of Nato brought it into regular contact with other armies. It has become much more professional, concerned with protecting Spain from potential enemies without rather than within. It is hard to see any danger from it or the police."
Yet there are concerns, including "the sheer viciousness with which Aznar attacked the Socialist Party and its leader, Jose Luis Zapatero". Preston says: "While the Socialists in power were always concerned with the fragility of democracy, Aznar and the PP have been much less conciliatory.
There was a sense of 'we're in power, so we'll do what we like'."
There is also the reassertion of civil memories and attitudes that had long been deliberately repressed in a conscious post-Franco drive for reconciliation, which meant there was no Spanish equivalent of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission - let alone trials of murderers and torturers. Preston points to Aznar's endorsement of the works of writer Pio Moa, a former member of the shadowy Grapo terrorist group.
Moa is dismissed by historians, but he has sold well with a formula that Preston sums up as "restating the Francoist interpretation of the civil war - it was all the left's fault so that justified everything that was done to them".
He suspects that part of Moa's success has been built on rightwing unease at the success of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, which grew out of the quest by a sociologist, Emilio Silva-Barrera, to locate and identify the remains of his grandfather, who was shot by Franco's forces in 1936. Silva-Barrera's effort has inspired a wave of excavations of mass graves around Spain. Preston's next book, The Spanish Holocaust , due for delivery next year, will detail and chronicle the extent of Francoist repression during the civil war (1936-39) and the years of dictatorship that followed.
While Moa threatens to hijack historical memory, Preston reckons that the main threat to Spain's stability comes from the Basque Country and Eta, the separatist terrorist group that has developed there. Catalonia, which has reached the limits of regional power offered under Spain's rolling devolution programme, poses less trouble, he believes. Although some Catalans may hanker for separatism, Preston says: "Catalonia is too rich, powerful and sophisticated to feel really downtrodden."
The Basque problem did great damage to Gonzalez's Socialists, who tolerated the use of death squads against Eta, and was also mishandled by Aznar, Preston says. "There were petty measures like holding Eta prisoners huge distances away from their families, who were not necessarily Eta sympathisers."
And of course it was the PP government's determination to paint the March 11 bombs as an Eta action - despite evidence to the contrary - that served to bring it down. Preston argues: "I don't think it led many people who had been planning to vote PP to switch to the Socialists. What it did do was outrage a lot of people who might not otherwise have voted, making them determined to punish the PP."
The handover from Aznar to Zapatero will be much less demanding for Juan Carlos, a constitutional monarch who is now a veteran of handling transitions, than earlier shifts in which he had to play a part, but there are still challenges for Spanish democracy.
Preston points out: "This is the first democratic transition in which the opposition has remained a force. When Gonzalez came in, Suarez's party was in terminal decline and the PP was still being constructed. When Aznar came in, the Socialists were discredited and exhausted. This time, the PP has not fallen apart, and how it handles opposition will be very important. All the indications are that Mariano Rajoy, who has succeeded Aznar, is a pragmatist and will be a great improvement."
Juan Carlos: A People's King will be published by HarperCollins on May 5, £25.00.