“Democracy breaks up from the inside”

Officer sacked for celebrating the sins of father

Wednesday 19 March 2014, The Times

“Spain’s military has dismissed a senior officer for celebrating the anniversary of an attempted coup by his father in 1981 which threatened to destroy the country’s young democracy and turn it back into a dictatorship.”

This report in The Times in 2014 says it all: the aspirations of the far right never go away, as we have seen in the UK in the last few years, culminating in Brexit, and in a government which seems to be more UKIP than Tory, and certainly nothing like ‘one-nation Conservative’.

Today is the 40th anniversary of that attempted coup, the ‘Tejerazo’. When it was reported on the BBC 9pm news back in 1981, I was out for a run; when I arrived back, my wife told me the news: devastated would be an understatement. We watched the report in full at 10pm on ITN. Some readers may remember how commentators were expressing the fear that Spain’s long-awaited and hard-won democracy might fail, allowing dictatorship to return.

Like hundreds of hispanists and hispanophiles up and down the UK, I was horrified; when I went to bed, I switched on the radio, played with the tuning dial, and Olé, I was privileged to hear live the broadcast made that night by King Juan Carlos. At 1.14am Spanish time (12.14am GMT), the king declared that the will of the Spanish people was sacrosanct, and as their commander-in-chief he ordered rebelling troops back to their barracks.

Roger Savage was in Spain on 23 February 1981:

“I was in a secondary school in Granada with my friend Juanjo Gómez y Herrera when the conserje (caretaker) ran out into the playground waving his transistor shouting: ‘They are shooting in parliament.’ Later, my wife and I telephoned each other only to discover the lines were cut – we were literally incommunicado. Later, we joined Juanjo and his wife in the paseo [traditional evening ‘promenade’] where there was a silent demonstration against the attempted coup. To witness hundreds of people walking in absolute silence was more moving and impressive than the usual noisy type of demonstration.

“Earlier that week, I had re-read Laurie Lee’s account of how García Lorca was taken out in the vega [literally ‘fertile plain] and shot. Suddenly, history seemed to be repeating itself around me. During the demonstration, I remember Juanjo turned to me and said ’Estamos siempre el tercer mundo’ (‘We’re still in the third world’). We returned to the hotel and joined hundreds in the bar glued to the TV. I learned that several English ex-pats had already loaded their car and set off to Gibraltar. The king appeared at 3am and told everyone he had ordered the tanks back to barracks and he was in charge.
“It was then that Juanjo told me that, if it had gone the other way, I would have been made a hostage against Gibraltar. It all happened so quickly, I didn’t even have time to be really afraid.”

The king was reputedly playing squash when he received news of the coup attempt. He drove himself back to the Palacio de las Zarzuelas – which was risky, considering that there might have been mayhem or trigger-happy soldiers on the streets, and dressed in his uniform as commander-in-chief of the armed forces in preparation for recording his message.

His two-minute speech, broadcast on television and radio, contained this crucial sentence:

“The Crown, symbol of the permanency and unity of the nation, cannot and will not tolerate actions or attitudes which seek to interrupt by force the democratic process voted for by the people through the referendum.”

The King’s Speech, 24 February 1981. Credit: libertaddigital.com

It’s interesting to note that of the 77.8 per cent of the electorate who voted, 94.7 per cent had voted in favour of the proposed political reforms in late 1976. Now, that’s what I call a fair and proper referendum! The king had saved Spain’s fledgling democracy, and at that moment he became the only true hero I have ever had (albeit he blotted his copybook in his dotage with elephants and Corinna but, in spite of that, his younger self is still my hero!).

The following day footage emerged in news bulletins of civil guards under Tejero bursting into the Congress chamber, and the colonel ordering the members of parliament: ‘¡Todos al suelo, coño!’ (‘Everyone get on the floor, *******!’), to the sound of his men’s machine guns strafing the ornate plaster ceiling. The Communist Party leader, Santiago Carrillo, fully expected to be stood up against a wall and shot, but somehow he escaped harm. A few days later he gave the king the hugely complimentary nickname, ‘El rey de todos los españoles’ – ‘King of all the Spaniards’: a monarch who truly deserved the adulation of his grateful people. In the days after the coup attempt, many thousands of Spaniards walked in silent protest to show their contempt for the outrage against their democracy.

So, how did we get there? After a century of the reign of the second major dynasty, punctuated by a spell as a republic and a couple of regencies (much like any other European country), the early 20th century saw the reign of Alfonso XIII, whose father had trained as an army officer at Sandhurst. Alfonso married a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, Victoria Eugenia of Battenberg.

Political instability, as experienced elsewhere in Europe, led to the ‘benevolent caretaker’ dictatorship of General Miguel Primo de Rivera in the 1920s. The unpopularity of the monarch and more political unrest caused Alfonso to abandon Spain with his family in April 1931. The sixth of his seven children, Juan de Borbón, entered naval training at Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth; Juan was a young officer in the Royal Navy when he eventually accepted the role of heir to the Spanish throne, and in so doing had to give up his naval career; he was never to become king because of what followed.

The 1930s saw much political change and consequent turbulence, too complicated to explain here. Then in 1936, traditional right-wing interests – the rich landowners, the armed forces and the Church – caused the army to rebel against the recently elected government, thus starting the infamous Spanish Civil War on 18 July.

The rebels became known as the Nationalists, and received much support from Hitler and Mussolini, whilst the Republicans received some support from Russia and the volunteers from many countries who formed the International Brigades. In September 1936, General Francisco Franco Bahamonde, who had been the youngest general in Europe, was ‘elected’ to lead the Nationalists. After much bitter and bloody fighting, the war ended almost three years later and Franco declared himself the ‘Caudillo‘ (leader) of Spain on 1 April 1939.

Franco in 1930. Photo credit Wikimedia Commons

What ensued was 36 years of an often cruel and corrupt dictatorship: many opponents were imprisoned, exiled or executed; all opposition was squashed, and political parties were banned. Interestingly, Franco adopted, or rather expropriated, various symbols and badges from other related political movements to give himself a ‘cloak of acceptability’, such as the Carlists’ red beret and the Falangists’ blue shirt for his youth movement, and the traditional Spanish flag to replace the Republican flag of the 1930s. As if by a miracle, he suddenly ‘became’ a devout Catholic, having previously been indifferent to religion!

Of course, political aspirations lived on, and covert political movements prepared for a future without Franco. Thus, a few months after Franco died in November 1975, Juan Carlos was crowned king, and he strongly supported the quite swift political change which ensued. Relationships and coalitions were formed under the ‘caretaker’ prime minister, Adolfo Suárez, leading to the referendum on political change a year later.

The lid had been lifted off. Travelling on an urban bus in Málaga with a group of Suffolk schoolkids in April 1976, I was impressed to hear a visiting group of young Spaniards singing in Catalán, a language banned in public places in Franco’s time. A year later, in Madrid, I witnessed a convoy of cars tooting their horns and with Spanish Communist Party (PCE) flags waving from their windows: it was the day all political parties were legalised, including the PCE. Franco would have been turning in his grave. Despite all this progress, the Basque widow I was staying with described Juan Carlos as a useless puppet.

The following months saw the formulation and approval of a new constitution by popular vote in December 1978. It was masterminded by Adolfo Suárez, who led the centrist coalition government for a few years. However, in contrast to the great enthusiasm for political reform and social justice, right-wing factions undermined and slowed progress; the prime minister and government were torn between the two extremes, satisfying nobody. The extreme right had not gone away, and growing political turbulence prompted the attempted coup described above. Thankfully, the king declared that the will of the Spanish people was sacrosanct.

In 1982, something which had seemed impossible a decade before actually came to fruition: the socialist government of Felipe González’s PSOE, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party. Spain had already joined NATO, but González managed to win the referendum to keep Spain as a member, in spite of huge pressure to leave. Just a couple of years later, in 1986, Spain finally became a member of the European Community. Apart from the manifestations of Basque and Catalán separatism, subsequent decades were largely characterised by peace and increasing prosperity.

However, the event with which I opened this article seems to prove that the extreme right still lurks in Spain, and it would be foolish to assume that right-wing extremism and the worst forms of nationalism have gone away. The evidence is there in the rising influence of Vox, an ultra-right party formed in 2013: Vox stands for extreme nationalism and is fiercely against migrants. Indeed, on 22 February, El Mundo featured an article headed: ¿Qué queda de la extrema derecha 40 años después? (What remains of the extreme right 40 years after?),with the subtitle: Las democracias consolidadas como la que es hoy España no mueren por un golpe militar como el del 23-F sino que quiebran por dentro (Established democracies like that of Spain today don’t die through a military coup like that of the 23 February, but they break up from inside).

Perhaps there is a warning there for the UK as well, where the resurgence of the extreme right and its infiltration of our political system have been rather surreptitious, beneath the radar of all but the most vigilant until, perhaps, very recent times. We must hope that we are not too late to change our direction of travel.