Government from Beyond the Grave
As the trial of the ten democratically elected Catalan politicians and two independence activists, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sánchez, draws to a close this week in the Spanish Supreme Court, with testimony from more than 4oo witnesses having been heard, and the Spanish State Prosecutor reaffirming its draconian charges of rebellion against Esquera Republicana leader Oriol Junqueras and his colleagues for allegedly leading an attempted Coup d’Etat in Catalonia in 2017, it was another judicial ruling from the Court which stole the headlines last night in Spain, a ruling which referred to matters beyond the grave.
The exhumation of the fascist dictator Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain from 1939 following his victory in the Spanish Civil War up to his death in 1975, was halted by the Spanish Supreme Court until a definitive finding could be reached on the legality of the decision of Pedro Sánchez’s government to move Franco’s remains from the gruesome, tax-payer funded Francoist monument, the Valley of the Fallen, on the outskirts of Madrid, to a private cemetery, in the wake of legal action by Franco’s heirs.
More incredibly still, the judicial writ made reference to Franco as “Head of State from October 1st 1936”, which is to say, two and a half years before the Civil War came to an end, a date during which the democratically elected Republican government was still in power in Madrid. Effectively, yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling included a wording which gave legitimacy to Franco’s bloody coup against a democratically elected government. Unfortunately, this is something which will come as little or no surprise to most observers of Spanish public life over recent years.
Spanish democracy has been called into question on these pages frequently of late, being described by contributors such Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte as a “post Fascist State”. Jamie Maxwell too raised the issue a couple of years back in an article entitled On Spanish Democracy. For their part, in the wider Scottish media, journalists such as George Kerevan and Ian MacWhirter have on occasions led us to believe that the Spanish Civil War was motivated by a desire to end Catalan autonomy and preserve the unity of Spain. While the unity of Spain has always been paramount for the Spanish Right, the context of 1930’s Europe – with Fascist coups in Germany, Italy and Portugal taking place before Spain’s rebellious Generals made their move – points to much more sinister, totalitarian motives at work than the desire to quash Catalan aspirations of autonomous rule.
Returning to Bernat and Whyte, as an analytical concept for political science, “post-Fascist” doesn’t really get us very far on the terms presented by its authors it seems to me, that is, at least as far as the continuity of personnel between totalitarianism and democracy goes. We know, for example, that thousands of former Nazis continued working for the German State following the restoration of democracy after the Allied victory, and that former Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, one time Secretary General of the United Nations no less, was a former Nazi intelligence officer posted in Thessaloniki in Greece at the times of the mass deportation of Greek Jews, one of the great atrocities of the 20th Century. Even the most cursory glance at the history of 20th Century Europe will show that continuity between totalitarian regimes and successor democracies is the norm, not the exception. So, Spain, where plenty of erstwhile Ministers of Franco’s regime metamorphized into democrats overnight, is not so different in this aspect it seems to me.
Nevertheless, those who look for an explanation for the authoritarian response to Catalan demands for self-determination in the peculiarities of the Spanish Transition to Democracy have a very strong case it seems to me. For although Spain is a democracy – it scores well on all the democracy rankings, has a democratic Constitution and democratic institutions, a free press and an independent, albeit highly politicized, judiciary – it also seems by now undeniable that the pact between victors and vanquished known as the Spanish Transition to Democracy, established certain areas which are taboo and deemed to be out of bounds.
Which to say, Spain is a democracy with certain limitations, and with certain no-go areas. I think that is a more accurate albeit less colourful description of contemporary Spain than a “post-fascist State”; otherwise said, Spain is a democracy like any other in Europe… expect when it’s not.
One of these limits or no-go areas, obviously, is the unity of Spain, which explains the stark refusal of any Spanish party with chances of governing in Madrid to allow a binding referendum on Catalan independence, and the draconian crackdown by the Guardia Civil on the day of the non-official Catalan vote.
It ought to be pointed out that Rajoy’s government back at the time could have done a whole number of things to appease Catalan demands without allowing a Catalan independence referendum itself, which would have been the obvious answer. Rajoy could have offered a parliamentary commission on Catalan demands for a referendum, or indeed, asked the King of Spain, Felipe VI, to call a nationwide non-binding referendum on Catalan independence. That would have given an overall result for Spain, sure, but also an individual result for Catalonia and relieved a lot of pent up tension. These last two things could have been done without amending the Spanish Constitution, which is another one of the taboo subjects in Spain today. Any proposed constitutional reform is treated with acute suspicion by Spanish right-wing politicians and the media.
One of the main limitations of the Spanish Transition to democracy was that most of the key players who negotiated it had blood on their hands or else were compromised by their pasts in some way. The leading player of the Francoist reformist establishment, Adolfo Suarez, the first PM of the new democracy, was also the former leader of the The Movement, the fascist political party of Francoist Spain’s one-party State. Santiago Carrillo, the leader of the Communist Party, which had provided most of the clandestine opposition to Franco, has been credibly linked to the mass slaughter of Franco supporting civilian prisoners held by the Republican authorities during the early days of Civil War at Paracuellos just outside Madrid. The King was hand-picked by Franco as his successor, with Juan Carlos’ father, Juan de Borbon, by natural right the king of a restored Spanish monarchy, being denied entry to Spain at one point by the dictator because of his liberal, democratic ideas.
All of these people, and many others of the Spanish establishment, had a vested interest in a general Amnesty Law and forgetting the past, as did much of the Spanish population – at least back at the time – whose friends and family were in jail for political activities. But the point is that if legal proceedings had been initiated for crimes of the past, almost every single one of the main brokers of the Spanish Transition would have probably wound up behind bars. This, obviously, was never going to happen.
The next step was to make sure Spanish society joined in with this act of collective forgetting, something which was easy enough to achieve, given that the Spanish people were desperate to enter into a new democratic era of civil liberties and put Franco, the Civil War and the dictatorship behind them, embracing modernity like the rest of Europe. They can hardly be blamed for that it seems to me. It can scarcely be overestimated just how embarrassed most liberal, modern Spaniards feel about Spain’s Franco past. They are welcoming, warm and very tolerant people for the most part – much more so than the British in my experience – in so many ways the very opposite of Franco and his totalitarian regime.
But just in case, the Spanish press, and the newspaper which symbolizes its role in the Transition more than any other, El Pais, made sure this was the case by basically working along with the new democratic forces of the Francoist regime to ensure nobody would prove too critical of the journey along the bumpy road to democracy. Dozens of journalists who, just a few months before the onset of the Transition had been working on Francoist newspapers singing the praises of the dictator, suddenly started singing the praises of democracy. Many of these journalists are still working today in the Spanish press, and still owe their loyalties to the political settlement of 1978 which, I think, explains their virulent hostility to Catalan demands to reopen that settlement.
A further taboo area is the Spanish monarchy and a dismissal of Republicanism as something akin to sedition. The monarchy is held up, in the official and mythologized version of the Spanish Transition, as having brokered the move from dictatorship to democracy, despite King Juan Carlos’s democratic credentials being anything but perfect with all that has come to light about his acquiescence to certain ideas around the time of the failed Coup of 1981 by Antonio Tejero. The predecessor regime of the Second Republic, which dates from April 1931, was a time of great intellectual ferment and saw the birth of one of Spain’s most gifted generations of artists, writers, painters and poets – Lorca, Dali and Buñuel to name just three – though it is written off by the much of the Spanish Establishment as a time of anarchy, chaos and bad government. The Spanish monarchy is presented as synonymous with peace and prosperity, though recent corruption scandals have done great damage to the image of the Crown.
A fourth limitation and no-go area, and the theme which underlies all of the above, is that the Spanish Right won the Civil War, and that this victory is not to be undermined in any shape or form, nor indeed ever forgotten. The official Establishment narrative of the Civil War should not be challenged, nor Francois monuments removed, nor the victims of the losing side heard or respected, much less recompensed: history, as they say, is written by the winners, and that remains true in Spain today. The remedy to past suffering is amnesia, not reconciliation. This was probably a prescription which had to be swallowed back in the late 1970’s, but everybody knows that painful memories cannot be buried for ever, nor should they be in a democracy.
The entrenched and inflexible positions held by the Spanish Establishment on the abovementioned issued amounts to exploiting the social and political advantages secured by a forty-year totalitarian regime and an imperfect transition to democracy, to dictate terms to reality in Spain today. This, despite sovereignty residing in the Spanish people according to the Spanish Constitution of 1978. Yesterday’s decision by the Supreme Court to suspend the decision by Pedro Sánchez’s democratically elected government to remove Franco’s remains is a clear example of this, as is the Spanish establishment’s trenchant refusal to even talk about a Catalan independence referendum.
The Spanish electorate have voted for a government whose policy is to move the remains of the dictator from a publicly paid site to a private one. The Catalan people have voted again and again for political parties in favour of holding a referendum, as argued for by some Catalan Unionist and all of the Nationalist parties. It is the democratic duty of the Spanish political class to respond to those quite reasonable demands. Who are the judges of the Spanish Supreme Court to block the sovereign will of the Spanish people? They have no right to do so, constitutional or otherwise it seems to me.
At the same time, and with all this said, to overly criticize the Spanish Transition to democracy seems to me to be churlish and mean-spirited. It is all too easy to be wise after the event and, while the Transition has many faults, it did actually work.
It did secure a relatively peaceful transition to democracy, albeit an imperfect democracy in some aspects as I have tried to illustrate, and the onset of a period of peace and prosperity such as Spain had never known, and it did so in the face of Spain’s fiercely Francoist military and a climate of fear as can be seen in Victoria Prego’s fascinating thirteen part documentary series, La Transición, available for free on Spanish public broadcaster RTVE webpage, which has some quite amazing footage, a lot of which was shot by German TV cameramen. A lot of people risked their lives for Spanish democracy and many even died, and their bravery and sacrifice should not be so easily forgotten.
But for the Spanish Establishment – its politicians, judges, journalists and business elite – to stick so grimly and steadfastly to the political settlement of 1978 against the wishes of the Spanish people threatens the very democracy that the fathers of the Constitution helped to create. Most of those who played a key role in the Transition have long since shuffled off this mortal coil – Adolfo Suarez and Santiago Carrillo are both dead – with the last main player, King Juan Carlos, retiring from public life just this week.
It’s time a new political settlement was reached in keeping with the wishes of Spanish society which, like any society, is constantly changing and adapting to the times, rather than to further entrench in the past, as I fear the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Catalan political prisoners will see take place later this week.
The merits of the Spanish Establishment’s success in steering Spain from dictatorship to democracy do not give that same Establishment the right, forty years later, to stop Spanish History and block all paths to change by constant recourse to the courts and a Spanish judiciary which, it would seem, is still hostage to a mummified corpse in a morgue in the outskirts of Madrid, and still haunted by the old fading ghosts of the dark days of Spain’s 20th Century past.