King Juan Carlos’s democratic legacy is rooted in cliche

I saw the abdication of the King of Spain on TV. It brought back memories of black and white images from the morning in 1975 when my father woke me up to watch the proclamation of the same Juan Carlos as King by the Cortes Generales, General Franco’s mock parliament.

The dictator had died just days before, but it was difficult for me to interpret the connection. To some of my father’s friends who came to converse with him in whispers in a room full of smoke, the whole thing was a sham – the continuation of the dictatorship under a new name. For many others he was different. And by different they meant young. Youth was seen at the time as a political project in its own right. As it is again now, perhaps, with Crown Prince Felipe.

Prince Juan Carlos (left) and General Franco in 1974. 'To some … the whole thing was a sham – the continuation of the dictatorship under a new name.' Photograph: Rex Features
Prince Juan Carlos (left) and General Franco in 1974. ‘To some … the whole thing was a sham – the continuation of the dictatorship under a new name.’ Photograph: Rex Features

As a kid I could not make up my mind up so I went with my father’s judgment. He had the opportunity to shake Juan Carlos’s hand when he toured Spain and made a stop at our provincial Galicia town. Having shaken Franco’s hand as a boy, my father was in a position to draw comparisons: “He is no Franco. Thank God,” he told us. “Totally different shake of the hand”.

It has become a cliche to stress the importance of Juan Carlos for the smooth transition of the country from a military dictatorship to a modern democracy. It is a cliche not because it is not true, but because it has been repeated many times – that is what “cliche”, a word from the world of printing, means after all. As with printing, though, repetition can end up blurring the details. And so it has happened with the king’s legacy.

Let’s be clear here: Juan Carlos did help bring about democracy after his coronation in 1975, but we must also keep in mind that he had no alternative. The role in any narrative played by providential men, in Spain as elsewhere, tends to obscure the fact that they are often led by circumstance.

In the 1970s Spain could not but become a democracy. The prisons were full of opposition activists, the western democracies were all making it very clear that the country would not be accepted as an equal unless it transformed itself radically. Spaniards in general wanted more freedom, and even within the system, those who read the signs of the times were eager to reinvent themselves as democrats. As was the king, who had been so obviously anointed by Franco.

Nobody can dispute the sincerity of his conversion, but renouncing his absolute powers after taking the throne was a necessary step to retaining the most important power of all: the right to reinstate his dynasty. It was a trade-off Spaniards benefited from, but a trade-off nonetheless.

To emphasise the part played by great men is to unfairly underestimate the sacrifices of the many unknown people who paid with their freedom or lives for a transformation from which they have not benefited.

How will Juan Carlos be remembered as a king? I think that has been settled already. The inertia of cliche is one of the strongest forces in nature, or at least in journalism. That is in fact another privilege Juan Carlos retained from the absolute power he renounced: the privilege of being credited with everything. A royal prerogative, you might say – perhaps the most important one that remains from the time in which absolute monarchs were precisely that: storytellers, magicians, embodiments of the nation.

Miguel-Anxo Murado is a Spanish writer and journalist.

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