Sunday, 28 October 2012

The Ancien Regime 5

All the King’s Bastards

Big daddy in his younger days, handsome but vile

In La Vanguardia (27 Oct 2012) Juan José López Burniol makes an impassioned case against the intention of Artur Mas and his colleagues in the CiU, ERC and ICV parties who have pledged to carry out a referendum on Catalan independence whether or not it is legal under Spanish law.

His article, entitled “The law is like the air” (in the sense that you don’t notice it until you don’t have it), makes a solid, coherent and impressive case for respecting the laws of the land above all other considerations:

The state is not, despite all appearances, a hierarchically-organised structure that goes from the King at the top down to the lowest functionary.
All of these are instruments of the state. The state is, in essence, a juridical system made up of laws, all of them related to each other, such that the violation of any of them has repurcussions on all the others.

His argument, developed further in the piece, is that since the rule of law is indivisible and sovereign, to break that law in any way is to threaten the peace and security of all:

It is a very grave decision to do without the law. Above all, if we bear in mind that the law – the democratic law – is a binding plan for living together in justice, which makes us all free and equal. From this it follows that the law is the best defence of the weak against the strong.

A coherent point of view with fine historical precedents, from Socrates, through Hobbes, to Kant. It ought to give pause to those would-be rebels who think to challenge the Spanish constitution and the system of justice it embodies.

The only problem with this argument, with regard to Spain, is that it is utterly untrue. The King is not an instrument of the state, he is the state, and is completely above its laws. The Spanish law does not make us equal, for in fact there are whole categories of persons with special legal privileges. And it most assuredly does not protect the weak, but rather it is their scourge.

The law is in reality the refuge of those with power, influence and money when the weak seek to challenge them. The greatest injustices are perpetrated daily and completely legally. And despite many years of popular clamour for some justice to be introduced into the legal system, nothing has been done by their legislators to satisfy that popular desire.

In fact Spain is only barely a democracy, its democratic credentials based on the fact that the citizens can vote once every four years for a party with closed lists of candidates. The successful candidates take their seats without even once having campaigned in public, and instead of representing their electorate, or even appearing before them occasionally, they settle in to represent their party machine. There is zero accountability and zero transparency. The self-maintaining machine, not the law, rules here.

Let’s take these contentions individually:

1) The King is not an instrument of the state, he is the state and is above its laws. There is no dispute possible here. Section 56 of the Constitution of 1978 makes it explicit that
“He arbitrates and moderates the regular functioning of the institutions”. Moreover it guarantees that “The person of the King is inviolable and shall not be held accountable”.

What that means in practice can be seen in the case of Albert Solá (56) and Ingrid Artiau (45), who claim to be illegitimate children of the King. By obtaining without consent some genetic material belonging to him or someone from his close family, they have established a 99% probability that they are his children, but this test is not admissible in law.

When they brought their case to the Spanish family law courts, demanding a DNA test, the case was thrown out, not because it was disproved, but because the “person of the King is inviolable” according to the Constitution.

Constitutional expert
Antonio Torres del Moral, professor of Constitutional law at the UNED university, supports this decision. “The inviolability [of the King] is absolute… The King may not be brought before the courts.”

However, he recognises that this is grossly unjust to the pair, who are claiming their rights under the law to be recognised by their putative father. “It’s an injustice in consonance with the law”, he states, apparently unaware that justice is what law is all about.

So much for the monarch being an instrument of the state to guarantee justice for all. So much for equality under the law. Incidentally, this case was not reported in any major newspapers of Spain except El Mundo, the right-wing anti-monarchist daily, whose report was then picked up by the BBC and others. The mainstream Spanish press have suppressed it totally and it has not been reported on TV or radio.

2) The law in Spain does not make all equal, there are categories of privileged persons. Apart from the King’s “absolute” immunity from criminal and civil law, the King and all the royal house are protected from criticism by a law of lese-majeste, making any comment on this issue a potential jail sentence for those rash enough to enter into this debate.

At present the King’s son-in-law Iñaki Urdangarin (Duke of Palma) is accused of embezzlement, the charges stating that his Noós Foundation fraudulently invoiced regional governments in the Balears and Valencia to the tune of €20 million. Charged along with him is his partner Diego Torres and his partner’s wife. But Iñaki’s wife, Princess Cristina de Borbón, is not charged, nor even cited as a witness, despite leaked documents showing that she received payments from the allegedly fraudulent network.

Princess Cristina is very simply not to face justice. Her status as a member of the royal family makes her immune from being even named in such a criminal case, never mind charged.

3) The law is not the defender of the weak, it is their scourge. It’s very hard to find consensus on any issue in Spain, but there’s one thing that almost everybody agrees on: the law on mortgages and repossessions is cruel and unjust.

Unlike in other countries, where the repossession of the property liquidates the mortgage debt, in Spain the unfortunate mortgage defaulter loses his home AND is thereafter fully liable for the full amount of the loan plus accumulated interest. With no law on personal insolvency, this debt can never be cancelled, though of course companies in Spain can become insolvent and thereby liquidate their liabilities. Nearly all homeless people are also massive debtors, liable to, but unable to pay, the mortgage on the house they no longer live in.

The injustice of this situation is evident. On Sunday the Bishop of San Sebastián José Ignacio Murilla described it as “immoral” and “absurd”: “The banks go on evicting people from their homes, at the same time as these financial institutions are piling up tens of thousands of empty apartments which they cannot sell or rent.”

Fernando Ónega in the same edition of La Vanguardia as the article cited at the beginning makes the same point: “A country which allows 400,000 families to be thrown out of their homes for a mortgage is an unjust country. But a country which does not rebel against the legality which allows the same homes to be passed on for half the price to the bad bank, is a country of cowards”. Neither the bishop nor the journalist are left-wing radicals, yet they feel deeply that the country, and its legal system, is corrupt and absolutely unjust.

The “democratic law” vaunted by López Burniol has no response to this injustice. No reform of the existing law on personal debt or mortgage liability has ever been proposed, and the existing PP government has no plans to introduce one. Meanwhile 400,000 families – perhaps a million people – are rendered homeless and saddled with a lifetime’s worth of undischargeable debt. Some prefer to throw themselves off the balcony when the bailiffs come to evict them.

4) The law is the protector of the strong, the moneyed and the connected. Félix Millet, who was arrested for fraud amounting to more than €30 million in 2009 and has yet to come to trial, could probably tell you how much it costs to buy a judge. His strategy, approved by the Barcelona judge Juli Solaz, is to stall the case indefinitely and ensure that he does not face jail in the meantime. Apart from the services of the judge, his connections within the CiU party ensure that his trial date will never come up.

This case could be repeated by many hundreds of similar ones, where rich, powerful and connected defendants delay trial indefinitely, with the active connivance of judges who have either been bought or influenced.

Felipe González, Prime Minister of Spain for 14 years (1982-96), agrees. He believes the transition brought democracy in most cases, but not in the justice system, which has "never breathed the oxygen of democracy.. the greatest deficiency in the Spanish democracy is justice".

So returning to the article cited at the beginning, I’d like to “correct” it and close with a version that more closely approaches the truth of Spain. What López Burniol should have said, referring to the reality as experienced rather than the noble tradition of liberal democracy in the abstract, is something like this:

The state is not, despite all appearances, a juridical system made up of laws. The state is, in essence, a hierarchically-organised structure that goes from the King at the top down to the lowest functionary. All of these, except those who are immune from prosecution, are instruments of the law. The law – the not-very-democratic law – is a binding plan for living together in injustice, which makes us all abject and unequal. From this it follows that the law is the best defence of the strong against the weak.

Maybe not such a robust defence of the Constitutional order when viewed in the cold light of day, after all.


López Burniol article
King's Bastards case
Urdangarin/Noós case and payments to Cristina
Bishop of San Sebastián on "immoral" laws
Fernando Ónega on same
Felipè González on undemocratic justice
Félix Millet case

Thursday, 4 October 2012

The Ancien Regime 4

Life in 21st Century Spain (though you wouldn’t know it)

 4) A Festival of Ambiguity – the Constitution and the Spanish state

So we’ve seen how King Juan Carlos became king by betraying his father, pretender to the throne “King Juan III”, and by betraying his adoptive “father”, Francisco Franco. Not that there’s anything wrong with betraying these men. If Juan Carlos, convinced that his father’s liberal ideas were unrealistic and destabilising for Spain, and that the continuation of Franco’s dictatorship was repugnant for a society in the late 20th century, carved out his own way, and by building a coalition around himself made the transition to democracy possible, all well and good. We can certainly say here that the ends – a democratic and lawful society – justified the means – betraying the trust of Don Juan and Caudillo Franco.

Almost nobody would disagree with that. The question then remains, what kind of democratic society came out of the Spanish transition/revolution of 1975-78? Is it adaptable as well as stable? Does it guarantee transparency? Does it create a clear model for the state it wishes to frame? Is it a living thing or is it written in the cold dead stone of monumental sculpture?

Is it in fact, as Artur Mas contends, merely a brick wall set up to limit the legitimate claims to self-determination of the Catalan people?

Or is it a containing wall, holding back the tremendous pressure of chaos and civil conflict latent in Spanish history?

The Spanish Constitution of 1978 and the cultivation of ambiguity

Among the more comical clauses of the 1978 “almost untouchable” Constitution, running to a couple of hundred pages, are the following gems:

Everyone has the right to enjoy an environment suitable for the development of the person. Article 45.1

All Spaniards have the right to enjoy decent and adequate housing. Article 47

All Spaniards have the duty to work and the right to work. Article 35.1

Citizens have the right and the duty to defend Spain. Article 30.1

No religion shall have a state character. Article 16.3

Everyone has the right to education. Freedom of teaching is recognized. Article 27

The public authorities shall guarantee, through adequate and periodically updated pensions, a sufficient income for citizens in old age. Article 50

This implies that if my streets are dirty and noisy, if my house is nasty, or if I’m homeless or unemployed, my constitutional rights are being impinged. And if I don’t act immediately to defend Spain, by bashing Artur Mas over the head with a brick, for example, I’m violating the Constitution myself. It furthermore implies that the coronation of the King in a Catholic cathedral by a Catholic bishop is unconstitutional. And what it implies about Rajoy’s decision to decrease pensions in real terms I leave to the jurists to debate. Meanwhile, what exactly is “freedom of teaching”?

The US Constitution of 1787, with the Bill of Rights of 1791, can be printed out on two sheets of paper, and is much more modest in its intent. Instead of promising lovely gardens, nice houses and good jobs for all, it states that it is set up in order to “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty.”

It was created with the clear idea of federalism in mind – every power that was not attributable to the Federal Union was therefore a power of the constituent states. Simple in theory, much more complex in practice. But what it creates is a very clear overall framework for the nation as a whole. Argumentation about what exactly are “States Rights” in the US aside, nobody in the US today maintains that it’s not a federation of states, with the federation sovereign in a number of areas and the individual states sovereign in their own areas of competence. The German Constitution of 1949, though much more prolix, essentially does the same. But the Spanish Constitution of 1978 does no such thing. By mixing and matching centralist and federalist concepts, it leaves the actual nature of the state ridiculously muddled.

Round the mulberry bush – nation, nationality, people.

Right from the kickoff, the Spanish Constitution leaves us in no doubt what it’s about:

National sovereignty belongs to the Spanish people, from whom all state powers emanate.

The Constitution is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards…
Articles 1.2 and 2

OK, that’s clear, one indissoluble and indivisible nation. But right away the text muddies the waters:

The Constitution is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards; it recognizes and guarantees the right to self government of the nationalities and regions of which it is composed and the solidarity among them all. Article 2.

Waffle alert!
Now we have: One indivisible nation recognises the right to self-government of different nationalities. The addition of the undefinable word “solidarity” condemns Article 2 to irredeemable obscurity.

What’s a nation? The Spanish nation, one and indivisible. What’s a nationality? Normally, it’s an attribute of belonging to a particular nation, but here it means something else. Nationalities – also known as “historic nationalities” – means those people in Spain who have a different language in addition to Castilian Spanish: Galicians (gallegos), Basques (vascos) and Catalans (catalanes). So, one could be of the Spanish nation, with Spanish nationality, while at the same time of the Catalan nationality which is not a nation. OK so far?

Article 3 gets into this a little bit more with a consideration of language:

1. Castilian is the official Spanish language of the State. All Spaniards have the duty to know it and the right to use it.

2. The other Spanish languages shall also be official in the respective Self-governing Communities in accordance with their Statutes.
3. The richness of the different linguistic modalities of Spain is a cultural heritage which shall be specially respected and protected.

So, Castilian (known wordwide as “Spanish” and “español”) is the official Spanish language. But there are other “Spanish languages” which are not Spanish. These are in fact “different linguistic modalities of Spain”. So all this time when I was speaking Catalan and thinking it was a language, I was wrong. I was actually speaking a “linguistic modality of Spain”.

Now we have to find out what is a “people”. Article 1.2 speaks of the sovereignty of the state emanating from the “Spanish people”. This you understand to mean all the people of Spain, the indivisible nation as a whole. But wait! There’s also a plurality of this indivisible thing: the Preamble states that the purpose of the Constitution is to:

Protect all Spaniards and peoples of Spain in the exercise of human rights, of their culture and traditions, languages and institutions.

So, in conclusion. The Spanish Constitution provides for a single indivisible nation which emanates from the single and indivisible people of Spain, speaking a single Spanish language, while at the same time creating a number of self-governing nationalities, which are not nations, and which emanate from different peoples of Spain who speak different “Spanish languages”. Good solid fudge, nobody could possibly make any sense of it.

All things to all men, a promise of a good solid coat of plaster to cover up the cracks in the Spanish state structure, it is no wonder that this marvel of ambiguity passed the referendum test in 1978. Ordinary Spaniards, including Catalans, Galicians and Basques, yearned for stability, democracy, prosperity and peace.

The fudging of the nation-nationality/people-peoples distinction seemed to be the magic formula to win over support among the minorities in Spain without alienating those who were only “Spaniards”, just as the mix of authoritarian royal powers and progressive liberal doctrine smoothed the way for acceptance from both right and left.

For nearly 30 years the plaster held, and the structure remained on its feet. But then the Catalan Statute of 2006 and the Ibarretxe Plan for Basque referendums came along to challenge the waffle. That’s when things started getting hairy…


Wednesday, 3 October 2012


Life in 21st Century Spain (though you wouldn't know it)

3) Autobiography of King Juan Carlos

Hi everyone, JC here... Juan Carlos de Borbón, that is, King of Spain, Jerusalem, the Ocean Sea and so on. 
Though I don’t speak English, (and to be quite honest I have a little bit of trouble expressing myself in Spanish), my good friend Mr Murphy has promised to listen to my reminiscences and translate them into colloquial English. We’re going to look at some episodes in my life, starting with:

Rome, Italy, 5 January 1938. I am born. My grandfather Alfonso XIII had to run away from Spain after being booted off the throne in an unfortunate misunderstanding seven years earlier, so we live in exile in Italy and Portugal. Later that same year my eldest uncle Alfonso is killed in a car crash in Miami, the second of my grandfather’s four sons to die in a road accident. The second eldest of my uncles, Jaime, is deaf as a post, poor chap, so he renounces his claim to the throne. Which leaves my father, Juan, who therefore becomes next in line to the throne. Meanwhile in Spain the Reds are being spanked and Franco looks set to become Spain’s ruler soon. Will he ask us back? I’m just a few months old and already I’m third in line to the throne of Spain!

Rome, Italy, 28 February 1941. Grandfather Alonso dies and my father becomes King Juan III of Spain. But that Franco doesn’t want to let him become king. So we carry on in exile. Rome, Switzerland, and Portugal are all OK but nothing like being at home in Spain and being an honest-to-God prince. I play at soldiers. I’m tops in the Afrika Corps vs Tommies game I play with my new younger brother Alfonso. I’m Rommel.

Estoril, Portugal, 29 March 1956. I shot my brother little Alfonso in the face and he died. That was very careless and very bad. Father says I must be more careful when handling guns in future. He made me apologise to Mother.

Athens, Greece, 14 May 1962. I get married to a nice Greek girl called Sofía who’s also my third cousin. Her daddy is the King of Greece, mine is King of Spain but only not in Spain. Both of us have Queen Victoria as our great-great-great-grandmother, isn’t that neat? She is some kind of religion called Greek Orthodox, but she changed herself to Catholic just to be really Spanish. She says “Madrid is worth a Mass” and then laughs, but I don’t know what she’s talking about. Is it a joke?

Madrid, Spain, 30 January 1968. We had a son! We already had a couple of daughters, but they don’t really count. Now with Felipe we are a real dynasty.

Madrid, Spain, 22 July 1969. Finally, I get to be heir to the throne! Franco declared Spain a Kingdom in 1947, but my father wrote him a note saying he couldn’t, so Franco got all angry with Father and said he was a Red. Meanwhile the throne stayed vacant. When Sofia and I got married, old Franco suddenly took a shine to us. He invited us to come and stay in Spain. Father was angry with me, saying I was undermining him and manoeuvring to become next King. But I didn’t. I just agreed with Franco to continue his dictatorship in my name when he dies, and pledged eternal loyalty to him. Clever!

Madrid, Spain, 27 November 1975. I get a coronation ceremony with a bishop and everything. Now I’m really king. When old Franco passed away a week ago, I swore to uphold the “Principles of the National Movement” and keep the Franco system alive. But that lot didn’t know that I had one hand behind my back with my fingers crossed! So it doesn’t count. Everybody knows that.

Now I’m going to start something called a Transition – it’s like a change to democracy, but nothing that happened in the Franco time will be held against us. Everyone’s on board, even an old Red called Santiago Carrillo who I pretended to make friends with. This politics stuff is easy – just promise one thing, do another, and try to make friends everywhere you go.

Estoril, Portugal, 14 May 1977. Daddy gives up, finally admitting that he can’t be king. I make him Don Juan, Count of Barcelona as a joke. He doesn’t laugh.

Madrid, Spain, 6 December 1978. The new Constitution is approved by a referendum, and a new Spain is born! I’m the King of a “constitutional monarchy”, legitimate head of state and nobody can take that away, never ever. They tell me that being constitutional monarch means I just shake hands and don’t talk in Congress. Suits me. I was tired of politics anyway.

Madrid, Spain, 23 February 1981. The bloody, bloody, Franco lot just will not give up and go away. Now they’re occupying Congress and have sent tanks out on the street. I’m going to go on TV and tell them all what’s what. Nobody is going to mess with my new Kingdom. I mean, I sympathise with them and everything, but guns in Congress is just too much.

Mallorca, Spain, 17 July 1992. The bloody press keeps mentioning my friends Marta Gayá and Barbara Rey. Why can’t a guy have a bit of discreet female company? I’ve asked Prime Minister Felipe González to kill all this gossip. I’m the King of Spain, not a bloody fashion model.

Madrid, Spain, 22 May 2004. My son Felipe got hitched. Bloody nice girl, Letizia, I used to watch her reading the news on TV and I always thought, nice bit o’ crumpet there. She’s a commoner and previously divorced, but never married in the Church, so it doesn’t count, and she can wear virgin white and be a Catholic queen. Funny, my uncle Alfonso renounced the throne to marry a common lady, but that was a long time ago. Died in a car crash anyway, silly bugger.

Madrid, Spain, 12 December 2011. The bloody, bloody, bloody fool son-in-law of mine, Iñaki, has gone and got himself mixed up in a fraud case. Little yuppy bastard is going out in the cold – I’ve already cancelled his Christmas party invite. I asked Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to kill all the gossip about my daughter Cristina. He says she’ll stay out of the courts, no matter what. 

Madrid, Spain, 9 April 2012. My grandson Froilán was shot in the foot when out hunting with his father, the bloody worthless toff Jaime de Marichalar. My turn to administer the telling-off. I used the exact words my Father used to me back in Estoril so long ago: you’ve got to be more careful with guns in future. Jaime just shrugged and went off to the bathroom. Little Froilán made a face at me like a sad sheepdog, so I said, “Look boy, when I was your age I shot my brother in the face. But since then, I’ve taken care and I never shot anyone.” I think he understood that. I called that nice Mr Rajoy again, he said there’ll be no court for Jaime. Bloody cokehead won’t be grateful.

Botswana, Africa, 14 April 2012. Bloody hell! I fell over while taking aim at a bull elephant and I broke my bloody hip! Now everyone is going to find out I was hunting elephants in Africa just after I appealed to the people in Spain to bear up and face the austerity cuts with good cheer. I’ve already worked out my damage-control strategy. When I get out of hospital, I’m going to limp up to the cameras and say “Sorry, won’t happen again” really quick, then I’m outta there.

London, England, 20 May 2012. My wife Sofía calls me from London. She’s very unhappy that the government told her that she couldn’t attend the Queen of England’s jubilee bash. We’ve got to snub the UK over Gibraltar, apparently. She says Queen Elizabeth said she’s having a great party, except that “Cousin Sofía won’t be coming”, and can she go anyway? I told her, that a) Queen Elizabeth is my cousin too, but I couldn’t go anyway because of my dodgy hip; and b) If that nice Mr Rajoy tells her to be rude to the Queen of England, then it’s her duty to do it. We owe him more than a couple already. And fishing rights in Gibraltar is much more important than cordial diplomatic relations with the UK, everyone agrees on that.

Barcelona, Spain, 27 September 2012. That bloody little bloody bastard Artur Mas snubbed me. Snubbed me! His rightful sovereign! I was visiting Barcelona to do some inaugurating, and I shared a car on the way over with Mas and his sneaky little eyes. He said “You know, it was overstepping your role as constitutional monarch and taking sides in politics when you publicly called my self-determination plan a chimera”. I said “What’s a chimera?” Boom! You could tell he was stuck for an answer. So then he arrives late at the official photo and refuses to stand with me. That little bugger ought to watch it. It’s far more important to appear united than to bother with stupid stuff like rights to self-determination. Everyone agrees on that.

When I got back to Madrid I had a nice chat with that Soraya Saénz de Santamaría, Rajoy's right-hand-girl. She told me not to worry, the Spanish government had all the weapons at their disposal to deal with snotty upstarts like Mas. Nice girl, Soraya. You know it kind of gets me thinking that everything's come full circle. My moment of glory, the consolidation of democracy, was when I faced up to the 23-F coup plotters in 1981. Funnily enough, Soraya's father the General was there, running the police. Now we have his daughter, nice lady, who knows exactly what is needed for democracy. Reassuring, that. Safe pair of hands.

I slept soundly for the first time in months. The hip twinge let up, my mind was at rest. Mas and his smarmy little face receded into the mists. Even bloody Iñaki couldn't disturb me.

King Juan Carlos general background

Paul Preston, Juan Carlos: Steering Spain from Dictatorship to Democracy (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004)

Father, uncles,_Prince_of_Asturias,_Count_of_Barcelona

Death of Alfonso 1956

23-F 1981 attempted coup
23-F – Did JC sympathise with coup plotters?
Soraya's father in 23-F

Queen Sofia forced to snub Queen

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

The Ancien Regime 2

Life in 21st Century Spain (though you wouldn't know it)

2) The House of Bourbon - last, best hope of Counter-reformation Europe

It helps to remember that
King Juan Carlos de Borbón is not an ordinary monarch of an ordinary country. Firstly, by conservative Catholic standards, he is a supermonarch. All the residual hereditary glories of the old Catholic Bourbon house (booted off the throne of France in 1848) are mingled with the ancient claims of the Habsburgs (booted off the throne of Austria in 1919), to produce a walking claim to historical absolutist pretensions.

So it is that King Juan Carlos presently goes by the following resounding titles –

King of Spain, of Castile, of León, of Aragon, of the Two Sicilies (Naples and Sicily), of Jerusalem, of Navarre, of Granada, of Toledo, of Valencia, of Galicia, of Majorca, of Seville, of Sardinia, of Córdoba, of Corsica, of Murcia, of Menorca, of Jaén, of Algeciras, of the Canary Islands, of the East and West Indies and of the Islands and Mainland of the Ocean Sea; Archduke of Austria; Duke of Burgundy, of Brabant, of Milan, and of Neopatra (New Patras); Count of Habsburg, of Flanders, of Tyrol, of Roussillon and of Barcelona; Lord of Biscay and of Lord of Molina.”

Thus the king’s official titular claims extend way beyond what can be legitimately claimed as sovereign of Spain, to include bits of France, Italy, Greece, Austria, Belgium, Israel/Palestine, the Philippines, the Caribbean and whatever “the Ocean Sea” can be interpreted to mean.

A few sarcastic comments about this mishmash of titles occur immediately:

King of the Islands and Mainland of the Ocean Sea… Like a song out of South Pacific.

I am… King of the Ocean Seas
From the West to the Eastern Indies
And all on the Ocean will please
the King of there,

King of the West Indies? I believe Bob Marley had a different monarch in mind for those islands – Hailie Salassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia. But Bob’s dead, and so is the Emperor.

King of Jerusalem? Get in there, your majesty, press that claim. I’m sure neither Israel nor the Palestinians will have any problem if you take over sovereign authority of Jerusalem. Enjoy.

Archduke of Austria. Archduke… How can I explain, sire? There was this guy called Gavrilo Princip and he shot an Archduke of Austria in Sarajevo, and then…

Count of Flanders? So if Flanders ever becomes independent from Belgium, you will be head of a secessionist state? Wow, that would really be something…

Count of Rousillon? Gosh, sire, it’s almost like you never heard of the Treaty of the Pyrenees, in which Spain relinquished all claim to territory over the mountains in France.

Duke of Milan? I’m sure we should be able to get fully-comped invites to Fashion Week based on that. Time to get on the blower to Lagerfeld.

And so on. It’s easy to scoff at this unhistorical heraldic guff that somehow got mixed up with the issue of the legitimacy of the throne of Spain. But it points out the uneasy status of Juan Carlos as head of the Spanish state.

Don't look at the pedigree, check out the track record

For the last recognised government of Spain before the Franco-led revolt of 1936 was the Second Republic, the present king’s grandfather Alfonso XIII having been booted off the throne in 1931. The legitimacy of the present king rests on two pillars: first, in the pre-Transition, the late years of the dictatorship, his status as heir to Franco’s “Regency”; and then at the Transition’s culminating point, the referendum of 1978 that gave popular approval to the new constitution of Spain, with the king as constitutional monarch reigning over a parliamentary democracy.

And of course his fund of popular goodwill rests on what happened soon after that: when a militaristic right-wing putsch broke out on 23 February 1981, the king ordered all rebellious forces to stand down and thus thwarted the coup attempt. Parliamentary democracy was consolidated, the Transition went ahead.

So beyond the clownish titles claimed as chief Bourbon by Juan Carlos, and beyond his dodgy credentials as to historical legitimacy as head of state, his record has two great plus signs for the great majority of the Spanish public: he was voted in as head of state in 1978 as part of the new Spanish state constitution, and he defended that nascent democracy with a brave personal gesture just over two years later. 

I’d like to go on in the next section with a portrait of head of state King Juan Carlos, leader of the Spanish old guard, by examining some key moments in his life.

This will naturally include the creation of the Constitution of 1978 around him as head of state. What was created in 1978 became known much later as the “Almost Untouchable” constitution (“la casi intocable”), and for a time the King too became “almost untouchable” as the state’s personification. During the last decades of the twentieth century, he was the agreeable glue holding the Spanish state together.

However, the King then went on to lose that aura of ceremonial untouchability in the 21st century. Cracks began to appear in the perfect gleaming Euro-democracy edifice of the Transition, which now started resembling a crumbling facade in an old middle-European town featuring the ancient, weathered statue of a forgotten Archduke of Austria. 

Titles claimed by King
Treaty of the Pyrenees
23-F 1981 attempted coup

Monday, 1 October 2012

The Ancien Regime 1

Life in 21st Century Spain (though you wouldn’t know it)

1) Society - It ain’t watcha know, it’s who ya know

It is always the aim of this writer to look positively at what can be changed in the present society rather than dwell on historical grievances or time-worn dialectics of the deaf, like the classic Madrid versus Barcelona vendetta that gains its expression in everything from football to casino tourism schemes.

Nevertheless, if we’re talking about restructuring Spain and its relation to Catalonia, it’s best to know what we are saying when we talk about Spain, both politically and socially. Hence this week’s series of articles on contemporary Spain, and contemporary Catalonia. We’ll leave the Franco-era stuff to the history buffs.

Spain at present is the
Ancien Regime, the Old Guard of the PIIGS. Excessive bureaucratic control along with a corrupt and discredited political class and a fossilised trade union leadership strangle all attempt at business growth. Oh yeah, there are success stories in entrepreneurship and big business, powerhouses like Zara-Inditex, Santander, BBVA, La Caixa and Hola magazine. But these tend to thrive despite, not because of, the prevailing socio-economic model of Spain. Representing the old guard, meet Bankia or the Lleida-Alguaire Airport.

I’d like to discuss an article by John Carlin published in
The Guardian online last week, and entitled ”Behind Spain's turmoil lies a cronyism that stifles the young and ambitious”.

Cronyism” is later revealed in the article to be the Spanish amiguismo
– “looking after your friends”, a universal practice no doubt, but much more prevalent in the Catholic Latin-Celtic- Mediterranean periphery of Europe – the PIIGS of Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain.

Carlin’s article is subtitled “The country needs more than a bailout. It needs a revolutionary change in its hidebound social structures”. It’s almost redundant to read the rest of the piece. We have the essence of the ancien regime right here. Cronyism, hidebound social structures. This is precisely the heart of the problem of being Spanish. This is the old guard in its most common form – deadly, stultifying, incompetent, traditional, unyielding, yet surviving.

I have a large Spanish family, with 25 first cousins on my Madrileña mother's side alone. About 15 years ago, when the Spanish economy was buzzing, a male cousin came to visit me in Washington, where I then worked. I told him one night at a bar that I enjoyed my job. He said nothing in reply but, as I discovered two days later, he'd been mulling over what I said, deeply troubled. "What you told me the other night," he said, "about enjoying your job… you weren't serious, were you?"
Here was an employed, friendly, middle-class 36-year-old Spaniard and he had never, ever had wind of the notion that someone might feel enthusiasm for what he did for a living. For my cousin, as for so many Spaniards, work is a necessary evil, a nuisance to be dispensed with as briskly as possible before turning to the serious business of life – drinking, nibbling tapas, hanging out with friends until the small hours.

By contrast, Carlin tells the stories of two young entrepreneurs who left Spain to succeed at founding new businesses, and generating employment, in the UK. The exiles pour scorn on the Spanish way of doing business as an extended form of family favours: "To have got ahead the way I have in London I'd need an uncle with good connections. I didn't, so I left."
The lessons from these two stories, entirely typical of Spaniards abroad, are clear: the Spanish are not inherently idle; the labour market in Spain does not sufficiently reward talent and hard work. The Spanish disease that both these young men said they had fled was "amiguismo" –"friendism" – a system where one gets ahead by who one knows.
Reams of opinion columns in the Spanish press in recent months have pointed to amiguismo in the political classes. Which is no doubt largely true but fails to acknowledge that corrupt or lazy or incompetent politicians do not inhabit a closed ecosystem but behave in a manner in keeping with the way society operates at large…

It is dangerously infantile in the present circumstances… The brightest, the boldest or the most restless young people go abroad for money and fulfilment; the rest, half of whom are unemployed, stay at home – baffled, desperate, increasingly angry, kicking out at government and being kicked back.
The government does carry its share of the blame. But it is a symptom – a big, glaring symptom, for sure – and not the root cause… There is much talk now of a huge financial rescue plan from the north. Good. It will bring much-needed relief. But it will be no more than a passing cure so long as the corruption of amiguismo continues to stain Spain's otherwise warm and delightful soul, hampering the country's capacity to compete in the grown-up world.
In passing, our author compares Spain with Catalonia but finds all far from perfect in the latter:
Catalonia is a much more productive region than Andalucía, as the independentists will never cease to remind you, but the difference as far as amiguismo goes is only one of degree.
I would subscribe to everything that Mr Carlin says in his piece. I also know young people from Spain and Catalonia who have gone to the UK, Ireland, France, or Canada and thrived on a society more open to meritocracy and independent entrepreneurship. More are going every day. People have told me of new ventures killed stone dead by a lack of connections with the right political department in Barcelona or Madrid.

Enough cases of amiguismo in the local press could convince you that Catalonia is far from clean – Felix Millet, who allegedly skimmed millions off the top of the Palau de la Música Catalana and passed a part of it on to the CiU foundation Trias Fargas, the “Three Percent” allegations that CiU routinely skimmed 3% off local government contracts controlled by them, the alleged involvement of young Oriol Pujol in the “ITV” cases of “commissions” paid to CiU in return for vehicle inspection concessions (ITV – Inspección Técnica de Vehículo, the MOT test of Spain). That’s just one party, Mr Mas’s CiU party, in one region, Catalonia. Phew. The list goes on…

Across Spain, crooked local pols, cunning Mr Fixits and dodgy bankers are going down in a hellish wreck of trials, media allegations and prison sentences. The Balearic Islands and Valencia, governed by the PP, and Andalucía, governed by PSOE, though with PP enclaves like Málaga/Costa del Sol, are all badly scarred by widespead corruption scandals

This wave of court action extends of course even to the royal family, in which one Iñaki Urdangarin from uptown Barcelona is married to Princess Cristina, younger daughter of King Juan Carlos. He is accused of skimming millions off Balearic and Valencian regional PP governments through his Noós Foundation, along with his partner and his partner’s wife. Unlike this unfortunate lady, Mrs Urdangarin, the Princess Cristina, is not called to trial even as a witness although she allegedly received a €20,000 payment from the foundation.

Strangely, the only places in Spain where local amiguismo seems not to be commonplace or at any rate are not widely reported, are the autonomous communities of the Basque Country and Navarre, both of which have their own devolved tax-collecting power based on medieval fiefdom rights or fueros.

Could it be that the way to greater social and economic agility, and political transparency and accountability is to separate, as much as possible, from the “hidebound” and “corrupt” (Carlin’s words) practices of Spain?