Matthew Parris

Time for the King of Spain to save his country again

He needs to speak up for the Catalans

5 April 2014

9:00 AM

5 April 2014

9:00 AM

Might there ever be in this century, anywhere in Europe, a case for serious political interference by an hereditary monarch?

Spaniards can surely imagine it. In 1981 the (then) recently crowned King Juan Carlos II decisively rebuffed an attempted right-wing coup and in doing so secured the country’s newly instituted post-Franco democracy: a transition in which he had been deeply personally involved. The king did more than decline to support those who would overthrow democratic government; he took a lead in demanding that they be stopped. The settled account of these turbulent months in 1981 has perhaps still to be written and may be a little more complicated than the received media wisdom; but there is no doubt the king made the right decision, and in making it settled his country’s history signally for the better. The importance of his intervention is impossible to exaggerate. He saved Spain.

I would submit that now, 33 years later, circumstances have arisen again in which the King of Spain could and should act to save his country. This time, as last time, there is a need to restrain the right; but this time the crisis, though huge, is less apparent. This time, as last time, only a figure commanding great respect on the right can do it. There was something paradoxical about a figure whose standing was highest among the right taking the position calculated to disappoint them: Juan Carlos surprised Spanish conservatives in 1981 and dismayed many of them. But they listened. They would listen to him today.

He needs to talk to them about Catalonia, whence I have just returned. Catalans are shouting for full independence; first they want a referendum, but this is denied to them by Madrid, which says it would be unconstitutional — a view that has just been upheld by the highest court.


Few outside Spain understand, I think, how deep is the looming rift between Spain and one of her wealthiest and most productive regions and nations. This is far more serious than Lombardy in Italy (which will never really secede) or Corsica in France (whose amputation is unlikely but would anyway be bearable) or even Scotland, which is unlikely to secede but whose secession would not wreck the residual part of the United Kingdom. The Catalan problem is as big as the Basque problem was (though less explosive) before a combination of crackdown and compromise edged the situation out of danger. It can be compared with Flanders vs Wallonia in Belgium. It’s about language and national identity, but about economic survival too. It threatens national disintegration.

I grow tired of testing Spectator and Times editors’ and readers’ patience by banging on about the Catalans, and essentially repeating myself; but here again — with apologies for repeating myself — is the problem. ‘Catalunya’ (as they call their country) is a nation with a territory, a long history, and a distinct language (one glance at a Catalan text will assure you that this is no dialect of Spanish) which is spoken by almost all and is the first language of a majority. It is comparatively wealthy, its population has a deserved reputation for hard work and financial talent and drive, and it has an advanced industrial and commercial economy. The rest of Spain is Catalonia’s most important market, but its own revenues are an important part of the revenues of the rest of Spain. Barcelona in Catalonia is Spain’s second most important and arguably commercially its most important city. Catalonia nurses deep and long-standing grievances about the attitude of the rest of Spain to its language, culture and national identity (let us step over the arguments about justification). Catalans are no johnny-come-latelys to Europe’s would-be independent peoples.

They have a regional status, like all parts of Spain, and their own government and parliament, like Scotland; but limited fiscal autonomy. Madrid has resisted Barcelona’s demands for constitutional recognition for Catalonia to call itself a nation. What we in Britain call ‘devo-max’ is not on offer.

I believe that some kind of turbo-charged further step in devolution would settle the issue, but the positions of both sides are becoming impossibly entrenched and bitter. The leader of Catalonia’s government and largest party, Arturo Mas, whose commitment is to a referendum and independence, is under increasing pressure from more extreme and impatient separatist groupings. The Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, is in under very strong pressure from the right in his right-wing Popular Party to give no ground at all. Catalan ambitions irritate millions in the rest of Spain. Both leaders have become the prisoners of circumstance. Denied his referendum this year, Mas looks likely to call an early election in Catalonia in lieu of that plebiscite, but as all the big Catalan parties will have separatist manifestos the result will be a mess, from which I believe the least compromising may gain most.

Somebody needs to rise above this, and it isn’t going to be Spain’s politicians. I cringe to repeat the Italian writer Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s now-clichéd conservative wisdom but the message to conservative Spain is the same difficult advice it fell to the country’s estimable transitional leader after Franco, Adolfo Suárez, to teach. ‘If you want things to stay the same, things will have to change.’

Who better than a monarch to explain this to conservatives, and be heard? Few Catalans would suppose the Spanish royal family to be sympathetic to their cause. To find the King himself sympathetic would undermine the extremists and strengthen those many Catalans who in their hearts have not despaired of rebuilding a co-operative relationship with the rest of Spain. What more auspicious start to a ‘better together’ campaign in a Catalan referendum in which ‘in’, ‘out’ and ‘devo-max’ were the options? In those circumstances, I have no doubt that devo-max would win.

Ah well, just a dream, no doubt. But sometimes the alternative to a dream is a nightmare. The nightmare could happen: so why not the dream?

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  • Richard_Spain

    Read:- “La gran desmemoria. Lo que Suárez olvidó y el Rey prefiere no recordar” written by Pilar Urbano and “23-F, El Rey y su secreto” by Jesus Palacios.

  • Toni Valdívia

    I’m sorry, Mr Parris, but what is so terrible with independence? Spain has been a failed country since its beginning. It was born as an empire and it won’t be a real cohesive nation until none of its territories feels like a colony. The peaceful and democratic process towards independence could be a chance for Spain to arrange that. We’ll be better as neighbours. There has “never” been a king of Catalonia, we don’t like crowned heads ’round here, even conservative people. Nevertheless, most of your analysis is accurate. Thanks.

    • sarah_13

      I recall Mathew Parris on Question Time Several years ago admonishing people for getting involved in the future of Israel, saying something like it is a far off land and we don’t understand the politics so we shouldn’t get involved in discussing it. So why is he so interested in Spain and Cataluna? Compromise does not come easy to the Spanish and Catalans it seems. Having heard many arguments from the Catalans they do have, in my view, an unwarranted superiority complex, and are quite happy to cede sovereignty to the EU, but not to spain. They worry about the spanish government spending the budget on “lazy” parts of the country but all the catalans I have spoken to are happy to stay in the unaccountable EU? It makes no sense to me. They all seem to lack maturity.

      • rtj1211

        In that quixotic dichotomy between capital city and Brussels and who they would cede sovereignty to, they appear to be partners in crime with Scotland!!

      • Toni Valdívia

        I agree that sometimes we think that our way is the way, and it shouln’t be always like that, but you have to remember that our nation doesn’t have a State to defend our interests. We are part of a State that has always tried to assimilate us and, after failing again and again, has tried to make us small.
        We haven’t ceded sovereignty to Spain, it was taken away from us. If eventualy we cede it to the EU, it would be our decision.

        • Kinai Kai

          Nation. Right! So you need a nation to defend your own interests? Bullshit.
          You didn’t ceded soverignty to Spain. Sorry, you never was soverign.
          You are mixing everything trying to justify yourself.

    • Kinai Kai

      Yeah, sure. And Catalonia is going to be the new Swiss.
      The peaceful (but now) and (no)democratic process towards independence, wouldn’t be an unilateral proclamation.
      It’s strange that you felt like a colony, because Catalonia never was an independent ‘nation’, but an excision of the Caroligian empire that join with Aragon.
      You felt as a colony because the independentism has twisted the facts and the story until that it fit its interests.

  • Brian McLean

    Nail on the head, Toni. Although Mr Parrish appears to be, largely, sympathetic, the underlying feeling is that independence is a “bad” thing that has to be “fixed”. I, for one, cannot accept this premise. Even though this may be the case, WTF does he think the decrepit, philandering elephant slaughterer is going to do about it? Juanca has never been popular in Catalunya, even (especially?) with the right, currently he is nothing more than a butt for jokes at the very best. My own belief is that he is a closet republican working away at the foundations to completely discredit the monarchy. No republican could ever have asked for a better mole.

  • Carles Gómez

    Spaniards do not want to lose their golden goose, that and the remainder of the old Spanish empire is what Catalonia means for them. For Spaniards Catalans are someone who are passing on the “colony” and have no right to decide anything about Catalonia or Spain. Recently has been named French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, Barcelona-born son of Catalan exiles in France, it is impossible any Catalan can never be a Spanish president in any way. That and dignity are why we need a country for us, tired of being treated like second class citizens in our own land.

  • Guest

    About King Juan Carlos. Years ago it was the person who was allowed to live in democracy and change a life lived “like a king”. Today represents perfectly the decay and corruption, along with anyone who voted for him or his son that should happen. Is not entitled to anything, not supported by anyone and do anything that is not clear yet, not have any desire for promoting capt rate.

  • Carles Gómez

    About King Juan Carlos. Years ago it was the person who allowed us to live in democracy and our payment was a life “like a king”. Today represents perfectly the decay and corruption, killing elephants, every know his daughters problems whith ilegal money, along with anyone who voted for him or his son that should happen. He is not entitled to anything, not supported by anyone and do anything that is not clear yet, not have any desire for promoting capt rate.

    • Kinai Kai

      Very important killing elephants.

  • rob232

    This is a very strange article. The King of Spain and his family are probably at their lowest level of popularity since he was crowned. His daughter and son-in-law are in court charged with serious fraud. He is said to have a permanent mistress who exercises influence and is maintained with public money. His wife, who he treats badly, is said to be estranged spending all her time in London. He was even in Africa shooting rare species of animals. No one knows exactly what his role was in the attempted coup of 23F but the story is thought to be very different from the official version. There is more republican sentiment in Spain now than ever. Indeed the Catalan Republican party received a huge increase in votes during the last Catalan elections and it is only by forming a coalition with this party that Mas has been able to form a goverment and go forward with his petitions for a referendum.

  • Guest

    Would an independent Catalonia be the end of the world for Spain? I don’t think so.
    Neither would an independent Scotland, Flanders or Quebec for that matter.

  • Jambo25

    “What we, in Britain call ‘Devo-Max’ is not on offer” to Scotland either. Perhaps your next article could deal with that, Mr. Parris.

  • E Hart

    Just how can a constitutional monarch (imposed on a people who rejected his predecessor, Alfonso XIII) implore or intercede on behalf of a nation (Catalunya) which rejects both the offering (Spain) and the office of the intercessor (monarchy)? It’s total nonsense.

    • Kinai Kai

      Well. That people rejected his predecessor isn’t exactly correct, but I don’t have enough time to explain it.
      But you are right.
      I don’t know if Mathew said it, but everything started because Mas wanted the same as the Basque Country: a very benefical tax regimen; and Mariano said ‘no’.
      For the record, the own catalans didn’t want it when it was offered in the seventies.

  • guest

    Anyone else think this is bull?

    • Kinai Kai

      Or it’s a bull, or the nacionalist are paying him.

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  • Luis Valdés

    Mr Parris has a legitimate view, although idyllic, of what
    has been going on in Catalonia, the Balearics and Valencia, the pretended
    ”països catalans”. And I say idyllic, because the purposes of the Linguistic
    Normalization are very close to those of the Racial Nuremberg Laws. They
    segregate and discriminate people on linguistic grounds when, in fact, that is
    a distinction without a difference. We must remember that Victor Klemperer was
    a converted Christian institutionalised, normalised you might say in Catalonia,
    as Jewish by the Nazi regime. The jargon of the nationalists always perverts
    language and sentimentalises politics: at school, in the street; and that is
    the specifically modern way of imposing the most abject kind of servitude.

  • dado_trunking

    What just happened in Venice?
    I smell the respective national Parliaments losing grip in return for a United States of Europe which will represent the bigger picture.

  • rob232

    Catalonia nurses deep and long-standing grievances about the attitude of the rest of Spain to its language, culture and national identity.

    What exactly is this grievance? That your grandmother was told off for speaking Catalan 50 years ago? That your grandfather whose name was Josep found that the chauvinistic functionary had changed his name to José on his passport?
    So many Spanish families have bitter grievances. Spain went through a terrible civil war and spent 40 years under an oppressive dictatorship. Almost any family can tell terrible stories and it is churlish of the Catalans to present themselves as if they were some special case.
    Not only the Spanish but huge numbers of Europeans suffered terribly during the twentieth century. Most of these victims are now dead. Some new generations still revel in these memories. The rest of them, have put it behind them. It’s time the Catalans did this too.
    What a group of silly, pampered, posturing people they are, still trying to exploit the fact that Franco (who died 40 years ago) didn’t let their grandparents speak their local language.

    • Kinai Kai

      Did he tell that a lot of Franco support came from Catalonia? By curiosity.
      And nowadays, they are fine people for mark their shops in spanish, kids in school for talking in spanish. They didn’t respect any law, but we have to respect their.
      Yeah, very democratic…

  • JayfromBrooklyn

    Since the whole Europe is merging into one country, why does Spain care so much?

  • Kinai Kai

    I recommend the author of this article that read a lil about the history of spain, instead to believe everything than he has read or listened in catalunya.
    ‘It is comparatively wealthy,’ The fourth one
    ‘its population has a deserved reputation
    for hard work and financial talent and drive,’ Yep, and the people for andalusian are lazy. Copy/Paste from nacionalist propaganda
    ‘and it has an advanced
    industrial and commercial economy.’ Due mainly for the protectionist laws that benefit them until almost the end of the last century.

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