It has been an extremely busy week for Paul Preston, the highly acclaimed English historian and Hispanist, biographer of Franco, specialist in Spanish history, in particular the Spanish Civil War, which he has studied for more than 30 years.
He is the winner of multiple awards for his books on the Spanish Civil War and, apart from the biography of Franco, also published a biography of King Juan Carlos I - Juan Carlos: A People’s King - in 2003 in Castellano, Catalan and then English; he later updated it in 2014.
Preston is considered to be the leading light on the history of the Civil War, the transition and modern Spain and has been in huge demand from the Spanish media all week. He admitted to the Bulletin that Juan Carlos really had no choice but to leave the country in light of the various scandals the former king has been caught up in over recent years.
Spain’s Royal House, in the spotlight this week after former king Juan Carlos decided to leave the country under a cloud of financial scandal, is a publicly-funded institution created to support the king as the head of state and his family Spanish and Swiss prosecutors are looking into allegations of offshore accounts and bribes linked to a high-speed rail contract. Juan Carlos, 82, is not formally under investigation in either country. He has declined to comment, saying the allegations concerned his private life.
Various reports have now placed the former king in Europe, the Caribbean and the Middle East, but Preston, who lived through Spain’s transition from a dictatorship to a democracy, studying and writing about this in depth, was quick to stress that people should not be too quick to judge the former king and must remember and be grateful for the mountains Juan Carlos moved in transforming Spain into a modern, forward-looking country after a bloody civil war.
“When I heard he had decided to leave Spain, to be honest I was not surprised. The decision was obviously not unilateral. There was a lot behind this, but I think it was agreed between whichever parties were involved that this was a last-stage measure to shore up the monarchy. It was the last throw of the dice if you like, considering all the damage which had been done, not only by Juan Carlos but also the media, in particular the vast pack of digital news outlets in Spain which seemed to have had it in for him and the current royal family.
“The scandals surrounding Juan Carlos and the alleged financial accusations were like grist to the mill for some sections of the media. But as part of my lengthy preparations and studies for the biography, I was astounded by just how much Juan Carlos achieved as king.
“Instead of his father, he had been named as the king to be by Franco in 1969, but Franco had made it quite clear that the monarchy would not be reinstated in Spain until after he died. So Juan Carlos, who had been in exile, was not actually crowned until 1975. Because of this, there was a large school of thought that Juan Carlos would be a kind of Franco puppet king. He was initially known as Juan el breve (Juan the short) because most people expected him to try and continue Franco’s legacy and, as a result, would not last long on the throne; how wrong they were.
“Juan Carlos proved to be a triumph for democracy and gradually gained considerable admiration at home and overseas. He had overcome a very difficult childhood and, as an adolescent, had been trained to continue the dictatorship, but he proved his doubters wrong in every way.
“Apart from having enormous character and a natural charisma which endeared him to the general public, he could wrap people round his fingers. He was a natural when it came to meeting and greeting the public. I think the first major indication into how open-minded and pro-democracy he was came in October 1982 when the Socialists won the election. He then followed that up with the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.
“From the mid-'80s and all through the '90s, he was amazingly popular with monarchists and republicans alike. His fans were known as Juan Carlistas, his appeal crossed and broke down all political barriers. He brought Spain into the 20th century with huge success. So, when I started on the biography in the '90s, I had no inkling whatsoever that it would end like it has.
“Unfortunately, it has left his son and successor, King Felipe, who took the throne when Juan Carlos decided to abdicate in 2014, in a difficult position. It has also given the republican movements and left-wing parties like Podemos and certain Catalan factions more grounds to push for a referendum on the future of monarchy.
“But while legally there are clauses in the Constitution which could pave the way for that to happen, I very much doubt that a referendum will ever take place. The Constitution is very protective of the monarchy; there may be a few potential loopholes, but it’s very binding.
“Felipe, with the help of his wife Queen Letizia, is clearly going to have to embark on a major charm offensive and damage limitation exercise, and he doesn’t have that natural charisma his father did when interacting with the general public. However, he has been well schooled. He knows what he has to do and he knows that a monarch has an extremely important role to play in modern Spain.
“The country is very conflictive. Just look at Catalonia for example and its continual push for independence and attacks on the Socialist-led coalition in Madrid. A level-headed, strong and neutral monarch is vital for Spain in order to maintain the status quo, and Felipe is more than capable of fulfilling his obligations. Since he was crowned king, he has already had to oversee and deal with a number of complicated political and social issues as well as various scandals and court cases involving other members of the royal family.
“He’s emerged from those relatively unscathed and now he just has to go that extra mile in restoring part of the public’s faith in the monarchy.”
Preston disagreed that there had been any kind of stitch-up by left-wing parties.
“No, I don’t agree with that at all. One has to bear in mind that he is caught up in a court case in Switzerland, and so not only Spain and perhaps eventually the UK. Why would the Swiss get involved in a stitch-up? It is matters for the judiciary which have come as the final blow, and I hate to say that there could be some bombshells yet to fall.
“Prior to Juan Carlos, Spain was ruled by Alfonso XIII, who was eventually forced to abdicate and into exile under a huge cloud of corruption accusations. He was hugely unpopular and that led to the return of a republic, but I don’t see that happening now at all. Spain, and mostly thanks to Juan Carlos, has come a long way since the death of Franco, and Juan Carlos did pass the test of time as king. He was always receiving gifts from foreign rulers, all monarchs do, but during his prime no one took much interest into what they were or how much they were worth.
“One has to remember that he came from a relatively poor background. His father often had to ask for handouts from wealthy friends. Maybe this could explain the situation Juan Carlos has found himself in now. Only he can provide the answers. I’m a writer, I can’t predict what’s going to happen. It’s a bit like football journalists; they can write a match preview, but they can’t predict what’s going to happen during the match.
“Yes, Felipe does perhaps lack the people skills of his father, who was a genius with the public, but that happens in every family. Children grow up differently depending on how they are brought up and, like I said, Juan Carlos came from a humble and troubled background. Felipe has had a much more grounded upbringing, so he should have no problem in shoring up the monarchy and guaranteeing its future. Spain needs him.
“One also has to take into account the amount of corruption the country has had to swallow over the past few decades, thanks to the Partido Popular. This has led to an increase in the level of cynicism people have in politicians and people in high places; we can see it in the UK all too well, for example.
“But thanks to the work Juan Carlos carried out as king, Spain is an extremely different country to the one he took over as king and is grown up enough now to rise above all the accusations. I’m sure the last thing he wanted to do was return to exile but, like I said, he had no choice for the good of the monarchy.”