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…


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