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

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