written by Jane Cronin

During the 1960s Spain, which was then under the dictatorship of General Franco launched a major publicity campaign aimed at attracting foreign visitors to its coastal resorts. Manuel Fraga who is still in Spanish politics today, and who was then the Minister for Tourism, thought up the phrase “Spain is Different”. This slogan alone caused an enormous uproar and political debate, and it is still somewhat of an obsession among modern Spaniards. Is Spain different? Should it be different? Why is it different? And does it want to continue to be different in the future? These are questions which underlie Spanish social and political debate today.

The modern history of Spain is indeed very different. In 1931 the second Spanish Republic was declared, and the king Alfonso XIII fled into exile. In 1936 a brutal civil war commenced in which the right wing military brought down the republic and defeated “the left” in the form of socialists, anarchists, communists and democrats, by sheer military superiority. There then commenced nearly 40 years of military dictatorship which lasted until November 1975. Franco was an unusual dictator. He was a religious, family man, as well as a military commander, he lived in relative modesty, and had no interest in forming a ruling dynasty. However he kept total control over his country and did not allow Alfonso XIII to return from exile.

The early years of Franco’s dictatorship were grim. There was brutal political repression alongside appalling poverty and hardship. The country had been devasted by the war, both physically and psychologically, and as the rest of Europe was engaged in its own conflict, Spain was left to cope alone. The Franco regime developed a deeply isolationist stance, which only increased when its natural ally, Hitler’s Germany, was defeated in 1945. Franco and his military junta distrusted all external influences and effectively sealed its people off from the developments that the rest of Europe experienced during the post war years. While Britain and the rest of Europe became increasingly prosperous and open to new intellectual, cultural and political influences, Spain remained locked in a world of its own – deeply Catholic, deeply conservative, poverty stricken and closed to all new ideas. The censureship of the press was total, dissidents were jailed, and other aspects of modern culture, such as cinema and novels were strictly controlled.

The Catholic church in Spain was closely allied to the Franco regime and the population was effectively controlled by the local priest, who had total sway over the fortunes of individuals according to their religious conformity and respectibility in the local community. Women were taught that their only role in life was to be a good wife and mother, women owed total obedience to their husbands in all areas of public life, and they were encourged to have large families. In some ways Franco was a paternalist dictator. In other words, there were rewards and incentives to people who lived in conformity with the ideals of the regime. To this day, many older people who would not consider themselves to be fascists, think that life was better under Franco – there was less crime, stronger family ties and fewer social conflicts. Of course, in order to enjoy this, they had to give up any sense of personal initiative or difference, and allow the regime to control their existence.

During the 1960s, when prosperity in the rest of Europe first brought tourism into Spain, the shock for the average Spaniard was enormous. Spaniards were treated to the sight of northern European women sunbathing in bikinis, couples kissing and holding hands in public, young people listening to music that was banned in Spain and generally enjoying a standard of living and personal freedom that the average Spaniard could only dream of. Over the sixties and seventies the younger generation became increasingly rebellious and restless. The socialist party, which later came to power, was formed in exile in France, whilst many young people within Spain became clandestine members. A whole radical underground world started to develop, with all its ideas and influences smuggled in from abroad. It may seem incredible to us now, but one of the major psychological breakthroughs for young Spaniards of that era was the visit of the Beatles to Madrid, allowed by Franco in 1965. Of course, the young people we are talking about are the contemporaries of many of the people reading this article today. People of our generation were either idealistic rebels, but with no real experience of freedom, or as was probably the case of the majority, still deeply conservative and fearful of authority.

By the late sixties Franco was an old man and the issue of who should succeed him became increasingly urgent. Alfonso XIII had died in exile, and after a great deal of negotiation between Franco and Alfonso’s son Don Juan de Barcelona, it was agreed that his son Juan Carlos, the present king of Spain, should be trained up as Franco’s successor. Don Juan was a deeply embittered man and the loss of his throne to his son cost him dearly. In fact, he refused to even speak to Juan Carlos for many years, so devastated was he that whilst he remained in exile his son was in the hands of his worst enemy.

When Franco finally died in November 1975 the whole country was in uproar. Many people celebrated the announcement with champagne and festivities, but they had no idea what the future would hold, and assumed that Juan Carlos, who was still a completely unknown entity, would continue in the ways of his mentor as he had publicly sworn to do.

There then followed a period referred to as “the transition”. It is a fascinating period which laid the foundation of modern Spain. In a nutshell, what King Juan Carlos managed to do was to effect a complete change-over from dictatorship to democracy without inciting a right wing military backlash. This was an extraordinarily difficult thing to achieve as all the power, money and influence belonged to the ruling class that Franco had left behind. The king started by holding clandestine meetings with a huge number of individuals including leaders of political parties which were still officially illegal, in order to get the widest possible picture of the task at hand. In 1976 he appointed a young, Francoist bureaucrat by the name of Adolfo Suarez as the new prime minister. People were stunned and disappointed by the choice as it seemed so reactionary and rightwing. A major national newspaper headline the next day said “What a mistake! What an immense mistake!” However, as a result of his detailed research, the king was aware that Suarez was the man who had the vision to steer Spain from dictatorship to democracy, and this is what he succeeded in doing with terrifying speed over the ensuing months. By the end of the year a political reform bill was endorsed by a referendum with a 94.2 per cent yes vote. In early 1977 political parties were legalised and the first elections were held on June the fifteenth of that year in which Suarez’s centre party won by a small majority. The Spanish constitution was agreed by all parties in December 1978, and the country was divided into its 17 governing autonomous regions in 1979, transforming the Franco’s centralist Spain controlled from Madrid, into the varied political landscape we know today. Thus an almost miraculous transition had occurred in the space of just four breath-taking years.

The real strength of the new Spanish democracy was put to the test in February 1981. A Guardia Civil lieutenant-colonel by the name of Antonio Tejero staged an attempted coup d’etat in the house of commons, holding all the members of parliament hostage for about 24 hours. Tanks appeared on the streets of Madrid and Valencia and military music was played on radio and television. The Spanish were terrified, and feared the worst, until king Juan Carlos appeared on television in his role as head of the armed forces, ordering the troops back to their barracks and making it clear that he did not support the coup. It seems that the military personnel involved actually believed that Juan Carlos would support them in an attempted return to a dictatorship. This single act on the part of the king won him the praise and respect of all sections of Spanish society, including those who had been sceptical of his role in a modern democratic state. Since that event, it is as though Spain has been able to relax into its new found freedom, knowing that the nightmare of dictatorship is well and truly in the past.

The king and his wife Queen Sofia live in a relatively modest fashion and enjoy a relaxed and informal relationship with ordinary people. Juan Carlos is well-known for his “common touch” and Sofia, who is a trained nurse, is known for her sympathic contact and solidarity with victims of crime and misfortune. The king regularly chats informally to journalists and at cultural and charitable events refuses to stand on ceremony, preferring to mix as any other guest. This no-nonsense approach endears the king to the Spanish people, who regard him and his family with genuine affection and respect.

So, where does all that leave Spain today? During about 18 years of strong centre left rule under Felipe Gonzalez and now under the right wing PP party of Jose Maria Aznar, Spain has made vast political and social strides towards modernity. Spain was accepted into NATO, followed by the European Community in 1986. It now has many laws, institutions and infra-structures which are second to none in their modernity of outlook and financial investment. On an international level Spain is striving, not to be different, but to be the same as the rest, as good as the rest, and to play a major role on the international stage, as was witnessed by Aznar’s support of Blair and Bush over the Iraq war.

However, what is happening at the “grassroots” level as it were? Well, the rapid race to modernisation has brought many contradictions in everyday life. Firstly there is a huge contrast between the attitudes and behaviour of the generations, although conformity and conservatism are still very strong. Most Spanish people hate to stand out and look or act differently from the rest. The need to be respectable has made them often more interested in appearance than in reality, and this can be seen in all sorts of ways, from personal dress and grooming, to going through the motions of something without caring about the real reasons for doing it. There are old attitudes of passivity in the face of authority and a strong sense of family, which makes people less interested in the community and the common good. For every forwarding looking new law that is passed, there are a hundred new ways of getting round it and ignoring it. Equal opportunities are legislated for, but women still have the lowest paid jobs as well as bearing the brunt of domestic work. And the Spanish male continues to be somewhat “machista” in outlook and in attitude towards women.

Spain has embraced Europe with absolutely no question. There is no political debate as there is in Britain, about the impositions of Brussels, the Spanish are only to happy to be accepted at last into the European fold. However, the everyday habits of siestas and fiestas, and the enormous number of illogicalities that occur in everyday life are much harder to let go of. So, Spain wishes to be the same, but Spain is still very different. The important thing is to recognise why this is so and appreciate the huge progress that has already been made.

This article is published courtesy of CB Friday in association with