Queen Elizabeth’s death shines a spotlight on Spain’s restored monarchy

Queen Elizabeth’s death shines a spotlight on Spain’s restored monarchy

The death of Queen Elizabeth II this month, prompting a massive outpouring of grief in the UK and much pomp (10 days of ceremonial events before the state funeral), resonated in Spain and put its monarchy, restored after the end of the Franco dictatorship in 1975, in the limelight.

The monarchies of England (and later the UK) and Spain have been linked since the 12th and 13th centuries when King Alfonso VIII of Castile married Eleanor Plantagenet in 1170 and King Edward I of England married Leonor of Castile in 1254. Both countries were briefly brought closer together again in the 16th century when King Henry VIII married Catalina of Aragon in 1509 (later annulled) and Mary Tudor (‘Bloody Mary’) married Felipe II in 1554. Alfonso XIII, the great-grandfather of Spain’s current monarch, King Felipe VI, married one of Queen Victoria’s granddaughters, Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg (‘Queen Ena’ or Victoria Eugenia), in 1906. Queen Elizabeth was the great-great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, while Felipe is the great-great-great-grandson of that Queen who died in 1901. He affectionately addressed Queen Elizabeth as ‘Aunt Lilibet’.

King Juan Carlos I, a 3rd cousin of Queen Elizabeth who abdicated in 2014 in favour of his son Felipe, and Queen Sofía made a state visit to the UK in 1986, followed by a similar visit to Spain by Elizabeth and Prince Philip in 1988. The abdication and the future of the Spanish monarchy greatly concerned Queen Elizabeth, who believed being a monarch was a job for life, as it proved to be in her case.

She regarded Juan Carlos’s reign as living proof of the highly positive contribution the monarchy could make to a nation’s political development and international standing. When the opportunity arose for King Felipe and Queen Letizia to make a state visit to the UK in 2017, a year after the turmoil generated by the vote on Brexit in June 2016, and the uncertainty that gripped Spain following the inconclusive general election in December 2015, which saw a surge in the vote for the hard-left Podemos –an openly anti-monarchy party–, Queen Elizabeth pressed ahead regardless.

Like the UK, the monarchy in Spain has a long history. It is rooted in the Visigothic Kingdom from the 5th to the 8th centuries and its Christian successor states of Navarre, Asturias (later León and Castile) and Aragón, which fought the Reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula, following the expansion of the Umayyad Caliphate when an army of Berbers from North Africa landed in 711 in what is today Gibraltar.

The first steps towards a united Spain, albeit loosely articulated, came about as the result of the marriage, in 1469, between Queen Isabella I of Castile (1474-1504) and King Ferdinand II of Aragon (1479-1516). Both the UK, which comprises four countries, and Spain (17 autonomous regions) were originally formed from a uniting of kingdoms, made possible by the monarchy acting as an anchor. Spain’s monarchs since Ferdinand and Isabella are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Spanish monarchs since 1516

House of HabsburgHouse of Bourbon (restored)
Carlos V (1516-56)Ferdinand VII (second time; 1814-33)
Felipe II (1556-98)Isabel II (1833-68)
Felipe III (1598-1621)Interregnum (1868-70)
Felipe IV (1621-65)House of Savoy
Carlos II (1665-1700)Amadeo (1870-73)
House of Bourbon1st Republic (1873-74)
Felipe V (first time; 1700-24)House of Bourbon (restored)
Luis I (1724)Alfonso XII (1874-85)
Felipe V (second time; 1724-46)Alfonso XIII (1886-1931)
Ferdinand VI (1746-59)2nd Republic (1931-39)
Carlos III (1759-1788)Franco dictatorship (1939-75)
Carlos IV (1788-1808)House of Bourbon (restored)
Ferdinand VII (first time; 1808)Juan Carlos I (1975-2014)
House of BonaparteFelipe VI (2014-)
José I (1808-13) 
Source: Britannica.

Spaniards were taken aback by the scale and depth of the mourning over Queen Elizabeth’s death, the world’s longest-reigning monarch and non-partisan head of state for 70 years, many of whose events were closely covered by Spain’s TV channels (the BBC gave blanket coverage) and in the printed media. The queue in London to attend the Queen’s lying-in-state stretched back 8km, with people having to wait for up to 12 hours.

The vast majority of Britain’s population has not known another head of state, and with the loss of a constant presence felt orphaned. Writing in the Financial Times, the historian Simon Schama said Queen Elizabeth ‘embodied in her personal longevity the reassuring continuity of British history. The sustaining myth of the monarchy is that while kings and queens are mortal, the institution is not’.

Two of Spain’s 17 regions, Madrid and Andalusia, both controlled by the conservative Popular Party (PP), the most pro-monarchy of Spain’s plethora of political parties, together with the hard-right VOX, declared mourning periods. The Union Jack was projected onto Madrid’s Town Hall.

These moves raised eyebrows and questions in some quarters over whether the tarnished King Juan Carlos (84), in self-imposed exile in Abu Dhabi since August 2020 after prosecutors started to look into his financial affairs and business dealings, will receive the same treatment in London when he dies.

The investigations, including into the nature of the €65 million that Saudi Arabia’s late King Abdullah paid into a Swiss bank account to which Juan Carlos had access, were dropped because of insufficient evidence, the statute of limitations and the monarch’s constitutional immunity while head of state.

Queen Elizabeth’s death comes at a time of considerable uncertainty in the UK, brought on, among other factors, by Brexit, whose negative consequences are being painfully felt and positive ones yet to materialise, if at all; the renewed threat of Scotland breaking away from the UK, which would be a severe blow to the monarchy (the Queen died at her favourite residence of Balmoral in Scotland), and the arrival of Liz Truss, the fourth consecutive Tory Prime Minister, a party at war with itself, in six years with an in-tray from hell of problems to resolve.

Spain, too, is living through uncertain times, and not just economic woes. It has its ‘Scotland’ in the form of Catalonia, which illegally declared independence in 2017. Around 150,000 Catalan separatists rallied in Barcelona on 11 September, Catalonia’s national day, in a bid to maintain the momentum for secession, which is flagging. The Scottish government is pushing for another referendum on independence in 2023 (55.3% against and 44.7% in favour in 2014 in a plebiscite approved by London), while the Catalan government wants the central government to authorise a referendum (currently unconstitutional).

Both Spain and the UK have had Republics –albeit in the latter case only in England between 1649 and 1660 in a period known as the interregnum, following the execution of Charles I and the declaration of the Commonwealth of England– and have republicans today. Spain has had two Republics, a very short-lived one between 1873 and 1874 and another from 1931, when Alfonso XIII went into exile without renouncing the Crown, to 1939, during three years of which the country experienced a devastating civil war, with the victor, General Franco, establishing a dictatorship.

Support for a republic in the UK is around 25%, according to polls, and in Spain difficult to gauge. The Socialist Party (PSOE), founded in 1879, is historically pro-republic but just as Queen Elizabeth managed to bring most of Britain’s Labour Party into the monarchy fold as of the governments of Harold Wilson (1964-70 and 1974-76), so King Juan Carlos I brought most of the Socialists on side during the 13-year government of Felipe González. It is said that he did not see himself as a consolidated monarch until the Socialists were in power.

In 2015, a year after King Juan Carlos abdicated amid unpopularity for, among other things, going on an elephant-shooting trip in Botswana at the height of Spain’s recession, the state-funded CIS stopped gauging confidence in the monarchy in its regular surveys. In the last such CIS surveys, between September 2011 and April 2015, the institution scored less than 5 out of 10. A mere 0.3% of respondents, however, regard the monarchy as one of their main problems in the latest (June 2022) survey: it is ranked around 29th in the list of citizens’ 49 principal problems (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. What are, in your view, the main problems in Spain? (%)

Top ten problems%
1. Economic crisis22.5
2. Unemployment16.6
3. Political problems in general11.3
4. The government and specific parties and politicians8.8
5. The bad performance of politicians6.7
6. Corruption and fraud2.8
7. Problems related to the quality of employment2.7
8. Health2.5
9. What political parties do2.3
10. The lack of agreements, unity and capacity of co-operation. Political situation and instability1.6
Source: CIS, June 2022.

Private surveys since Felipe became king in 2014, such as those by Metroscopia, show increased support for the monarchy, reflecting his successful efforts to improve the institution’s damaged image and level of transparency.

The UK’s National Centre for Social Research (NCSR) has regularly asked over the last 30 years how important or unimportant it is for Britain to have a monarchy. King Charles III has inherited the Crown at a time when support for the institution is at a new low: 55% said it was ‘very’ or ‘quite’ important, according to the latest (2021) NCSR survey, down from 68% in 2018.

Despite the monarchy being a non-problem, the hard-left Unidas Podemos, the junior partner in the minority Socialist-led government, is calling for a republic. It seizes on the fact that Franco re-established the monarchy (he appointed Juan Carlos to succeed him in 1969), damaging in its eyes its legitimacy and preventing a complete break with the dictatorship.

With the hindsight of today, holes can be picked in the transition process, particularly by those who did not live through it and so do not really comprehend the delicate dynamics after Franco died of the move to democracy, which was not a given. Even the Spanish Communist Party (PCE), long at the forefront of opposition to the Franco regime, recognised that a sharp break and not a negotiated one would have provoked the military and triggered conflict, the last thing that the majority of Spaniards wanted. But for King Juan Carlos, as the PCE’s leader Santiago Carrillo said, ‘the shooting would already have begun’. Spain’s 1978 democratic constitution, which includes monarchy as the form of state, was approved by 92% of those who voted on a 67% turnout.

While King Juan Carlos in his 39-year reign presided over a Spain that flourished democratically, economically and internationally, Queen Elizabeth reigned during the dissolution of the British Empire and the decline of the UK’s global influence. Whether Spain’s undeniable success would also have been achieved in the hypothetical case of a republic will never be known.

The failings of King Juan Carlos, which considerably harmed the monarchy, are those of an individual and not of an institution. In a country so sharply politically polarised and with a turbulent history, the current monarchy has served Spain well by standing above the fray and not being identified with any political party that an elected head of state would be. The institution has presided over the country’s longest period of stable democracy.

Monarchies are accused of being anachronistic and undemocratic institutions in this day and age. Yet countries with parliamentary monarchies lead the main democracy rankings, such as the EIU’s, and have high living standards. The latest UN Human Development Index, published this month, ranks Spain above France and Italy (see Figure 3)

Figure 3. UN Human Development Index for selected monarchies

Ranking (1)Human Development Index value 2021 (2) Life expectancy at birth 2021 (years)Mean years of schooling (2021)GNI per capita (2017 PPP US$) 2021
2. Norway0.96183.213.064,660
6. Denmark0.94881.413.060,365
7. Sweden0.94783.012.654,489
13. Belgium0.93781.912.452,293
15. Canada0.93682.713.846,808
17.Luxembourg0.93082.613.0      84,649
18. UK0.92980.712.345,225
27. Spain0.90583.09.638,354
28. France0.90382.510.645,937
30. Italy0.89582.910.742,840
(1) Out of 187 countries.
(2) The maximum value is one.
Source: United Nations Human Development Report, 2021/22.

Replacing Spain’s monarchy with a republic would entail constitutional reform impossible to achieve in the polarised climate and the parliamentary arithmetic. A referendum on the issue would be an unnecessary leap in the dark, as Britons have discovered with Brexit.

A belief that Spain’s fundamental problems, such as stubbornly high unemployment, an inadequate educational system, political parties colonising institutions and a non-functioning body (CGPJ) that governs the judiciary, which has been operating on an interim basis since its mandate expired in 2018 because the two main parties cannot agree on its new members, would be resolved with a change in the form of state is an illusion.

Image: Westminster Abbey and Big Ben at night. Photo: surangaw.