The Two Spains

Left against right, Catholic against humanist, regionalist against centralist, winners and losers...

In 1976 all that seemed to have been forgotten as groups from all branches of social and political thinking met together to work out a better way to run Spain. The Constitutional 'Cortes' came up with a solution to the very broad range of expectations held by the inhabitants of this country. Now, after 30 years of democratic rule and by and large consensus, the 'two Spains' are again alive and kicking and taking another look at how to 'do politics'. What does this mean for Spain? Will it break up? Will there be another war? Or is this just 'mature, healthy, democratic politics'?

Which Dictatorship?

At all levels of politics and social thinking, these or similar 'opposites' were the way to see and explain Spain from the time of the Napoleonic Wars (in Spain the 'War of Independence') until 1975. The 19th century was a period of constant civil war, with numerous factions more to left or right, defending the rights of different people to the throne or to govern. A few years of 'real democracy' came in 1931, with the Republic. Yet, at the time, hardly anyone really believed in democracy. The alternatives seemed to be traditional autocracy or one of a range of alternative dictatorships, the supremacy of one party or another. Finally, as a result of the big 'Civil War' (1936 to '39), a period of relative peace came through the Franco dictatorship. Yet clearly the 'victors' of the war held all the power and opposition was silenced. Even in 1975 there were executions of opponents of the 'regime'. This regime was a sort of unholy alliance of land owners, the Catholic Church, national socialists (fascists) and the army. Against them had been ranged an even less holy alliance of liberals, 'democrats', republicans, socialists, communists and anarchists. And also those who wanted a level of regional autonomy.


With the death of Franco, king Juan Carlos inherited dictatorial powers, but determined to bring modern democracy to Spain. The key was to produce a new Constitution which invovled and integrated all the different factions, lobbies and interest groups. Thus Spain became a democracy in which central government shared with regional authorities, consensus government -at least to start with- and a redirecting of military interests from being a force of occupation into a modern international peace-keeping force.

After the initial consensus period, the Socialist party came to power in 1982 but continued to serve the interests of the majority. Nevertheless, as time went on, even through many who had been involved in the dictatorship became convinced by democratic rule, new concerns began to arise. In part, also the Socialists (PSOE) began to feel the need to introduce more 'progressive' legislation. The conservative Partido Popular (PP) under the leadership of José María Aznar began to harden up the tactics of opposition and at the same time to pull middle of the road support from under the PSOE. The last years of the González government and most of the Aznar years can be seen as a time when democratic politics had finally come of age and people were willing to speak their minds openly about all kinds of topics, yet in the end coming to a reasonable conclusion which was understandable and acceptable to the majority.

Now, since the turn of the millennium, things have got even more tense, as the PSOE came out of a period of crisis and began to regroup around a number of highly contentious 'progressive' values and the PP's true colours as the Catholic Church at the hustings became increasingly clear. Consensus politics are a thing of the past. Since coming to power in the wake of the 3/11 bombings (2004), PSOE values have rushed through a number of highly provocative laws, removing any semblance of Christian influence from the law books. (I.e. 'marriage' becomes a 3 month automatically prolongable contract and homosexual 'marriage' is permitted.) Elected on a pledge to listen to others' opinions, they have simply imposed their own ideas. The PP, meanwhile, has not convinced voters that it has any less 'interested' policies and looks ever more like the true inheritors of the Franco regime values. The socialists returned at the 2008 election, although their hold on power is highly dependent on regional support.

Regions or 'Nations' within Spain

Add the region factor. Three regions stick out as having their own language, four if one includes Navarre. Each of these regions, as well as several of the others, feels it has a right to some greater level of autonomy from the central government. If you throw in the additional little problem of Gibraltar and the African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, we have signs of a significant issue in national politics: should the views of the Castilian majority prevail over those of the periphery? Should Spain be allowed to become, on the other hand, a collection of smaller nation-states within the EU?

The Basque Country's terrorism problem continues, albeit at a lower level of activity since the advent of islamic terrorism. but in many ways, the most significant problem is Catalonia. Yet to understand these problems one needs, yet again, to look back to history. The key date in Spanish history is 1492. King Ferdinand of Aragon (the East, including Catalonia) had recently married Isabella of Castile. Not long before, Castile had absorbed the majority of the kingdom of Navarre and in this year the reconquest of the peninsula from Moorish rule was completed. And, of course in the same year Columbus sailed the ocean blue! Aragon remained a separate state, despite the unified crown (which of course for a time also included Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, much of Italy, even England for a very brief reign!) Finally, under Borbon rule Spain became one state, the Catalan government being disolved and direct rule imposed from Madrid - (Catalonia had supported the wrong pretender in the War of the Spanish Succession). Nevertheless, Catalonia remained excluded from Spain's most significant entreprise until late in the 19th century. Basque and Galician seamen were to be found on most ships sailing to the Americas. None, however, were Catalan. Catalonia's identity, therefore, remained quite different to that of Castile. The linguistic element meant that, whereas other parts of the kingdom of Aragon gradually began to identify with the new concept of Spain as one state, one nation, the Catalan people continued to feel left out, different and proud of quite distinct achievements. It has to be said that, when Catalonia was finally allowed a bite of the colonial cake, they messed it up so badly that the last colonies were lost in a war with the USA!

Suffice to say, Catalonia feels proud of a strong medieval heritage, having had an empire in the Mediterranean, having been the first nation to use the vernacular in written form and to continue with that language today. Likewise, they feel proud that they do not earn their living primarily as state employees, but from indivudual entreprise. They are a 'nation of shopkeepers', industrialists and bankers. The Castilians, even since the time of Phillip II -probably even since the time of the military reconquest of Spain- have dreamt of being state employees. Net result: Castilians and Catalans can't understand each other! In the rewritten Catalan Estatut, it's regional constitution, which came into effect after a year of haggling in August, 2006, Catalonia defines itself as a 'nation'. This concept is unacceptable to the Castilians. They regard Spain as the 'nation'. British people (especially the Scots) will have no problem with the Catalan interpretation of nationhood. The problem is that while the Catalan peope are a hard working and thrifty people, they have not quite the reputation of the Scots, who - they also managed to spread themselves widely over the English speaking world, including London (first having been James 1st/6th!)- have shown that even in their desire to have home rule, they were reluctant to take on the costs of even more MPs, civil servants and so on!

2 Spains?

In resumé, Spain is one state, but a combination of several medieval lands. Even in relatively recent times, the regions were unable to determine their fate and they have resented this. In Castile power has traditionally been in the hands of a very few, who have struggled to keep it. The (RC) Church has always allied itself with the conservative elements in society and dominates the PP even today, while those disaffected with the Church or with more left wing beliefs have tended to gather around the PSOE, or left wing regional parties.

During the dictatorship there used to be a saying that every Spaniard was a king, referring to their individualism. Yet in reality, Spain is a land in which, perhaps more than any other in Europe, individualism is scorned. Everyone wants a level of uniformity - thus fashion is big business (cf. Zara). But there are elements which want to break what they regard as impostion. Yet even here, those who disagree with tradition can't agree on the new model. Should it continue to be dominated by the Castilian world view? Can other regional concepts be allowed to influence what Spain is? In short, there is the old Spain, represented by Church and PP. And there are its opponents, who are still as much in disarray as ever, even though political sense allowed them to join forces to let the PSOE win the elections in 2004. The present degree of friction between political opponents appears so strong that one could almost imagine them going back to war again. Even the army chief of staff has weighed in on the issue of the Catalan declaration of nationhood, while the PP ran a 500,000€ pubilcity campaign against the Estatut, knowing that it could not win in the Congress, but might be able to win the hearts of more Castilians through advertising.

The evangelicals.

Traditionally the Spanish evangelicals have tended towards the left in politics. The right wing represented the Roman Catholic church as well as very conservative elements, while the left stood for the underdog. In addition, the evangelicals, perhaps in part due to a rebellious regionalism, gained their first real foothold in Barcelona, not Madrid. Yet traditionally the left wing in Spain has been as anti-God as anywhere else in the world. Now, with the new PSOE government and its 'progressive legislation' programme, for the first time evangelicals have, if only for momentary causes, found it needy to ally themselves with the Catholic church. But identification with the variety of causes that the PP represents is far more difficult. The saga will continue!