Juan Carlos

Juancarlos_395When a dictator dies or retires there is fear of chaos or civil war, combined with hope of a new beginning. When an American president hands over to his successor there is a long transition as policies and personnel are changed and the ocean liner of the federal government gradually shifts direction. But when one of Europe’s constitutional monarchies hands over to another generation, nothing really changes. There is an enormous parade, but government continues as before. Real changes are quite separate and occur when there is a new prime minister.

Last time Spain changed its head of state it was, constitutionally, at the North Korean end of the spectrum. Today it is Britain or Sweden. One man is responsible for this, and he is the one who is handing over to his son. Spain is saying farewell to one of the greatest heroes of its history and it does not matter in the slightest. It is the remarkable and lasting achievement of King Juan Carlos that his decision to abdicate is of no significance at all. 

Juan Carlos was granted dictatorial powers by Hitler’s last ally, General Franco. Almost immediately the King began to dismantle the power structures of the dictatorship from within. When the army tried to strike back it was the King who crushed the coup. While the whole cabinet and much of the Cortes (parliament) was held hostage, the King gathered junior government ministers around him and worked the phones calling the generals. Then he went on live TV. As Head of State he reassured the nation. As Commander in Chief he ordered the plotters to surrender. The coup collapsed. 

For the next three decades he was the most popular Head of State in Europe. In recent years members of the King’s family have been criticized. His son-in-law has been accused of using his royal connections to further his business. Crown Prince Felipe, however, has long been engaged in quiet diplomacy on behalf of Spain and competed as a sailor in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Felipe remains popular, and is likely to bring a similar dignity to the role to that shown by his father. 

There is almost zero chance that Felipe will ever play the heroic role that his father has. Spain is now a mature democracy: a member of NATO and of the EU. Aside from ritualistic posturing over Gibraltar, Spain behaves like any stable and responsible democracy.

But as Juan Carlos hands the crown to Felipe VI it is appropriate that we recall the achievements of this remarkable man. There is no-one alive today who did more to defeat fascism than Juan Carlos. It is hard to think of anyone else in history who had control of a totalitarian state and systematically took it apart in the way that Juan Carlos did. Gorbachev had no intention of destroying the Soviet Union. Yeltsin did, but he was running the Russian Republic at the time. Other dictatorships have collapsed or been crushed on the battle-field. Only one man, ever, was given the full-range of dictatorial powers and then consciously and deliberately gave them away. 

Franco had long abandoned the superstition that fascism was the scientific system of the future, but he thought Spain was not ready for democracy. Juan Carlos proved him wrong.

qlQuentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at brandjacknews.com


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