Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

The problem with reign in Spain is that it could actually fall

Glamorous image: Queen Letizia
Glamorous image: Queen Letizia

There'll be a new King of Spain by tomorrow, Felipe VI. But the question they're asking is – will he last? Spain has a tradition of republicanism – though it also has a tradition of extremism. It was the only country in Europe where the Anarchist party had a strong hold – their battle-cry, under a black flag, being the sombre and oxymoronic: 'Long Live Death!'

But it's said that most younger Spaniards are now favouring a return to a republican constitution. If a plebiscite proves that is the popular choice, it's goodbye King Felipe, Queen Letizia and the little princesses.

Socialists and egalitarians will welcome the change. But I'm not sure if little girls will be pleased. My younger grand-daughter, four-year-old Eleanor – known by her pet name of 'Elfie' – was asked the other day what she wanted to be when she grew up. Shyly, she lisped: "A Pwincess."

There is no republican movement powerful enough, anywhere in the world, that will ever successfully prohibit little girls from aspiring to be princesses. Sorry. That's encoded in the genes. And that's exactly how the Victorian constitutionalist, Walter Bagehot, justified the otherwise difficult-to-justify theory of monarchy. "A child of five can understand the idea of a king or a queen." An up-to-date interpretation of this description of monarchy's simplicity would be 'branding'. Here's a test: please name (without consulting Google) the president of Germany, Finland or Italy – three very important countries in the European Union.

Stop 100 people in the street, and scarcely one in 100 (unless they are German, Finnish or Italian) would be able to name the head of state of these countries. But they'd 'brand-recognise' Elizabeth II of Britain, or the abdicating Juan Carlos of Spain.

They would know the presidents of France, America and Russia too – where the head of state is also the all-powerful political leader. In France, he is virtually an elected monarch.

If Spain abolishes her monarchy, she will abolish this 'recognition factor' that kings and queens can bring to the office of constitutional head of state.

Look: the glossy magazines have been awash with pictures of tall King Felipe and glamorous Queen Letizia, who has the neatest derriere ever seen in a designer frock. The glossy magazines have a vested interest in this issue. Glam pictures of Letizia – and how she compares with Kate in Britain – certainly shift copies of Hello! and Paris-Match. We in the media must be forever grateful to the sainted Princess Diana for flogging so many newspapers and magazines for us. But that's the point: people are more interested, in general, in a beautiful young woman and her family life than in Herman Van Rompuy, however diligent he is as president of the European Council. Doubtless, the Spanish republicans would consider this a frivolous perspective. The head of state should be about democratic legitimacy, not an accident of birth (or marriage – Letizia's background is fairly modest, and she rose through the humble route of journalism college).

In calling for democratic legitimacy, the Spanish republicans do have a valid argument for an elected head of state. I think we can confidently say the system works well in the Republic of Ireland. However, a lot depends on whether a society is itself stable and democratic. Syria has an elected head of state with Bashar Al-Assad, but he is hardly an adornment to the system. Monarchists love to stress Hitler was elected, too. Just as carnivores love to say that he was a vegetarian.

I agree that it's up to the Spanish people to decide whether they want El Rey or not. They should indeed have a referendum. In the meantime, much will depend on how King Felipe (and Queen Letizia) conduct themselves. For, while a constitutional monarch has no actual power, his or her popularity will wax and wane according to their behaviour.

Juan Carlos (76) was a silly-billy to go off elephant-hunting with his young German companion, Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, during a major economic recession.

But old men can grow foolish and fall under the spell of younger companions, instead of taking the advice of their sensible wives. In the UK, Elizabeth's popularity is palpably linked to her probity. Any successor who fails to keep to that standard will find the institution loses support. When Albert of the Belgians found himself in a spot of controversy in 2012, the monarchy was criticised; so his son Philippe, with his popular consort Mathilde, succeeded him. It will be interesting to see if the reign in Spain endures. It may not. Surprisingly, Protestant cultures seem to suit kings and queens better than Catholic ones. The well-supported monarchies of northern Europe – the Swedes, Danes and Norwegians, plus the House of Orange in the Netherlands – are Lutheran. The British monarchy is historically, by definition, Protestant.

Yet these Protestant monarchies thrive within highly democratic – and in Scandinavia – strongly egalitarian traditions. It's a paradox that the Spanish might ponder on, if and when they contemplate changing their constitution.

Maybe it is stability and continuity which help people relate to monarchy.

The trouble with Spain is that its history is volatile. And whatever system they choose may be subject to this Iberian volatility.

The former Irish Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald once remarked, when presented with a possible solution to a political problem: "That's all very well in practice – but how does it work in theory?" An interesting description of constitutional monarchy: doesn't make rational sense in theory, but sometimes, in practice, it brings a nation together. Tell Spain.

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