The Spanish monarchy is a literary institution. Its legitimacy was based, first and foremost, on storytelling.
Note: This article is from the Guardian.
King Juan Carlos of Spain must be one of the most Shakespearian kings, ever. His grandfather was ousted from the throne like Richard II, and like Richard III, his brother was killed (though in Carlos’ case it was a tragic accident). Like Hamlet he had a difficult relationship with his father, and like Macbeth, he arrived at the crown by way of an evil creature (General Franco). It sounds inevitable that, like King Lear, in his old age he would be cursed with troublesome daughters. Now, one of them, Princess Cristina, has been summoned by a judge. She has to answer for allegations that, together with her husband the Duke of Palma, they misappropriated millions of euros in public funds. Some say this scandal, the latest in a long series of royal mishaps, threatens the very institution of monarchy in Spain. But is it so?
The rule of King Juan Carlos of Spain is a very interesting example of how the essence of monarchy is not history, but a story – and how tricky that is. The Spanish monarchy is a literary institution. It was born outside and above the law. Its legitimacy was based on symbols, metaphors and, first and foremost, on storytelling: a mostly imaginary tale of continuity and exceptionality. Modernity changed this a bit, but not by much. Like theatre, monarchy had begun like a religious cult and ended in a popular spectacle. That was all. In stable systems like the UK, this transition from statecraft to stagecraft could be done more or less effectively, but in Spain it was pushing the trick too far.
Kings have never been popular in Spain. Of the last eight monarchs, one was overthrown by his own son, two abdicated and another two were ousted by popular uprisings. All rose to the throne in controversial circumstances, except one (who was later ousted). By the time of King Juan Carlos’s coronation, Spaniards had not known a monarch for almost half a century, the king’s legitimacy came directly from a military dictator, and the odd choice of a double name was devised to hide the fact that he was wrestling the crown from his father, also named Juan.
You need Scheherazade in person to fix this narrative. And yet, it was done by far less colourful Spanish politicians, the young Francoist and the fresh Socialists: the king, we were told, “had brought” democracy to Spain. His family was austere, like any other Spanish family. They were said to “break the protocol” so often that you end up wondering why protocol existed in the first place. It was said that republicans loved him too and would vote for him for president.
Like with all story-telling, there’s some truth in this fiction. Yes, the king did assist the transition to democracy, and he stood against the 1981 military coup. Yet the often overlooked fact here is that he had no alternative if he wanted to reign. It was true that he was not ostentatious, but he wasn’t austere either. It is true that he seems a likeable person, but not exemplary. He was a patron of the WWF, but he also loves hunting elephants. He needed not to be perfect, but now he has to, because that was the nature of the narrative his friends concocted.
The excess of fiction is now being replaced by an excess of reality. A dead elephant in Botswana and the court summons of the princess have laid that old narrative to rest. But is it really the end of the monarchy?
I’m not so sure. In our modern world, unpopularity is no longer a game-changer for institutions. All of them are unpopular to some extent, and today’s monarchy has a new, most powerful source of legitimacy, better than divine right: routine. Where it exists, it is the default setting, so to speak. It seems as stable as helium. In the case of Spain, only a profound political crisis (say, one triggered by the independence of Catalonia) could upset the balance. Meanwhile, abdication is indeed a possibility (that’s what Lear did; it didn’t work for him). Yet this would only happen because it could be construed as a fresh start, the basis for a new round of story-telling.
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