Skip to main content

Alexandra Wilhelmsen
University of Dallas

"Order and Liberty in the Hispanic World:

Reflections on Spain's Experiment in Home Rule"

The Philadelphia Society

San Antonio, USA

October 4, 1997

(Permission to quote this speech must be granted by the Author)

Most of our speakers here in San Antonio this week-end are addressing the topic of freedom in the Americas by focusing on relations between North and South America or on Latin America itself. I am a historian of Spain. I think I was invited to say a few words today so the font of Hispanidad, the madre patria of many American countries, would be included in the dialogue. Thus, I would like to address the general theme of order and liberty in the Hispanic world by drawing attention to Spain's current experiment in home rule.

In many areas of our Western World the crisis of the modern state has led to conflicts in recent decades between the central government and the regions. Thus, Spain's current experiment in home rule is of great interest in a number of countries. Spain's experiment addresses the nation's age-old polarity between the central government and regional aspirations in a unique way and on a grand scale. During Juan Carlos I's reign Hispano-America's madre patria has made a tremendous effort to create a balance between national order, uniformity, and centralization on the one hand, and regional liberty and diversity on the other. The Spanish government has allowed the various areas in the country to coalesce as they see fit and to determine, to some extent, the structure of their own internal governments. This grand experiment comes after a very long history of tensions and conflicts.

The quest for centralization of government, juridical uniformity, fiscal equalization, national--rather than regional--policies and programs formed an almost unbroken trend in Spain that started in the sixteenth century shortly after Ferdinand and Isabel united all the Hispanic kingdoms in a loose federation in the late fifteenth century. These kingdoms were Castile, Aragon and Navarre.

Castile was, by far, the largest, and it had the least developed internal government. Castile included, however, the three small Basque Provinces or Euskalerría. The Basques had a very well developed and rather democratic system of provincial and local government. When the Basques negotiated the union of Euskalerría and Castile in previous centuries, they made sure their self-government would be respected by the Castilian government. The Crown of Aragon consisted of four distinct units with their respective political institutions and laws: Aragon proper, Catalonia, Valencia, and the Balearic Islands. These states all had the institutional mechanisms that allowed them to limit the power of the central government. The tiny Kingdom of Navarre had a long history of looking out for itself in spite its small size.Centralization of Castile in the Renaissance was quite easy. Atempts to centralize the rest of the country, as well as to Castilianize it, proceeded slowly for almost five hundred years under absolute monarchs of the Habsburg dynasty, enlightened despots of the House of Bourbon, and constitutional sovereigns of the same family. The Spanish peoples resisted this process. In any given generation, a large number of Spaniards rejected the quest for order at the expense of political liberty and the cultural amalgamation that went with it. They defended their regional laws, parliaments and other intermediate institutions, law courts, fiscal arrangements, and customs. This is to say, they defended their "fueros". Language has also been a serious bone of contention. For almost three centuries Madrid tried to impose Spanish, "castellano," on peoples who prefer to speak Catalan, Galician, or Basque.

Resistance to centralization, the defense of the fueros, took different forms over this long period. Spain has a great body of intellectual work done by jurists, political philosophers, and historians in defense of what we in the U.S. would call "states rights." Politicians lobbied and negotiated with Madrid periodically. Popular protests, civil disobedience, draft dodging, harassment, and terrorism were common. Uprisings, civil wars, and successionist movements involved large percentages of the population in the areas in question, took many lives, and seriously affected the economy.

There has actually been an alternate head of state governing part of Spain in defiance of Madrid on four different occasions. The first two were in Catalonia, and occurred in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. They ended with the Crown of Aragon's complete loss of all political autonomy in 1716. After losing their fueros the people of northeastern Spain, and especially the Catalans, challenged Madrid time and again in the hopes of getting them reinstated. They developed a strong tendency to support any political movement that would promise to restore the old fueros or to work with them to create some new system of home rule. In the nineteenth century Catalonia fought against the central government in no less than six wars.

The Basque Provinces and Navarre retained their fueros much longer than the old Crown of Aragon. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when liberal, centralizing, governments in Madrid chipped away at their liberties, the Basques and Navarrese supported five Spanish Bourbon princes in a row who challenged the rights of their relatives in Madrid to the throne of Spain and who also offered a different political program. So did many Catalans and many Aragonese. The first prince in question promised to uphold the fueros where they existed. The second one promised to reinstate those of the Crown of Aragon. The last three Claimants also wanted to sponsor development of autonomous institutions in parts of the old Kingdom of Castile that could barely remember their history of self-government. Two of these Carlist Claimants or Pretenders to the throne of Spain actually governed part of the country for a total of ten years, in the 1830's and 1870's. The state run by these princes covered approximately one fifth of Spain. In defiance of Madrid, on both occasions, the Carlist establishment was run according to each province's fueros as much as possible given the unsettled circumstances. The end result was that both Claimants had to leave the country, Madrid abolished the fueros of the Basque Provinces, and did away with the Cortes or parliament of Navarre.

Not long after the Carlists were defeated in 1876 resentment at the loss of political autonomy led to the creation of a successionist movement in the Basque Provinces. Catalonia followed shortly thereafter. In the twentieth century separatists split between conservatives and Marxists. Thus, for example, the Basque terrorist group known worldwide since the 1960's by its initials, "ETA," is Marxist. Many Basque nationalists do not support it.

In spite of the efforts the Spanish regions of the north and northeast made to defend their political freedom and traditional way of life, the only reversals in the Spanish state's long trend toward complete centralization and massification were two short-lived republics. The First Spanish Republic in 1873 and 1874 was meant to be a federal system. However, enthusiasm for decentralization, immediately got out of hand. When six or eight provinces declared for independence federal goals were displaced by the immediate need to keep Spain from disintegrating.

Six decades later, the Second Spanish Republic lasted five years, from 1931 to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. This period saw the government overtaken by socialists, Communists and anarchists. Law and order broke down. During the Second Spanish Republic both Catalonia and the Basque provinces managed to get the central government to sanction statutes of home rule and to reinstate some form of autonomous government. Left-wing regional parties achieved this success. The Galicians also voted for home rule. The election in Galicia took place just eleven days before the outbreak of the War, so there was no time to implement the decisions. Galicia's case, however, is worth noting. Galicia does not have a tradition of strong local government or a collective memory of such a system in the past. It does, however, have a separate language. More people in Galicia are reputed to be bilingual than in either Catalonia or the Basque-Navarrese Country.

General Francisco Franco identified regional government with the far left and with the anarchy of the Second Spanish Republic. Hence, when he rose to power, he put an end to the autonomous governments. The only exception was Navarre, where a pale reflection of the fueros was retained because the region was instrumental in the national uprising against the Republic in 1936. Thus, through thick and thin over the centuries, the former little Kingdom of Navarre was the only area of Spain to retain an uninterrupted tradition of political and fiscal autonomy.

Franco also resumed the old repression of cultural particularism. His policies were the same as those of monarchs of an earlier time, but he had more advanced technology to implement them thoroughly. Newspapers published in any language other than Castilian were outlawed, academic instruction in any other tongue was illegal, no vernacular language could be heard on the premises of any government building anywhere in the land--even in private conversations.

When Prince Juan Carlos was installed as King in November of 1975, after General Franco's thirty-five year dictatorship, regionalism and demands for self-government had been gaining momentum throughout Europe for ten or fifteen years. The devolution of home rule in Catalonia and the Basque Provinces or Euskalerría was taken for granted. The case of Galicia was not as clear, but was debatable. The first prime minister chosen by the new ruler, Adolfo Suárez, was quick to take steps toward creating "preautonomous" governments in Catalonia and Euskalerría.

The unexpected, however, was that in the mid and late seventies all of Spain was swept with a wave of "autonomy fever," "fiebre autonómica." As Don Juan Carlos and his new team began to dismantle General Franco's regime and to restore democracy, political diversification and cultural particularism were in the air. Almost overnight democracy and decentralization became equated in the minds of people all over the country, not just in the politicized northern areas that have their own languages. Thus, the new Constitution, promulgated in 1978, reflected the mood of the times. It established the principle of home rule, outlined which powers would be retained by the central government, which would be handed over to the new regional establishments, and which could be negotiated on a case to case basis. Education, interestingly, was one of the latter.

Today Spain is made up of seventeen self-governing regions known as "autonomous communities" or "autonomies." There is a great variety in the scope of powers of self-government in these regions, although each one has its own statute, president, government, legislature, and supreme court.

Starting in March of 1979 Madrid systematically transferred numerous public functions to the regions. The movement is now more or less finished, and was far from smooth. During the process fears that the country was disintegrating led to many reactions. The most famous, of course, was the attempted military coup in February of 1981.

Now that the autonomous governments have been functioning for a few years, there are, naturally, many questions and concerns:
1. There are grey areas in the Constitution that still need to be clarified. Spain has entered a phase of debating about them.
2. There are overlapping jurisdictions that need to be worked out and, especially, a duplication of bureaucracies that must be eliminated. As of now, the central government has kept more employees than initially agreed, while the regions have hired many more than stipulated.
3. By law, the national state cannot control the budgets of the autonomous governments. So far, the latter have been on a spending spree. Hopefully, this profligacy will prove itself to have merely been the euphoria and inexperience of the first moment. Nonetheless, Madrid is concerned because membership in the European Economic Community depends, to a great extent, on economic performance.
4. The areas that now have the most self-government, Euskalerría, Navarre, and Catalonia, are also the richest in the country. Since 1985 serious attempts have been made to aid the poorer areas. In effect, the wealthy regions are helping the less fortunate ones. Will the relationship last as long as needed?
5. The new system of self-government has not ended the successionist movements in the Basque Country, Navarre, and Catalonia. This is the most serious concern. Separatists more or less run the autononmous governments in these areas. Furthermore, vaguely right of center elected separatists are openly pressured by left-wing successionists, by the Marxist separatist parties that support terrorism, namely Herri Batasuna and Esquerra Republicana de Cataunya.
6. In the Constitution the armed forces are given the natural role of defending the country, but also that of guaranteeing the internal "constitutional arrangements" themselves. Hence, the specter of military force is a corollary of worry over separatism.

Thus, to summarize, Spaniards are very proud of the tremendous transformation of their country. Europe is impressed. One of the most centralized countries on the Continent has become one of the least centralized in just a few years without a major national trauma. Spaniards feel sure that most of the remaining transitional problems can be worked out easily. However, there are two major concerns. First, if haggling over grey areas in the Constitution leads to constant demands for more power by the autonomous communities, amendments would be needed or, more likely, a new constitution. Such a scenario would be scary for Spain. Second, the inability of Spain's grand experiment in home rule to dissolve the separatist movements that have plagued her for a century has troublesome implications for other countries. Europe is watching carefully.

To end, I would like to add a personal observation that may be of particular interest to members of the Philadelphia Society. Spain's system of home rule is not intended to limit government, to reduce the public sphere. Indeed, Spain now has more legislation, government, taxation, bureaucracy, and politicians than it had in the days of centralization. The "state of the autonomies" is a far cry from the system of regional fueros and limited national government defended or proposed over the centuries by Spanish traditionalists and conservatives of different kinds who challenged the centralization imposed by the capital.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


© The Philadelphia Society 2018 | Webmaster Contact

The material on this website is for general education and information only. The views presented here are the responsibility of their authors and do not reflect endorsement or opposition by The Philadelphia Society. Please read our general disclaimer.