The only way Spanish conservatism can be successful again lies in forgetting our deeply-entrenched inferiority and guilt complexes, and in drawing a firm line between religious beliefs and secular conservative ideals…
The U.S. historian, Stanley Payne, is well-known for his skepticism towards the official leftist reading of Spanish recent history. Not so long ago, he bluntly declared that Spanish right-wing political parties were all but extinct. This bold statement must be qualified by what he saw as the three distinctive cornerstones of the Spanish contemporary right: patriotism, authoritarianism, and religion.
Spanish patriotism was actually born as a progressive concept, since loyalty towards Spain as a nation, as opposed to loyalty to the Spanish monarch, was regarded by nineteenth-century liberals as a powerful weapon against the absolutism and perceived backwardness of the late Bourbons, a dynasty which had done away with the greatly decentralized, traditionalist, and chaotic plurinational monarchy of the previous Habsburgs. Although later on, patriotism has indeed come to be largely identified as a key aspect of the Spanish right wing, peripheral nationalism in Spain has also mirrored the violent, left-wing, anti-colonialist movements of the sixties and, nowadays, no one can be said to be more “patriotic” than the mostly left-wing Basque and Catalan secessionists, who romantically see themselves as rightful heirs of those movements.
Authoritarianism, in fact, has regretfully been a distinctive feature of Spanish contemporary right-wingers, not in the sense of today’s almighty and omnipresent governments in the European Union, but as an almost supernatural awe towards the leader— be it a civil, family, military, or religious official, probably as an overreaction to the noticeable bloodbath and blasphemous attitudes of the French revolutionary “freedom fighters.” Nevertheless, even if some Spanish Catholic authoritarian figures, like Donoso Cortés in the nineteenth century, were an important source of inspiration for later European authoritarians themselves, such as Carl Schmitt, Spain has also been blessed with influential Catholic liberals throughout her entire history, starting with Juan de Mariana, in the sixteenth century.
Religion, indeed, was also a fundamental part of our identity, until very recently, much in the same way as it was part of Ireland’s. I remember meeting foreign Catholics who seemed to admire Spain inasmuch as it kind of represented for them a bulwark of Catholicism, showing a degree of willingness to downplay the obvious errors and atrocities of either the Inquisition or Franco’s post-war repression. Still, Spanish Catholicism just cannot be taken as the purest form of loyalty to the Roman Church. On the one hand, this apparently tight alliance between Spain and Catholicism is simply part of the centuries-old propaganda machine, which came to be known as the Black Legend, with Spanish rulers actually being at odds with the Papacy on numerous occasions and on important political and doctrinal issues. On the other hand, as the British ecclesiastical historian, Father Philip Hughes, openly pointed out, the Church in Spain was actually sequestered by the Spanish monarchy for centuries, seeing in it a most powerful instrument to legitimize itself and to impose, from top to bottom, any social program it saw fit.
Still, this is nothing new for those who know the history of the Church in countries like France or the Austrian Empire. Once the Holy See had granted the Spanish kings the privilege of the “patronato regio,” in the early sixteenth century, their power over the Church in the Spanish empire was not unlike the power that Henry VIII sought for himself in England, after she broke ties with the Pope over a barren wife. In fact, it was not until the death of General Franco in 1975 that the Spanish Church was completely free again, after the new Spanish democratic government relinquished the privilege it had always had to meddle in the appointment of bishops.
Bearing in mind these three characteristics identified by Stanley Payne, a historian who cannot be suspected of despising the Spanish conservative tradition, I can probably agree with him that such tradition is simply dead and buried, insofar as the Spanish political party spectrum is concerned. For much of the nineteenth century, most Spanish conservatives only saw themselves as either Catholics, or monarchists, or both. It was only in 1931, after Alfonso XIII was ousted by an angry mob in Madrid, that Spanish conservatives had to start thinking of new ways of formulating and spreading their ideals, other than just passionately advocating for tradition and monarchy. In fact, many good republicans were also good Catholics of almost all political tendencies.
The Holy See fostered loyalty to the new Republic and encouraged the creation of Catholic political associations and unions, much as it had done in the case of the French Third Republic. These new Spanish conservatives worked hard and were actually quite successful. Engaging in far-fetched alliances, they obtained the majority of the votes in the elections of 1933 and 1936, although in neither occasion were they allowed to form a government. In 1933, the President—a Catholic Republican himself—prevented them from doing so, which did not stop the Left from organising a full-fledged bloody revolution in 1934, which led to a massacre in the mining region of Asturias. In 1936 the right won again, as recent historical studies have demonstrated, but the elections were blatantly rigged, amidst an atmosphere of outrageous political violence from all sides, which was just the prelude of the military uprising and the cruel Civil War.
If the Spanish Second Republic had been uncompromisingly anti-clerical, the Civil War, falsely idealized by Hemingway as the struggle between Fascism and Democracy, was nothing but a witch hunt for Christian civilians, who were tortured and died in the thousands, not in the battlefields, but in the areas occupied by leftist militias. Franco won with the support of Hitler and Mussolini, and it is honest to say that his first decade in power presented many of the characteristic elements of other fascist regimes in Europe, although racism was never a part of the so-called “National-Catholicism.” Nevertheless, Franco was a pragmatic survivor who gave all right-wing political groups a seat at the table, and in this way, some true conservatives, equipped with sound economic projects—not unlike Pinochet’s “Chicago boys”—achieved what was rightfully called the Spanish miracle during the fifties and sixties.
Nevertheless, the crazy, oversexualized sixties affected Spain as much as any other Western country. In the case of Spain, the lack of political freedoms enraged many young students who had been born after the War. The Spanish conservative society, as well as its conservative Church, which no longer supported Franco, came to be identified by many with our undemocratic regime which, in the mid-seventies, had recourse, once again, to a certain degree of violent repression. This identification among Franco’s Spain, the Church, and conservative ideas has definitely burdened a fresh, democratic renewal of Spanish conservatism. The fact that some of those politicians who were instrumental for the Spanish miracle later became the leaders of some of the new Spanish conservative parties like “Alianza Popular” (today’s Conservative Party or “Partido Popular”) was the perfect excuse for the Left to keep identifying conservatism and “traditional values” with Francoist repression.
The popularity of José María Aznar, new leader of the Conservative Party, who won in 1996 and again in 2000, seemed like good news for Spanish conservatives but alas!, it was hardly so. As much as Mr. Aznar openly said that he was Catholic and pro-life, none of his policies was conservative in the least, he did not move a finger to counter the cultural empire built by the Left, and he surrounded himself with some of today’s leaders of the Spanish Conservative Party, namely his heir and present-day president, Mariano Rajoy, a self-confessed abortion supporter and atheist, whose only real policy is to stay in power, come what may, and run as little a budgetary deficit as possible. After the socialists awkwardly mismanaged the 2008 world economic crisis, made worse in Spain because of our own real-state bubble, Mr. Rajoy won in 2012 and again in 2016, and there are now virtually no conservatives, no pro-life politicians, no supporters of more traditional values left in the Spanish parliament, whereas, not so long ago, you could find some in any of the represented parties, Left and Right. All this is coupled with the upsurge of a more radicalized, post-crisis “New Left,” which is far from the pragmatism of the Spanish communists and socialists of the seventies and eighties. This New Left has again heavily capitalized on the never-forgotten crimes of Francoism and on hatred for the Church and is fuelled by the economic crisis and gender ideology.
Some may say that the Spanish Conservative Party still waves old-fashioned patriotism as a distinctive conservative feature but that is hardly so, because it was the traditional Spanish parties (socialists and conservatives alike) which gave secessionists—never too strong in the history of Spain—an absolute control over culture and education in their respective regions, which has alienated a great part of the Basque and Catalan youth, after decades of historical indoctrination. Meanwhile, the new Spanish king officially sends his best regards to the LGTB community, wishing that their annual gay pride parade in downtown Madrid is as successful as ever.
At this point, whatever was left of Spanish conservatism has also been partly colonized by the strange phenomenon of the “neo-cons”: former extreme left-wingers who now hate the Left and advocate for rampant capitalism at home and risky military adventures abroad. “True” Spanish conservatives do not even know who they are or where to look for guidance. Anglo-Saxon, Burkean conservatism seems to me to be a good option, although one quite foreign to our own history. We desperately need to avoid remaining in the past, indulging in useless nostalgia or turning into just another type of libertarian or Ayn Rand-like proponents of small government and absolute individual freedoms.
In my view, the only way Spanish conservatism can be successful again lies in forgetting our deeply-entrenched inferiority and guilt complexes, and in drawing a firm line between religious beliefs and secular conservative ideals. I guess we must also keep in mind the lyrics of “Singin’ in the rain”: “Make ’em laugh!, make ’em laugh!, don’t you know everyone wants to laugh?” The Left has not only colonized universities, it has occupied the very concept of art and entertainment, and we have given them a free ride, with our mistaken sense of seriousness and decency, wishing for our children the respectable, bourgeois life of a lawyer or a doctor, never the hard, uncertain but influential life of a poet, an actor, or a movie maker. It is very weird, for a severe Spanish conservative, that one of the most discussed figures of today’s conservatism is a young man who alternately dresses up like a gentleman and like a pimp and calls himself a “dangerous faggot.” Still, people (i.e. journalists) listen to him.
Make ’em laugh, make ’em laugh!
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