There is nothing like a time of malaise and crisis for harping on the old question of how it is that Spain is an anomaly, an exception and, in short, a failure. You look back in history and find some parting of the ways where, somehow, we wandered off the straight path. This hobby was indulged in by our parents, with the Civil War; by their parents, with the Spanish-American War; and so on backwards to the new era opened by the liberal Constitution of 1812, and immediately closed by the criminal King Ferdinand VII.
What have we done to deserve our moral malaise? Where have we wandered off the straight and narrow this time? In Madrid and in Barcelona, for once in agreement, they seem to have found the answer: the regional government system. The regional premier of Madrid, Esperanza Aguirre, has said it: the regional system has failed.
So has the premier of Catalonia, Artur Mas: the regional governments are a fiction. If, he implies, the system had limited its recognition of historic difference to Catalonia and the Basque Country (the only really non-Castilian nations within the Iberian peninsula), it would be a different matter. But, in the transition to democracy after Franco's death, the formula that prevailed was "coffee for everyone," (equal autonomy for every region). Thus we are now looking at an unsustainable situation of 17 separate, spendthrift regional governments.
So, if we were to liquidate the regional system built in the last few decades, would this really be the remedy for our failure?
Let's start at the beginning: the regional system was not an invention of the Transition. It really dates back to the times of the advisory commission that prepared the Constitution of the Second Republic, and the constituent assembly that approved it in 1931. The problem was the same: how to open a constitutional channel for what was then called the "Catalan question." And the solution was in essence the same. It demanded a relatively decentralized territorial structure for the whole of the Spanish state. This was the solution agreed upon in 1931; and again by the democratic opposition parties in their meetings in Barcelona in 1976; and then enshrined in Title VII of the Constitution in 1978.
In 1978 as in 1931, it was considered that, if the distinctness of the Catalan nation within the Spanish state was to be recognized, this demanded that similar recognition be granted to all the "peripheral provinces with particular historic, cultural and economic characteristics." The term agreed on was "autonomous community." The difference was that, while the 1931 Constitution strictly defined the powers of the regions, the 1978 one left them open-ended and negotiable.
It is pointless to rend our raiment about what ought to have been done in 1978 and wasn't. The question is what we have done since, along the road, with the Constitution we had. Nobody forced the regional governments to set up absurd, costly regional public television systems, invent regional pork-barrel entities of various sorts, reproduce the structures of the state (such as regional "embassies" abroad), hire local political hacks to farm out contracts for pompous receptions of the pope, utilize the regional savings banks to finance monstrous building projects or authorize abusive developments that have degraded our coastline. All this has happened under the regional system, but the fault lies with the political class that has administered it.
Is there a remedy? Perhaps, but not in any dismantling of regional government. It can lie only in a mechanism for strict inspection of what these administrations do with public money. We are indeed going through a severe crisis; but no good can come of blaming the regional system itself for the squandering that has taken place under its umbrella.