INTERVIEW - Paul Preston

"I'm no royalist but Spain needs its king"

The historian discusses his updated biography of King Juan Carlos

The writer and historian, Paul Preston.
The writer and historian, Paul Preston.

Embedded in the London School of Economics, the Cañada Blanch Centre for Contemporary Spanish Studies is like a little piece of Spain in the heart of London. Surrounded by a million books, it was there that Paul Preston, the Hispanic studies scholar and center director, talked with EL PAÍS to discuss the updated Spanish edition of Juan Carlos. A People's King, his biography of the Spanish monarch.

Even though the first edition of the book, published just 10 years ago, is still fairly fresh, the speed of current events in Spain - where the role of the monarchy and the king are being increasingly questioned of late - has forced the author to add a chapter covering the recent deterioration of Juan Carlos' public image since he was revealed to have gone elephant hunting in Botswana on top of his son-in-law's involvement in a multi-million-euro corruption case.

Not that this has made Preston change his opinion of the king or of the role of monarchy in Spain.

"I have tried to be fair at all times: I never said that he didn't go elephant hunting or that he didn't know any German princesses. That's all out there. But I think that, in the end, the portrait remains favorable. And why is that? Because even though I personally am not a royalist, I believe that because of the tension that exists, the constitutional monarchy has an essential role to play in Spanish democracy," he says.

If there were a republic, with all the tension, who would be president?"

"I may be wrong, but I think that if there were a republic right now, with all the hate and the tension out there... Who would the president be? Either [conservative former PM José María Aznar] or [his Socialist predecessor Felipe González], for instance. Imagine what that would mean. I won't conceal my admiration for Felipe, but given the degree of unrest, what monarchy has to offer is a neutral head of state. And that's an essential thing. And that's why I am more willing to say that if its problems can be solved, then that is a good thing. I know that by saying this I will make a lot of people unhappy, but monarchy is still very important. Perhaps not in the future, but definitely at the present moment."

Preston is not just being pragmatic when he says that. Although he turned down a chance to interview the king in order to preserve his independence as an author, when he researched Juan Carlos' past he began discovering the difficulties that the monarch had been put through.

"In order to come up with a good biography you have to create the illusion that you've met the character. In his case, I could have met him, but I didn't want to so as not to feel inhibited. And as I wrote it I thought to myself 'what a life this lad has led; the things his family did to him!' They used him as a pawn in a chess game to restore the monarchy. And he had a really hard time of it. Later I think he played a really heroic role during the transition to democracy. Finally, from the 1980s on, King Juan Carlos has no longer had those kinds of emergencies; he is no longer democracy's troubleshooter, but he continues to work hard, especially as a Spanish ambassador; you can hardly criticize him for finally seeking some kind of reward of the heart, a sweetheart. I don't think it's right, but I can understand it."

Although he does not say it quite so bluntly, Preston seems to suggest that the king is dying of success: his reign effectively lost value with the consolidation of democracy.

With our queen, if you don't know your horses or dogs, there is no conversation"

"I wanted to write up his life for two purposes. One was to recreate the character, his suffering, the way he was as a child, as a teenager, as an adult. The second purpose was to write the story of someone who played a very important historical role. The thing is, between 1982 and 2002, when I finished the book, I was no longer that interested: he was a bit like the queen here, a ceremonial monarch."

Another one of the paradoxes is that, 20 years ago, the Spanish monarchy was an example of modernity, austerity and popularity. It was the exact opposite of what people thought of the British monarchy. But now, Queen Elizabeth II is more popular than ever. The Hispanist adds some nuances to that comparison.

Preston's pearls

The following are some choice phrases from Paul Preston's updated biography of King Juan Carlos.

  • "The elephants and the German princess had come together to smash the wall of media silence which was already beginning to leak."
  • "Monarchy is increasingly being questioned due to the ever-greater influence of the independentists."
  • "The danger for the monarchy was not so much republican pressure but rather the mistakes made by royal family members."

"In the 1990s I used to write a column for [Spanish conservative daily] Abc and I remember once saying that Juan Carlos' monarchy was like a BMW motorbike while Queen Elizabeth's was like an 18th-century golden carriage. And at the time it seemed that way. I have no idea about the king's financial transactions because I am not an investigative reporter and besides, my specialty is the 1930s. But you need to keep in mind that Queen Elizabeth is a huge landowner. We know about the public money allocations but very little is known about the enormous personal fortunes of the British monarchs. The queen has one of the largest fortunes in the world, and I suppose that makes it easier for her to keep within the budget. Even then, how long did it take them to pay their taxes?"

"And then there is the male/female difference: a man usually has greater, let's say romantic, temptations. If there's been that kind of problem in the British royal family, it came from the Duke of Edinburgh. The kind of temptation that [Duke of Palma] Urdangarin gave in to [bribes for business contracts], we saw with Prince Andrew and his former wife. I find it hard to believe that the [Spanish] king is an accomplice to the things that went on behind his back. But so many years of flattery can get to anyone. There are also personality differences. Queen Elizabeth is a very cold person. If you don't know about horses or dogs, there is no conversation. But the king is so affable and so open that there are greater chances of flattery reaching him."

Catalonia takes up a good part of the conversation. "I am a hispanophile, but there are Spanish regions I find more interesting than others: Catalonia first, although I am also a fan of Andalusia. To talk about independence sounds like madness to me. Financially it favors neither Catalonia nor Spain. As for the rest of it, I understand that it is a nation with its own language and with a very rich, well-defined culture. And I understand that the treatment they get from Madrid bothers them a lot. And I think that the situation is unsustainable. But independence is not the answer."

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