It was not bliss: more like muted relief. Nor was “that dawn” of the blood-red kind Wordsworth remembered. Between 1975 and 1978 democracy returned to Spain with a slow, tentative gathering of light and noise – like the plaintive strumming that Lorca associated with morning. There were spatterings of blood from the bombs and gunshots of ETA terrorists, but the revolutionaries who devised the new era were cautious, eirenic politicians, for whom the best colour for dawn was grey, not gory.
Thanks to the dismantling of Western Europe’s last dictatorships, the mid-70s of the last century seem, in retrospect, to have launched the world-wide triumph of democracy and capitalism that deluded some people, for a while, into thinking that “history” had “ended”. Spain’s case appeared exemplary: unblemished by the violence that afflicted Portugal or the divisions and disasters that impeded Greece. In 1978, a new constitution was unveiled. It looked perfect, balancing republican institutions with a hereditary head of state, popular power with the rule of law, majority dominance with minority safeguards, and – what was crucially important in a state that was an “unamalgamating bundle”, periodically riven by regional conflicts – power at the centre with ample, equitable devolution.
I was one of the guilty men who welcomed the new set-up with delirious praise, commending it as a blueprint for ever closer European union. Now the consequences seem dire: a sclerotic government, national and provincial legislatures immobilized by an intractable electoral system, rage at the unfair regional distribution of state costs, obdurate and unreasoning secessionism at the periphery, impotence at the centre. The constitution’s fortieth birthday, which should have been celebratory, is going to be glum. There seems no acceptable way of cutting the birthday cake. What went wrong?