Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Adiós, Adolfo Suárez: the story of a man who had the courage to change

You may have heard the news that Adolfo Suárez, first post-Franco prime minister of Spain, died on Sunday. You may not have even noticed; it wasn't big news in the outside world.

But for those, like my wife and her family, who have not had the privilege of living all their lives in a fluffy democracy, it bears thinking about the difference between our politicians of today and those statesman who have lived through more troubled times, like the British governments of the 40s and early 50s. Next to them, we are all pygmies; it is sometimes difficult to make the case that anyone nowadays does anything of real political importance.

Suárez, a man formerly from the Generalísimo's own regime but who learned to be a democrat, was hand-picked by Juan Carlos I to manage the transition to democracy in 1976, as someone both left and right could do business with. He managed that extraordinary feat in just two-and-a-half years, and without a drop of Spanish blood being spilt. More than that, and unlike some of the later transitions of eastern Europe, it was hugely successful, did not lead to a later reversion to authoritarianism and surely irreversible.

All political careers end in failure, as Enoch Powell said, and Suárez was no exception; in fact, his fall from grace was a particularly harsh one in which he almost ended vilified by all.

But the reason why he was not, in the end - and, for me, the image of him which is forever engraved upon my mind - is that pictured above.

On the 23rd of February, 1981, Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero walked into the Cortes with some companions and fired his revolver several times into the air, effective taking the whole Spanish parliament hostage. For a tense twenty-four hours, it was touch and go whether Spain would return to a dictatorship or maintain its then still-fragile democracy.

Tejero shouted that everyone should get down on the floor. All the parliamentarians obliged, except three. Manuel Gutiérrez, the defence minister of nearly seventy who, unarmed, jumped to his feet and confronted the men with guns. Santiago Carrillo, leader of the Communist party, chose to insouciantly smoke a cigarette.


But the most important reaction was from country's prime ministerwho many thought had long been expecting this day. Suárez, who had already resigned as prime minister and was now acting only as caretaker while a replacement could be found, sat calmly but resolutely in his chair.

His action said, simply, you are not going to undo my life's work. I represent the people of Spain now, if only for a short time longer. Your time is gone, we are in control and we are here to stay. And you can fire your silly pistols all you like, but we are not budging. 

Neither did they, and a few short hours later the attempted coup was over. Spain never went back.

That unforgettable moment is something for us on the left to remember, perhaps, as some of us blindly continue to apologise for anti-democrats such as Chávez, Castro or Putin, that a former fascist would risk his life to protect democracy. It doesn't quite fit our worldview of the evil right. But democracy first, everything else afterwards is a maxim which we should really take the trouble to learn.

Adolfo Suárez, you had the courage to change yourself. As a result, you were able to change your country completely and irrevocably for the better; not many politicians can say that.

Descansa en paz (rest in peace).

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