If a newspaper editor somewhere in Spain wanted to be a bit cheeky this morning, he could get away with headlining “King warns against return to Civil War in Christmas message”. It wasn’t the main thrust of last night’s speech, of course, and he didn’t mention it directly, but it was in there. His Majesty was talking about the idea of coexistence, a theme of this year’s yuletide rhetoric, along with respect and rights, “which is [are] incompatible with bitterness and resentment because those attitudes form part of our worst history and we must not allow them to rekindle”. Everybody in Spain knows the “coexistence” problem means Catalonia but the King didn’t mention that region directly either in the 1200-word recital, delivered in a tone that might be described in that same cheeky article as “standard royal boredom”. His Majesty was dutifully going through the festive motions for the nation, but there were some interesting ideas deeper down.
He linked the idea of coexistence to the law by describing it as something that “demands respect” for the Constitution, not as “an inert reality but a living reality” that “defends, protects and tutors our rights and liberties”. This was slippery and contradictory, however, because Catalan separatists don’t want to be Spanish at all anymore and, were it not for that demanding fundamental law, would already be off in their Wonderland republic. His Majesty said “the Spain of today” was based on “solid foundations”, with “a decided will to harmony”, but then in the very next paragraph stated that the same coexistence was “always fragile”, exhorting his fellow citizens to “defend it, care for it, protect it”, in case it was to “be deteriorated or eroded”. If those foundations are so “solid”, how can they at the same time be “always fragile”? If the national edifice needs defending and protecting, the underlying royal message is surely that it is currently under attack and threatened. If there is erosion risk, you need to get the builders in to fix it, quickly, before it crumbles and collapses.
National coexistence, though, was described as “the most valuable result of our democracy and the best inheritance we can leave to the youngest generations”, which brings us nicely to the second major theme of the night: young Spaniards, who are still, according to third-quarter data from the National Statistics Institute (INE), suffering from 33% unemployment ten years after the 2008 financial crisis began. His Majesty, framing himself as an older fatherly figure, indeed recognised, with something approaching royal empathy, that all might not be going so well in “our youngest generations” lives in 2018, a time of “continuous accelerated change”. Spain’s youths “have talent”, “believe in peace” and are “open to the world”, but have “serious problems”, including not being able to get a job, getting a bad job that wasn’t the one they thought they were studying for, not being able to build a life “with a dignified salary and job”, or not therefore being able to “form a family”. The demographic evolution of the nation, and the pensions and healthcare budgets over the next 50 years, require many, many such families to be formed.
Fatherly might also be interpreted as paternalistic. The King said it was “our responsibility”, “our duty” to fix that economic situation for young people, to whom he referred in the second person familiar plural throughout the speech; “we have to help you”, “our youngest generations”, or “we are responsible for their future”. Implicit in all of the remarks about young people and the economy, of course—again the royal subtext—is that those same generations of parents, including His Majesty, himself formidably well educated, have not been able to fix that economic situation in those ten whole years since Lehman Brothers collapsed. They have so far failed in that generational task. Those youngsters who were just eight years old back then are now eighteen and beginning their adventures in adult life. Those who were then eighteen are now twenty-eight and wondering if they will ever get a decent job or be able to build that life for themselves. In terms of economic theory, “we have to help you” might be seen as a decent, dutiful thing to do for children but it might also be framed as royal socialism. Is it the state’s job to fix life for new cohorts of young adults, or is the state’s job to set up the rules of the game and get out of the way so that they can make a go of it by themselves, if they put in lots of hard work along the way?
The King did recognise that it was “not enough”, and that the 21st Century is a “new reality”, but beyond vacuous wishes—”a better Spain because Spaniards deserve it”—he could only offer the Transition from the 1970s as a solution, and he had to talk about that, of course, in the past tense, although His Majesty rightly noted that back then they all had “a very clear aim: democracy and liberty in Spain”. The Transition, though, is now a rhetorical trope for those older generations of Spaniards, not an inspiring vision of a better future for young people, most of whom don’t have much of a clue about what happened in 1978 anyway and don’t watch the King’s Christmas message. There is no such “very clear aim” for those younger generations, the older ones not having provided one since 2008, and King Felipe did not do so last night.
If we wanted to be festively charitable, we could say His Majesty did manage to bring up two of Spain’s largest underlying problems—constitutional coexistence and the future of young people—in a way that might make some political leaders think about how to fix them, at least for a few seconds, in order to repair the cracks in the most solid national foundations. If we preferred a more miserly Scrooge-like interpretation, we might say King Felipe’s 2018 Christmas message was another stultified attempt at describing a deeper national reality that is not very cheery at all at the moment, seen from that long-term, structural perspective, given that the Constitution is still threatened by Catalan separatists and that a whole generation of well-educated young Spaniards still cannot build a life for themselves in the 21st Century.