The Spanish Constitution of 1978 was followed with passion, great expectations and even much concern for the great European media.
“One of the signs of the success of the Transition was the closure of the Spanish office of some foreign newspapers after 1978; the news that left the country was not so dramatic anymore, nor did it generate headlines. This was the case, for example, of The Angeles Times, whose veteran correspondent, Stanley Meisler, jokingly told a group of Americans at his farewell meal that ‘All the rats are leaving because the ship has not sunk’”.
This is how those passionate years remember one of the foreign correspondents who lived most directly the end of the Franco regime and the beginning of the Transition, the British William Chislett, editor of The Times.
Between November of 1975 (death of the dictator Francisco Franco) and December of 1978 (approval of the current Constitution), Spain carried out many headlines and even editorials of the main international press, especially the British and the French.
The Times, the newspaper in which Chislett worked, published in those three years 1,261 news and 36 editorials on Spain, at a rate of more than one piece a day. The Financial Times and The Guardian published, respectively, 867 and 816 news items and 25 and 32 editorials on Spain in the same period (about one a day) and The Daily Telegraph broadcast 663 pieces and 25 editorials. The first non-British medium was Le Monde, which apart from publishing 852 news, wrote 56 editorials on the political process in Spain, 26% of those published worldwide (one every twenty days). In Italy, the Corriere della Sera dedicated the 764 pieces to our country.
Therefore, Spain was fashionable during the three years between the death of Franco and the approval of the Constitution by referendum, of which forty years were fulfilled yesterday.
In these circumstances, and how could it be otherwise, the day of December 6 was particularly exciting for correspondents and special envoys from the rest of the world, who not only reported on the votes and results, but dared to analyze the transcendence, of the day, with its lights and shadows and from the perspective of the foreign observer.
The British press
The approval of the 1978 Magna Carta was “a historic milestone” for the Financial Times, according to journalist and historian Jaume Guillamet in his book Las sombras de la transición. The critical account of foreign correspondents (1975-1978).
“Good morning, Spain, but the concern is still there”, veteran correspondent in Madrid Tim Brown wrote for The Daily Telegraph, who also recalled that the Constitution had been approved with “less enthusiasm than expected” because of the high abstention -more than 33% in all of Spain and more than 50% in the Basque Country and Galicia-, which had left a feeling of “dissatisfaction” and “defeat” for the Government of Adolfo Suárez and for its formation, the UCD, which could give “wings to extremists”.
With a similar caution, The Guardian warned of the “shadows” that still hung over the Constitution, an “impressively progressive” document but that to succeed it should still overcome important challenges, such as the Basque conflict, the “growing sense of disillusion” prevalent in part of a population that “is still waiting for the expectations aroused by the death of Franco to be fulfilled”, the coincidence of the Transition with “a period of economic recession and ideological doubts” and the “government inaction on anything except the constitutional front”, all of which could “lead many people to look back with a certain nostalgia to the calm and (relative) prosperity of the Caudillo’s declining years”.
The French press
“Spaniards will decide on December 6 on a Constitution in which all, or almost all, can be recognized”, wrote Le Monde. Among the fathers of the Magna Carta, it continued, there were “men from all sides, from a former Francoist minister, Manuel Fraga Iribarne, to a Catalan communist and nationalist (Jordi Solé Tura), through three center deputies and a former lawyer in the process of Burgos, the socialist Gregorio Peces-Barba “. “Therefore, it should seal the reconciliation of the two sides of Spain, the victors and the vanquished, and offer lasting coexistence rules in a country torn so much between classes, beliefs and nationalities: centralism against autonomy, owners against day laborers, believers against believers, fascists against communists, guardians of tradition against supporters of change”, the French liberal daily continued.
Another French newspaper, the conservative Le Figaro, also received with enthusiasm the victory of the Constitution in the referendum: “A success”, wrote Phililippe Nouray, author of books like Franco: la conquista del poder (1892-1937), Juan Carlos, un rey para los republicanos or Histoire de L’Espagne. Des origines à nos jours. The Constitution is “a masterpiece of tact and prudence”, said Anne-Marie Romero in the same newspaper. “The extreme right considers it as leftist and the extreme left considers it as a right”, added the journalist, daughter of a Spanish Republican official.
The Italian press
“Franco’s burial concluded yesterday”, proclaimed Paolo Bugiali, Corriere della Sera‘s correspondent in Spain since 1973 (and so in love with our country that he stayed to live there until his death in 1999). Juan Carlos I “had the possibility of being an absolute king”, but he preferred to renounce this power “in the name of peaceful coexistence”, he said.
For its part, the historic journalist Saverio Tutino wrote in the newspaper La Repubblica (of which he was one of the founders) that the Constitution had been possible thanks to the support of all political forces, including some political leaders “until two years ago irreconcilable” , like Manuel Fraga and Santiago Carrillo.
“The new Constitution closes the post-Francoism”, despite the “high percentage of indifference” shown by the voters, the Italian-Yugoslavian journalist Frane Barbieri wrote for La Stampa. “The new Constitution is a compromise between winners and losers”, he said.
The German press
Some of the main German journalist showed a moderate and rather cautious optimism. This is the case of Walter Haubrich, correspondent in Spain of the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung between 1969 and 2002, who warned in his chronicles that the Constitution had begun to generate among Spaniards the hope of being the solution to all evils, “a dangerous illusion but almost inevitable”.
For his part, Friedrich Kasseber, correspondent of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, regretted that the Spaniards were not in a position to “celebrate the referendum as if it were the day of its liberation from the yoke of the Francoist laws because in Spanish society the sensation has spread that democracy is difficult, sacrificed and complicated“, a feeling that had been “increased by the excessive ‘With Franco we lived better’ of the far-right”.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, the prestigious The New York Times reported (from a cable from the Reuters news agency) that “the Constitution would guarantee basic human rights, define Spain as a parliamentary monarchy and allow considerable self‐rule for the country’s regions”, while Miguel Acoca wrote for The Washington Post that “Spain to Vote on Constitution as Last Step to Democracy”.