Forty Years of Democratic Spain

By William Chislett

(Download Elcano paper at foot of page)

The 40th anniversary of Spain’s democratic constitution, ratified in a referendum on December 6, 1978, was a good tag to look at Spain’s progress, or not, since the end of the dictatorship of General Franco in 1975 and refute some of the misconceptions about the country. Preparations for the anniversary, which was celebrated with some fanfare by the government, coincided with the push for independence in Catalonia and the pre-trial imprisonment of 12 secessionists for organizing an illegal referendum on the issue (in October 2017) followed by a unilateral declaration of independence. That trial started in February 2019 and is set to end in June.

As someone who was privileged to cover Spain’s transition to democracy for The Times between 1975 and 1978 and who returned permanently to Spain in 1986 (not as a correspondent), after working for the Financial Times in Mexico and then London, I have witnessed the remarkable changes in the country, and felt that they were not always fully known or appreciated abroad.

40 years ElcanoI began working for the Real Instituto Elcano (Elcano Royal Institute), Spain’s leading think tank, when it started in 2002. It takes its name from the navigator Juan Sebastián de Elcano, who completed the first maritime circumnavigation of the world in 1522. A non-partisan institution, Elcano is the nearest Spain has to an Anglo-Saxon style think tank (it is modelled on Chatham House in London). It receives less than 15% of its funds from the government of the day and the rest from private companies. It is royal because King Felipe VI is our honorary president, and he takes a close interest in what we do. The Board of Trustees includes all Spain’s four former prime ministers, Felipe González (1982-96), José María Aznar (1996-2004), José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero (2004-11) and Mariano Rajoy (2011-2018). We were ranked the 15th best think tank in the world in the 2018 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report, produced by the University of Pennsylvania, and the ninth in Europe.

Elcano commissioned me to write a paper in English on the country’s political, economic and social progress over the last 40 years. The paper was published in October 2018 and is fairly comprehensive. Nine months have passed since it was published and apart from one important change the paper remains basically up-to-date. That change was the arrival of Vox, a far-right party, which entered a parliament for the first time when it won 12 seats in the regional election in Andalucía last December, so ending Spain’s exceptionalism in that field, followed by winning 24 seats in the national parliament in April’s general election.

Whenever I write about Spain, I make a big effort to marshal the latest and relevant statistics. I felt this was particularly important for the paper on the last 40 years. Some Spaniards were surprised by some of them – for example, the stock of inward foreign direct investment surged from a mere $5.1bn to $ and average life expectancy rose from 74.3 years to 83.2 years (higher than in the UK). All in all, Spain has achieved conditions that are similar – in some cases better – than in the rest of Western European nations. I hope you will find the paper useful.

Spain 40 years of democracy