To what extent can political discontent in the period 1875 – 1931 be explained by the weakness of liberalism in Spain

After decades marked by continuous military uprisings, civil strife and popular revolts, the period of the liberal monarchy represents the most successful and long lasting era of social peace and political stability in modern Spanish history.1 However from 1914 the hegemony liberalism had enjoyed began to weaken, by 1917 a period of decline ensued, one, which would turn out to be irreversible.

The restoration of the Bourbons in December 1874 and the establishment of a constitution two years later represented the formal triumph of liberalism.2 Robinson labels this as the ‘Restoration Monarchy’.3 The formation of the partido liberal conservador (conservative liberal party) in 1875 heralded the start of almost half a century of peace; its architect was Antonio Canovas del Castillo who drew up the sixth constitution of the century. Incidentally Canovas’s constitution lasted until the dictatorship of Primo De Rivera.4

The political discontent in Spain had many different faces; the concise argument would see a conclusion arriving at a more balanced statement. If we take into account all the various factors that precipitated the civil war we can begin to understand the degree of turmoil that the Spanish liberals faced.

The constitutional monarchist system of 1875 – 1923 was the most durable representative, parliamentary government in Spanish history.5 However this period saw many different national problems that had all combined in 1923 into a very destructive force. Political feeling had never been lower, and though there was general relief that the form of government had been settled, no one felt any hope or enthusiasm as to the future.

Canovas was a liberal conservative who was fully committed to the idea of a liberal monarchy,6 however the ideals of political freedom and suffrage en masse was not what Canovas had in mind. His first goal was to build up industry and leave the country to gradually enrich itself. This would therefore give the Spanish people a greater sense of responsibility to break free of their backward lifestyle.

Canovas had two main principles, the first was to exclude the army from political power and the second was to on no occasion trust to free elections. The demotion of the army was achieved relatively easily, many Spaniards blamed the “troubles and upheavals of the last thirty years”7 on the army; the victory in the Carlist wars had given the army some prestige, however this had been lost over the years. The army that had once been the champion of the liberal classes found itself reduced into a beleaguered defensive force.

The abolition of free elections can be considered to be the origin of political discontent in Spain in this period. Canovas introduced a property qualification from which the mostly illiterate working class were excluded from the vote. Thus Spain should be ruled by an upper class that were intellectually superior and therefore were the only friends Canovas could depend on to support the new regime.

A second damning factor of liberalism and its weaknesses was the system of alternative governments between the liberal party and the conservatives. While this idea may have seemed to be an innovative method at the time, it was nothing more than an attempt by Canovas to coordinate the uneasiness of the time into a politically profitable situation. Since 1814 no liberal government had come into power without using violence. Canovas was too intelligent not to see the inconvenience this could cause.8 Therefore when there was potential trouble on the horizon Canovas would simply stand aside and let his liberal counterpart, Sagasta, take his place, who passed most of the repressive legislation during this time. Therefore it is easy to understand why many people grew to resent the liberal governments, either they were violent or repressive.

In 1885 Alfonso XIII died of consumption, and as the king lay on his deathbed the two rival politicians met and consecrated a pact that made the alternate governments a political phenomenon; their aim was a noble one, to reduce the possibility of a threat to the dynasty. Universal suffrage was decreed, in as much to keep the radicals happy as to introduce any form of democracy. The rule remained that whatever government made the elections won them.9

The cacique have always played some part in Spanish history, they were landowners who for certain unwritten privileges organized the district politically on the governments behalf.10 In parts of Spain the caciques became a law onto themselves, they considered themselves to be omnipotent. Discontent stemmed from the rivalries between the liberal and conservative caciques. The friendly agreement of Madrid did not extend into the provinces. It was not uncommon for bitter fighting to take place in small villages. Here we see that liberalism, together with conservatism, managed to cause a vast amount of unrest not only in the cities but also within the countryside. Brenan states that the caciques, were still influential up to 1917, “their palmist days were from 1840 – 1917, after which, with the rise of a real public opinion and of a genuine body if voters, they began to lose their influence.”11

The majority of Spaniards decided it was better to live with injustice and corruption than stand up against the ruling elite and face ruin.

The consumption of land by the large latifundio estates, especially in the south, was believed to be caused by liberal ideas. There was corruption at all the upper layers of society, the politicians governed the judicial system, there existed a system of one power, and Spain did not adhere to the separation of powers that was common in other liberal states around this time.

The break up of the liberal party over the issue of the most limited sort of autonomy for Catalonia in 1913 left parts of the liberal party concerned that this was the first step in dividing the unity and sovereignty of Spain.12

The crisis of 1917 highlighted the political need for strong leadership; the CNT and the UGT were politically aligned. Anarchist terrorism was increasing and governments were falling at increasingly fast speeds. Between 1902 and 1917 Spanish cabinets lasted on average ten months.13 Moreover liberal forces were not able to achieve an effective alliance for constitutional reform.

Before the dictatorship of Primo the liberals had one last chance to form a government under Maura in 1921; yet this effort failed over civil guarantees in Barcelona and the subsequent frustration of any forceful effort to combat the Moroccan problem.

The second part of this work will address the other faces to political discontent.

Firstly there were problems in the two main institutions in Spain, the army and the church. The army had lost a war with America in 1898 over Cuba. This defeat had a direct effect on the countries politics; the army blamed the civilians back home, the civilians blamed the army. Back in Spain conscription meant almost certain death, the average worker was being forced away to try and save the dwindling African empire, yet the upper classes were simply exempt due to their wealth.

The church being distinctly anti liberal managed to, from 1874 become wealthier and politically stronger, however at the same time it lost its hold over the poor. Spain faced the influx of French clergymen, who had been forced out of France by the Jules Ferry laws secularising education.14 A concentrated effort began to try and save one European country from ‘liberal atheism’. Within a few years convents had begun to reach new levels and even the politicians in Madrid felt the new wave of clericalism.

Coupled with the major forces in Spanish politics were the individuals, in 1899 Francisco Silvela spoke of the need for ‘a true revolution made from above’15. Silvela was a dynamic conservative, who proposed economic development, fair elections, fiscal reform and an end to regional antagonism. The elections of 1899 were the fairest since 1876; however this created its own problems, the new parliament was as divided as ever with “Silvelists, Pidalists, Romerists, Polaviejists and partisans of the Holy Sepulchre representing the conservatives and Sagastans, Moretists, Monterists and Gamacists for the liberals.”16

The formation of the ‘left bloc’ in 1908-1909, the resulting Maura NO! campaign and the antiparliamentary dismissal of the Maura government was a clear example of how the crown capitulated to the left after a period of reform government that had been the most successful the country had ever seen.

The dictatorship of Primo was politically ineffective; the establishment of the dictatorship was the culmination of an anti parliamentary trend. Waves of anarchist and communist violence spread throughout Spain during the spring and summer of 1923;17 it became clear that Primo could not resolve the dilemma that he had created.

By 1929 the dictatorship had alienated every important interest group in Spain, the socialists barely accepted the regime, students organized strikes in 1928, and the army had revolted in 1926 when Primo threatened its traditions. Payne describes the relationship between the dictatorship and the upper classes, “the upper classes and business interests were not supporters of the regime because of its reformist and interventionist proposals.”18 Finally the total absence of leadership in 1930-31, heightened by the tragic illness of Cambo and the refusal of Alba to assume any responsibility paved the way for the Franco regime, though no one opposed it, no one was really ready for the new regime on April 14th, 1931.19

In summary the political discontent during this period was both widespread and multi dimensional. According to Salvado it was clear in 1918 that Spain was sliding into a revolutionary situation, the Russian experience the year before had given the Andalusian peasantry a means to spark a rebellion in the country, the revolutionary movement had an urban and rural dimension to it, starving peasants demanded ‘land and bread’.20

The authorities of the liberal government collapsed, between 1919 and 1923 short lived governments, based in Madrid, were unable to control the increasing violence and terror, which reigned, in the country. It should be kept in mind that the crisis of Spanish parliamentary government occurred not because the system was growing more corrupt and unrepresentative, but on the contrary, as it became less corrupt and more representative.21 Therefore the political discontent can be said to have been caused by both the failure of liberalism and the political tension, caused by worldwide events.

The Russian revolution and the First World War had a tremendous impact on Spanish thinking; the liberal party became overwhelmed by other political forces that thrived on instability. The failings of the past half a century began to creep back on the liberal party, who had no response to the overwhelming problems that they had originally caused. Perhaps if there had not been such influential surrounding events then the liberal party could have secured some sort of autonomy throughout this period.

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