Juan Carlos: a people's king by Paul Preston

Sunshine for the reign in Spain
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Spaniards love and value their king. Surveys show they overwhelmingly support Juan Carlos de Borbon, and the monarchy as an institution. Which is curious, since Spain is not really a monarchist country. Before Juan Carlos came to the throne in 1975, Spaniards had ejected three monarchs. When he was foisted upon them by Franco, few thought his reign would last or be more popular than his predecessors'.

Juan Carlos earnt his success. He worked at it, knowing he must be loved to survive. He helped turn a cruel, moribund dictatorship into a stable - later vibrant - democracy, and defused a military coup. Those actions won him respect. That loyalty holds fast, despite heavily censored rumours about the king's amorous and financial adventures.

What makes this achievement remarkable, as Paul Preston explains, is that Juan Carlos was in no way trained to reign over a democracy. On the contrary, while his exiled family insisted he submit wishes to the dynastic virtues of obedience, Franco force-fed the young prince the authoritarian and vengeful principles that underpinned his own dictatorial rule. How, asks Preston, did he throw off this terrible legacy?

Juan Carlos suffered enormous psychological damage as a child and young man. Born in exile, he was batted "like a shuttlecock" by the conflicting demands of his father, Don Juan de Borbon, and of Franco, who played the son mercilessly against the father to perpetuate his regime.

No one considered the impact of this manipulation of a child's affections and loyalty on Juan Carlos. Preston tells how, when the 10-year-old prince took the night train from Portugal to leave his family to be schooled by dour franquistas, no one lightened his misery and loneliness by offering him a ride in the driver's cab. The honour went to a toadying grandee. It's a wonder Juan Carlos turned out the balanced and sensible man he is, let alone skilful navigator of Spain's whitewater ride from dictatorship to democracy.

How, Preston asks, did Juan Carlos accept being sold into slavery by his father? Don Juan sent his son to Spain, under Franco's thumb, to keep alive the prospect of a Borbon restoration. Franco decided Don Juan would never become king, but kept him dangling for decades. He installed Juan Carlos on the throne, groomed - so the generalisimo thought - to perpetuate dictatorship.

Preston describes how the child of exile become a democratic monarch at enormous personal sacrifice, torn in his desire to please both the father he loved and the dictator he grew to love. But the historian is no analyst, and crucial turning points - the trauma when Juan Carlos accidentally shot dead his brother Alfonsito; the moment he becomes king; even Tejero's coup attempt in 1981 - slip by in a stream of scholarly narrative peppered with footnotes.

Juan Carlos did not promote or pilot Spain's democratic transition. He neither made it nor legitimised it. Those tasks were carried out by ordinary Spaniards and the political class respectively. But his intervention was decisive in unravelling a supposedly watertight authoritarian structure, and acting as human shield against military adventures.

Preston's book doesn't really analyse Juan Carlos's changing role, and the narrative flags once Spain's democracy settled down after 1981, when the monarchy had to recharge to confront regional tensions. The historian did not talk to his subject, and his sources for recent decades are overwhelmingly newspapers. He ducks gossip, and dismisses the past 20 years in as many pages.

Preston is revered in Spain, but the days are gone when Spaniards look abroad to learn their history. They handle fresh archives, personal testimonies and sharper polemic. Livelier, if less objective, Spanish books on the king abound. Juan Carlos's travails during the dictatorship and post-Franco years are fascinating, but only half the story.

Elizabeth Nash's 'Seville: a cultural and literary companion' is due later this year from Signal