Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo: Pragmatic prime minister of Spain

Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo was Spanish prime minister for just 21 months, but his brief premiership – and Spain's fledgling democracy – would have been stifled at birth if an attempted military coup that interrupted his inauguration had succeeded.

Calvo-Sotelo lacked the charisma of his predecessor Adolfo Suárez and his successor Felipe González, but this discreet, cultured, conservative man played a crucial role in steering Spain through one of the most nail-biting episodes in the country's post-Franco transition.

Spain in 1981 was in economic crisis. Eta Basque separatists killed some 100 victims a year. And military barracks resounded to what the press at the time called "the rattle of sabres". Calvo-Sotelo was the designated – not, therefore, popularly elected – successor to Suarez, who had resigned as prime minister amid the disintegration of his moderate conservative Union of the Democratic Centre (UCD).

A devoutly Catholic product of the dictatorship, Calvo-Sotelo was among those seeking to dismantle the authoritarian state after Franco's death in 1975. Parliament, which had approved a democratic constitution in 1978, was installing its new prime minister on a grey 23 February 1981 – a ritual in which each MP calls out their name and their vote for or against – when Lt-Col Antonio Tejero burst into the chamber firing his pistol, and ordered everyone to the floor.

The ensuing chaos and uncertainty shook the nation, which steadied only when King Juan Carlos appeared on television to order the rebel officers back to the barracks. The months that followed were a time of fear. Calvo-Sotelo ensured that the rebels were tried and punished, and resisted pressure to treat them leniently.

He also resisted strong pressure to occupy, ie invade, the Basque Country, an adventure that could have reopened the bloodbath of the civil war. Instead, supported by the socialist opposition leader Felipe González, Calvo-Sotelo devolved power to Spain's restive autonomous regions, in a pragmatic, flexible formula that held up for the next 25 years.

He also piloted various progressive laws initiated by his predecessor, including the divorce law – odious to Catholic sensibilities, but massively popular.

Calvo-Sotelo led Spain's negotiations to join Nato, which most Spaniards opposed. But the Tejero coup attempt reinforced his – and others' – belief that being inside the Atlantic alliance would stiffen Spain's democratic institutions and curb interventionist instincts among army officers.

In general elections of October 1982, Calvo-Sotelo and the remnants of his fractious UCD were swept to oblivion by the landslide victory of Felipe Gonzalez's socialists. That historic victory marked the consolidation of Spain's democracy; the military suffered a blow to its credibility that took decades to recover, and Spaniards finally started to believe that dictatorship was a thing of the past.

Calvo-Sotelo, the first of Spain's five post-Franco prime ministers to die, came from a traditional, moneyed family whose political sympathies ranged from right to left. He married the daughter of a Franco minister; his uncle, José Calvo-Sotelo, was a minister in the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera in the 1920s. His niece, Mercedes Cabrera, is the socialist Education Minister.

A Catholic Nationalist militant in his youth, Calvo-Sotelo is reputed to have joined protests against the screening in Spain of the 1946 film Gilda, in which Rita Hayworth removes her gloves in an erotically charged, if limited, striptease. Ink and stones were hurled at the screen. But in his political maturity, Spaniards used the English expression to describe Calvo-Sotelo as "a safe pair of hands".

Elizabeth Nash

Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo y Bustelo, politician: born Madrid 14 April 1926; Prime Minister of Spain 1981-82; married 1954 Pilar Ibáñez-Martí-Mellado (seven sons, one daughter); died Madrid 3 May 2008.

News
people
News
people And here is why...
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Life and Style
Laid bare: the Good2Go app ensures people have a chance to make their intentions clear about having sex
techCould Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
News
i100
Sport
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
News
people
News
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsWelsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
News
Destructive discourse: Jewish boys look at anti-Semitic graffiti sprayed on to the walls of the synagogue in March 2006, near Tel Aviv
peopleAt the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
Life and Style
Couples who boast about their relationship have been condemned as the most annoying Facebook users
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Associate Recrutiment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Group have been well ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: Real Staffing Group is seeking Traine...

Year 6 Teacher (interventions)

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We have an exciting opportunity...

PMLD Teacher

Competitive: Randstad Education Manchester: SEN Teacher urgently required for ...

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Time to stop running: At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity

Time to stop running

At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence