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At 18.23 on 23-F

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“It’s Over!” This was the front-page headline of the Majorca Daily Bulletin on February 25, 1981. Announcing the end of the coup attempt, this headline was next to one that it could well have replaced only some years later – “Prince Charles will marry Lady Diana”.

It was over before it really started – I’m not referring to the marriage – or so it seemed. It was at 18.23 on the evening of February 23 when some 200 Guardia Civil officers led by Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero burst into Congress and interrupted the investiture of Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo as prime minister.

At 1.14 the following morning, King Juan Carlos went on television. “The crown, symbol of the permanence and unity of the nation, will not tolerate, to any degree whatsoever, the actions or behaviour of anyone attempting, through use of force, to interrupt the democratic process of the Constitution, which the Spanish people approved by vote in the referendum.”

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At that moment the game was up, although it wasn’t until midday on February 24 that Tejero was arrested, all the Congress deputies having been allowed to leave the building. At around five in the morning, Jaime Milans del Bosch had been arrested. He had led his part of the coup in Valencia, where his efforts were to come to nothing when the commander at the Manises Air Base threatened to use fighter jets against the fifty tanks deployed by Milans del Bosch, the Captain General of the III Military Region.

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It was deadly serious but there was an element of the comedic as well. Tejero cut a bizarre figure. It was if Manuel had donned a Guardia uniform, and Basil Fawlty was about to enter Congress and give him a clout around the ear. Expressions on the faces of deputies in Congress were not ones that conveyed fear; more a sense of utter amazement. Adolfo Súarez, whose resignation as prime minister had led to the investiture, asked Tejero to explain the “madness”.

There were any number of factors that formed the background to the coup attempt. It wasn’t surprising. Spain was struggling with the transition, the economy was in a mess, there was ETA terrorist violence, and pro-Franco elements in the military and the Guardia opposed the moves towards democracy.

And it wasn’t surprising in another way, which further reflected just how ridiculous Tejero looked. This was Spain at its worst, as it had been for decade after long decade before the Civil War. It was a revival of all the military intervention in the past, a statement by the military which had been humiliated in 1898 at the hands of the Americans, that had sought to wrestle back its pride in 1936 and which now refused to let go, understand or genuinely contemplate that it was no longer living in the nineteenth century.

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It was a manifestation of militarism in a nation that was not a military power, a pathetic effort at assertion but one that nevertheless was comprehensible given that Spain was yet to truly come to terms with what it meant to be free and democratic. A vacuum appeared to exist, and the military wished to occupy it, as it had over all those long decades.

Crazily enough, there was to be another attempted coup, or the plan for one anyway.

It was clear that Felipe González was going to lead the socialist PSOE to victory at the October 1982 election. The plot was uncovered and wasn’t so much hushed up as ignored. PSOE wanted to establish good relations with the military and to incorporate them into democracy. It was time, at long last, to move on and build a new Spain, which joined the EEC four years later. A modern, a democratic, a European Spain, and yet the same old tensions have a habit of resurfacing.

In early December last year, there were the reports about messages on a WhatsApp group for retired members of the air force. “There is no choice but to start shooting 26 million sons of bitches.” There was also a letter to King Felipe that was signed by more than seventy former officers from the armed services. It railed against the PSOE-Podemos government, which was being “shored up by ETA-lovers and separatists”.

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The Chief of the Defence Staff, General Miguel Ángel Villarroya, stated that the opinions of the individuals on the WhatsApp group “cannot be construed to be representative of the community they were once a part of”. He was absolutely right, but it was nevertheless a reminder, one of forty years ago that is now remembered as 23-F and as ‘Tejerazo’ after Antonio Tejero.

A march in Palma followed those events. A large banner read ‘Democracy and the Constitution’. King Felipe will doubtless offer a reminder of these values when he attends the Congress commemoration of the fortieth anniversary. Not in attendance will be the central figure of Juan Carlos.

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