A brief history of Spain – Part 21, the Liberals

Spain in the 19th century

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the liberals

The Spanish Constitution of 1812 was dead. This was due to inner divisions among its designers, the -Liberals and the resistance that the text aroused among powerful institutions such as the nobility and the church.

The people wanted more freedoms and rights, but not if those freedoms and rights would jeopardise their chances of “salvation”, as priests predicted in their sermons.

Bureaucratic and corrupt governments

Consequently, many liberals fled abroad. Under the reactionary rule of Ferdinand VII, Spain did not recover from the damage that the Spanish War of Independence (1808 – 1814) had inflicted on trade in particular. The bureaucratic, corrupt governments under Fernando VII did little to ameliorate the nation’s division and poverty. And while Europe was steadily modernising, the once wealthy Spain could not keep up with the pace of the nations.

Romantic tourists to ‘backward Spain’

Political and economic stagnation meant that Spain had retained typical medieval features, which in the 19th century attracted wealthy European tourists. Spain was authentic, exotic, and romantic, and Africa started behind the Pyrenees. If you went to Spain, you got away from it all. However, most tourists were also happy when they returned home after the hard travel. They led them over the abominable Spanish roads, to shabby inns and past the dangers of the Bandoleros in Andalucia. This is how the dreamy image of an exotic, romantic but also backward Spain arose north of the Pyrenees.

A repeating cycle

The Liberals consisted of a conservative and a progressive wing. Later the wings became separate parties that would split further. The progressives in particular were plagued by internal power struggles between the various factions that alternated as ruling parties. It became a repeating cycle. The Progressives continued to implement progressive, mostly anti-clerical, reforms that were later reversed by the Conservatives.

Few changes after power changes

Changes in power could be the result of fair or manipulated elections or military coups, but on balance little change in social relations. Spain remained a society with strongly feudal characteristics and lagging industrial development. Partly because of this, compared to other European countries at the time, the country had a small and impotent bourgeoisie.

The bourgeoisie as an ally of the ruling power

Elsewhere in Europe, the bourgeoisie had been the driving force behind social change. But insofar as there was a bourgeoisie in Spain, by conferring titles of nobility on its most successful representatives, it became an ally rather than, as in other European countries, a natural opponent of the aristocracy.

Landownership and feudal relations

For example, a status quo remained in the social field of influence in Spain during and long after Fernando VII and Isabella II. In this, the rule of landlords and feudal relations dominated. The successes achieved by the Liberals were often mock and, in most cases, short-lived due to the inevitable conservative reaction.

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Elite politics

Initially, the main differences between the conservatives and liberals were that the former represented a narrower, wealthier upper class than the progressives. Although politics in the first decades of the 19th century were quite elitist anyway.

Importance of the Church

In the first half of the 19th century, the number of people with the right to vote had never exceeded 3%. The conservatives sought more compromise with the church, while the progressives were more anti-clerical. They wanted to limit the secular power and property of the church as much as possible and pursued freedom of religion.

Centralist attitude

Both wings were centralised in particular for the efficient administration of a modern state. The progressives, however, made an exception for local government. They had many supporters in the lower middle class (no electorate) of the provincial towns.

The liberals did not develop, as in other European countries in the 19th century, from an expanding entrepreneurial middle class. Instead, they represented a new upper middle class of large landowners in Spain.

Ruling powers continued to resist successfully

The ideas of liberalism did not yet match the level of social development in 19th-century Spain. This continued well into the 20th century. The ruling powers, monarchy, nobility and Catholic Church, continued to successfully resist the liberals pursued social changes.

Spain was a land of nobility and large landowners, with a small, barely engaged middle class. Regionalism (Basques, Catalans), unruly geography and poor infrastructure made the centralism and nation-building pursued by the liberals more difficult.

Further fragmentation of the liberal movement

And if the opponents of the liberals were not strong enough, the movement was undermined from within by discord, self-interest and lack of realism. That would lead to an ever-further fragmentation of the liberal movement. With General Prim, who staged the coup in 1868 that deposed Isabella II, the liberals briefly had a strong man who managed to keep the warring factions under control.

Click here for the previous parts of a Brief history of Spain

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