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Sunday 19 February 2012

Viva La Pepa

In exactly a month’s time, on March 19, celebrations will begin to mark the 200th Anniversary of a Spanish Constitution colloquially called ‘La Pepa”. This is because March 19 is the feast day of San José (Father’s Day in Spain) and Josés in Spain are often called Pepe or, as in this case, Josefas are called Pepa.

The constitution (the first of seven since then) was drawn up by Las Cortes de Cádiz, ‘Las Cortes’ being the word Spain still uses for Parliament. The reason for Cádiz was that the rest of Spain at the time was occupied by Napoleon’s forces – indeed French troops were camped outside the fortifications on the only road that connected the city to the mainland.

At one level then, La Pepa was an act of defiance in what Spaniards call the War of Independence against the French.

At another, while Cádiz was protected by British ships and supported by British money, the constitution was meant as an enlightened blueprint for the future not only in Spain but in also in South America.

It is often called a ‘liberal’ constitution, but the word has shifted meaning. La Pepa was liberal in the sense that the Constitution of the USA was liberal – with one main difference. The Spanish chose a constitutional monarchy rather than no monarchy at all. Other matters, the separation of powers, a free press, freedom of trade and so on will be familiar.

In political terms of course, La Pepa was a failure. Fernando VII returned in 1814 as an absolute monarch, and while it was periodically resurrected, (mostly in 1820-1823), La Pepa was pushed into the utopia bin.

It remains however an influence. It influenced other constitutions. Norway’s of 1814 for example, as well as the constitutions of countries in South America that broke away from Spain a few years later.

And in a way it remains an aspiration. There is a large and pretty pompous monument to La Pepa in La Plaza de España in Cádiz, complete with lions and draped ladies, put up around a hundred years later. And now the second bridge into Cádiz from the mainland is to be called La Pepa for the bi-centenary.

But mostly, I think that first constitution is a reminder that a group of men (yes, that’s men, they talked of universal male suffrage) from both sides of the Atlantic could, when under siege, work fast and hard to translate a desire for justice into a code of words.

Next month, then, for the celebration of the bi-centenary, there will be tall ships and lots of politicians. But the attraction of written constitutions is that they frame and are bigger than the politicians who work within them.

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