Spain's former king has banished himself, with dignity and grace
Spain’s former King, Juan Carlos, announced this week — in a letter on his website — that he was leaving the country in the hope that his son, King Felipe VI, would be able to continue his reign “in tranquility”. In other words, free of the scandals engulfing his father. Within 24 hours he was gone, although his whereabouts were not definitely known — the Dominican Republic was mentioned — nor was it clear whether his exile was to be temporary or permanent.
It was a sad conclusion for a leader who had been hailed as the saviour of Spanish democracy when he defied a military coup attempt in 1981 and who had abdicated in favour of his son six years ago, following a previous scandal. Whether it was an ignominious departure, as some have described it, though, I am not sure. Exile has a certain dignity and elegance about it. It can also be — as his son recognised when he expressed his “heartfelt respect and gratitude” for his father’s decision — a kind of solution. As such, perhaps it should be used more often.
Some leaders will see it as more honourable to remain to the last and die at a victor’s hand if need be. Exile, though, surely offers a more merciful way out. King Constantine II of Greece spent more than 40 years holding unofficial court in the UK before returning quietly to his home country in 2013. The Shah of Iran was regarded as so toxic a potential guest that he had difficulty finding a country to accept him and died in Egypt in 1980 less than two years after losing his throne. Idi Amin — now there’s a long-lost name — ended his days in Saudi Arabia in 2003, more than 30 years after being removed by Tanzanian troops.
But the advantages of exile are clear when you consider some of the exiles who might have been. George V received a plea for exile from his cousin, the ousted Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, but turned it down. The imperial family were gunned to death in a forest outside Yekaterinburg in the Urals.
In early 2003, there was a flurry of reports that Iraq’s leader, Saddam Hussein, had been offered exile in the UAE in an effort to avert the US-UK invasion. Although the then US President, George Bush, was apparently in favour, the deal came to nothing. Saddam Hussein was captured and hanged as a war criminal in 2006. And in 2016, as the conflict in Syria escalated, President Putin reportedly mooted the possibility of exile in Russia for President Bashar al-Assad. It is said, though, that he was unwilling to go — and remains in office four years later, the victor over a devastated country that is still not at peace.
The ancient Athenians institutionalised exile via an annual gathering that could vote — using names inscribed on pottery shards — to ostracise one fellow citizen for 10 years. There is no need to go to the lengths of formalising the process today, but exile, offered more routinely as a possible solution to otherwise intractable situations, seems very underused.
One downside, of course, is the leisure the exile might use to plot a return. Napoleon and Ayatollah Khomeini might be cited as personifying the risks. Rather than the Athenians’ 10 years, perhaps permanence should be enshrined in any modern contract.