Monday 20 June 2011

Not a quiet revolution.

By Richard Morley.

The times they are a-changing.

Something is happening here is Spain, and I am not sure what it is.

Now, not being a native, but a guest, I do not feel it has been appropriate for me to take sides with the “indignados” (the indignant ones) who have recently been encamped in the Pueta del Sol here in Madrid and in public squares around the country. But that doesn’t mean I can’t have an opinion.

Before moving to Spain permanently I would compare the control being imposed by central government on the people of the UK with the relative laissez faire attitude of the Spanish authorities. However, recent events here, for whatever reasons, have inculcated a feeling that the state is sticking it’s nose in where it’s not wanted. And in the minds of those who can remember a time when the Government very much imposed its will on the populace, this latest interference is not welcome. Particularly when the activities of that government seem to be doing nothing to relieve the very real and current concerns of a nation with massive debt, high unemployment, and a lack of confidence in the future.

Even though the next general election will probably see a change of political will in congress, the indignados don’t think that will change the direction in which the country is going.

Of course, part of the problem does not lie with central government, but with each of the autonomous regions where each  creates their own problems. The workers’ unions must also take some of the blame. The “sindicatos” have been engaged in negotiations with the government in order to come up with some sort of policy that would make the creation of jobs easier. The employers say that the cost of employing people is high under current legislation and the social packages Spanish workers are entitled to make it expensive to fire people also. As the sindicatos have been refusing to relinquish workers rights and the employers have also dug their heels in, the negotiations reached an impasse. As the government want to be seen doing something, they will now impose an employment policy that no one will agree to.

Last year Esperanza Aguirre’s Comunidad de Madrid said it would cut fifty-eight legal steps from those needed to create a new business. They cut fifty-eight! How many are left? A friend of mine involved with starting a new business here in Madrid can answer that. Too damn many!

Many are not taking those steps. The ex-construction workers who want to put a roof over their family’s heads and food on their table can’t afford the luxury of time or the cost of legally starting a new business, so the lamp post are adorned with computer printed, or hand-written, advertisements for their services to decorate your home or replace a kitchen or bathroom. I am sure that most cannot afford the €3000 payment that must be made when starting any form of business, or the very high social security payments demanded of the self-employed. Not being legal, I doubt they are declaring their earnings for tax. They can’t legally take on employees either, so the unemployment numbers don’t get reduced and the hacienda, the tax office, loses revenue. But to make the process easier would mean that government funcionarios, civil servants, (a misnomer in many cases!), and notarios would have nothing to do. Except get a proper job, of course!

So, the indignados have been protesting. Firstly in the month long encampment that formed in Sol and other plazas around the country. Then in small demonstrations everywhere and culminating last weekend in street protests all over the country. They claim to want “Democracia, Ya!”, or democracy now, but enticed voters to spoil their ballot papers at the recent local elections. I don’t follow that. A young protester that recently gate-crashed the inauguration ceremony for the swearing in on the newly elected representatives of the Comunidad and managed to demand from Señora Aguirre what right she had to represent all the Madrileños as voter turn-out was far from 100% and there were so many spoiled papers. She replied that, “This is a free country and …… each is entitled to vote ……. and the nature of elections is to renew the mandate of those who had done a good job and throw out those who had a done a bad one.” She went on to remark that voting was the one important responsibility of a country’s citizens. I agree and will also say that those who did not vote, or enticed others not to vote, were not supporters of democracy.

As Winston Churchill said (I think) “democracy has many faults but it’s better than the alternative”.  

The protesters’ camp in Sol had their own problems with democracy. They had lots of noisy protests, but couldn’t actually agree an anything. Apparently their decisions needed everyone to agree. Just one dissenting voice meant they would not reach concensus, because the voice of the majority was not the voice of all. As Abraham Lincoln remarked, “…….. you can’t please all of the people all of the time”. In a democracy the minority have to lick their wounds and wait for their turn.

But whatever the demonstrators protested about, they did it very noisily. Walking though Sol one Saturday evening at the height of the protests I was struck by the sheer volume of the voices raised in anger and was pleased that I wasn’t living in that neighbourhood and trying to get to sleep. It would have been impossible. And it would have been impossible for four long weeks. The erection of the encampment brought with it, despite the best efforts of the organisers to impose some order, a hygiene problem and restricted free passage though, and free use of, the Plaza. Many businesses reported a severe drop in trade because the “Democracia, Ya” protesters had imposed their own, un-elected will on the area.

And just as an aside here, When I wandered though the encampment which was set up to highlight and publicise the plight of so many, I noticed many notices restricting the taking of photographs. What were they afraid of? Surely they wanted all the publicity they could get? If you want someone to take notice, you have to stand and be counted.

However, Spain is, whatever the protesters say, a democracy. They have the right to protest and freedom of speech. Having lived and worked in countries where neither of these things is a “right” I probably value them more highly than those under forty here do. Perhaps they should ask their parents and grandparents what the country was like before 1975.

But did they have the right to disturb the sleep and business life in Sol during their month long protest? You see, while the authorities let them do what they wanted, those same authorities are prohibiting loud music in the street in Chueca during Gay Pride weekend – because the local residents have complained.

And it’s not just Chueca. Over thirty barrios that traditionally have “fiestas patronales” such as the Verbena de Poloma in La Latina, in Tetuan for the Fiesta de Victoria and for the Fiesta de Carmen in Vallecas. All of them are being reviewed regarding the loudness of the entertainment that will now be allowed. A spokesman for the barrio of Tetuan commented,”…. In the first week of July there will be concerts and fairs in the plaza de Remonta. Of course they are noisy and some residents have already complained”. But “What would become of Madrid without the streets fairs?” said Fernando Garcia of the Cuatro Caminos neighbourhood association.

Suddenly Madrid’s, and Spain’s, live and let live attitude is undergoing a sea change. After years of smoking being allowed everywhere, now we have had to adjust to being restricted. Most of us smokers have happily taken that on board, but it must have affected sales as twice in two weeks the price of cigarettes came down recently.

Yes, that’s right. They came down! Amazing.

My recent remarks regarding a speed restriction on cycling in the new cycle lanes in Madrid Rio meant that I watched with some amusement interviews with cyclists on TV last week. They were angry. “Six kilometres an hour is hardly enough to allow you to balance”, claimed one. Another, echoing my point, argued that painted lines delineating walkers from those on wheels was the sensible solution. One more made the point that the cycle lanes were designed for the users to enjoy exercising on their machines and introducing ridiculous speed limits was not a proper solution. After all, they are called “Cycle Lanes”. Were these of a similar age to the young “indignados”? No, they senior citizens wanting to enjoy a bike ride in the sun.

The smoking restrictions, noise controls (on a normally noisy city), reduced speed limits on the motorways and now other petty rules are seen by many here to be unwarranted intrusions into the citizens’ right to enjoy life. Non-smokers, those wanting peace and those who like to walk without fear of accident will all have their opinions – as do those who think otherwise.

Shouldn’t we all learn to live together?


  1. I'm all for learning to live together - noise, protests, you name it....except of course the smoking part. These last six months have been bliss! Por fin!

  2. We're all up for 'learning to live together' unless this 'togetherness' starts to impinge on our own want/needs/wishes. All of a sudden we all live together 'except of course for .....
    Enough said!

  3. I've never heard of this 3000 € that must be paid when starting your own business - I started my own three years ago, going through all the legal paperwork, and neither the income tax office nor the social security people have ever mentioned it to me.

    Social security payments for the self-employed are a flat rate of 250 € a month, regardless of what you earn (until you go over a million euros a year, when there's some kind of special tax - I don't think that's ever going to be a problem for me). I don't think that's a crippling amount of money, or even very high, compared to other countries.

  4. The €3000 is the minimum capital you need to set up a sociedad limitada -it's not a payment. There are payments to be made to notaries etc as part of the process. To be honest, I don't see what sort of company you are going to set up if you don't have that sort of capital available. If you want to be self-employed but without a company then you just register as an autonomo (freelance). The social security payments cited are the minimum, which is what almost every autonomo in Spain pays until they get within the age range when their final pension entitlement is calculated - at which point they have to decide whether to massively increase their payments to try and get a decent pension. It's a bit of a silly system because the base payment doesn't really give entitlement to anything.

  5. Good article Richard as always you make good balanced arguements and I like how you refer to yourself as a "visitor" with an opinion. I think I´ll start doing the same.

    Graeme is right about setting up a business (sociedad limitada - S.L.)and if you use a gestor it´ll cost you about 1000€ in fees and taxes. I used the AJE to help me and it was a nightmare of paperwork and confusion. That´s probably why Spain is ranked 49th in the world below Armenia in the "Doing Business Report" of how easy it is to do business in a country. See ranking

    I would add that the red tape is a real pain, but by far the biggest obstacle to setting up a business in Spain is the social stigma attached to failure. Parents and friends make it hard for those wanting to start a business.

    Also we need to ask ourselves why only 3-4% of University Students want to be entreprenuers and more than 70% want to be funcionarios.