Inside the Spanish revolution

“We want a new society. This one doesn’t work any more.”

There are thousands of people in Spain right now who feel that they are on the cusp of something very important – a revolution, even. The streets of Madrid are thick with a sense of optimism and hope, crammed with protesters of all ages carrying placards and posters, many scrawled with slogans such as "They do not represent us!" and "In defence of our dreams!".

The city's main square has become a tent city, occupied by groups inspired by uprisings across the Arab world. Everywhere you look, there are banners demanding change and "real democracy".

No one had seen it coming, not even the activists. What started as a fringe protest against rising unemployment and the Spanish government's multibillion-euro bank bailout escalated after several activists were arrested by police and held for 48 hours.

A demonstration against the arrests was organised in the city's main square, Puerta del Sol, and numbers soon snowballed when word got out over the internet. What began as a group of fewer than a hundred activists reached an estimated 50,000 within less than six days.

The protesters whose arrests had sparked the initial demonstration were released and immediately returned to the square. By the time they arrived, the demonstration was no longer just about their treatment at the hands of the police. It was about government corruption, lack of media freedom, bank bailouts, unemployment, austerity measures and privatisation.

"We cannot find a job, we cannot find a house, we cannot find health from the state," said Alejandro Jalón, a 20-year-old student. "I am here because I think we can change something."

Consensus approach

The young people's sense of optimism is sincere. The protesters at Puerta del Sol are interested only in action, not rhetoric. In the square, they built a makeshift campsite, including everything from a children's nursery and a library to a kitchen offering free food donated by local businesses.

In the space of a few days they had created separate working commissions to form proposals for change to current government policy. A social and migration commission would look at immigration policy, the health commission would focus on how to deprivatise health-care services. Other commissions were formed to handle politics, education, the economy and the environment.

Among the camp's immediate demands were calls for electoral reform, the dissolution of the Spanish parliament's second chamber, and an end to a much-despised policy of "salaries for life" for politicians.

The movement itself has no single leader or figurehead; all decisions are made by consensus at general assemblies, held twice daily. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, attend the meetings, and no decision is taken until every single person is in agreement.

The meetings are long and laborious – occasionally lasting more than four hours at a time – but seem so far to have been successful.

"The leadership is our assembly, where the decisions are taken by consensus," says Nadia Moreno, 29. "Many people think that this doesn't work – the reality is we are where we are after six days because of this consensus."

Hopes for a new society

Although the movement is driven by highly political young people between the ages of roughly 20 and 35, a large cross-section of Spanish society appears to support the occupation of the square. There is a festive atmosphere, with families, music and workshops of every kind imaginable taking place throughout the day. Everyone who attends is encouraged to submit suggestions, using ballot boxes, to each of the commissions. All of these are later scrutinised, tabled and debated.

The organisers say that they think the huge success of the camp, which has since spread to more than 60 other Spanish cities, stems in part from what has taken place in Tunisia and Egypt.

"Egypt and Tunisia was a very important catalyst for the movement in Spain," says Beatriz Pérez, a 29-year-old spokeswoman for the movement who also acknowledges the influence of the recent UK student protests.

"I think the people are in the street because they have hope – that's the most important thing," she says.

The feeling of hope is such that many at the camp believe it could be the start of a social and political revolution. It is the first sign, they say, that the uprisings across the Arab world are about to spread across Europe.

Manuel Ferreira, a 66-year-old retired engineer, says the scenes at Puerta del Sol remind him of the student protests in France during the summer of 1968. "It's the same war against capital, against power, against politicians, against the establishment and so on," he explains. "It [the Puerta del Sol protest] is more significant, because through Facebook and the internet, this movement is worldwide . . . I think I am living a new world order."

The start of the demonstrations coincided with regional elections across the country, which the right-leaning Partido Popular (People's Party) won by a landslide.

At one point last week, an electoral committee assembled by the government declared the camp "illegal". But even though there were strong rumours of an impending police "clean-up" operation, and seven riot vans gathered at one side of the square, protesters have remained at all times in a defiant spirit.

"If they take us from the square tomorrow, the only thing that they will get is that they will make us stronger and we will come back stronger," says 22-year-old Juan Martín. "We want a new society. This one doesn't work any more."

Ryan Gallagher is a freelance journalist based in London. His website is here.

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Where Labour has no chance, hold your nose and vote Lib Dem

May's gamble, MacKenzie's obsession and Wisden obituaries - Peter Wilby's First Thoughts.

In 2007 Gordon Brown allowed rumours to circulate that he would call an early general election for the spring of 2008. When he failed to do so, he was considered a coward and a ditherer and never recovered. Theresa May has tried a different strategy. After firmly denying that she would call an early election and killing off speculation about one, she suddenly announced an election after all. Will this work better for her than the opposite worked for Brown?

The Prime Minister risks being seen as a liar and an opportunist. Her demand for “unity” at Westminster is alarming, because it suggests that there is no role for opposition parties on the most important issue of the day. If Labour and the Lib Dems are smart enough to co-operate sufficiently to rally the country against what looks like an attempt to instal an authoritarian, right-wing Tory regime, May, even if she wins the election, could find herself weakened, not strengthened. I never thought I would write this but, in constituencies where Labour has no chance, its supporters should hold their noses and vote Lib Dem.

Taken for granted

I wonder if May, before she took her decision, looked at the precedents of prime ministers who called unnecessary elections when they already had comfortable parliamentary majorities. In 1974, after three and a half years in office, Edward Heath, with a Tory majority of 30, called a “Who runs Britain?” election during a prolonged dispute with the miners. He lost. In 1923, Stanley Baldwin, a new Tory leader sitting on a majority of 75 obtained by his predecessor just a year earlier, called an election because he wished to introduce tariffs, an issue strikingly similar to the one raised by Brexit. He also lost. The lesson, I think (and hope), is that prime ministers take the electorate for granted at their peril.

China’s long game

Commentators compare the crisis ­involving North Korea and the US with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. It doesn’t feel that way to me. For several days that year, nuclear war seemed, to my 17-year-old mind, all but inevitable. I went to the cinema one afternoon and felt surprise when I emerged three hours later to find the world – or, at least, the city of Leicester – going about its business as normal. Two nuclear powers were in direct confrontation. The US threatened to invade communist Cuba to remove Soviet missiles and blockaded the island to prevent deliveries of more weapons. Soviet ships sailed towards the US navy. It wasn’t easy to imagine a compromise, or who would broker one. Nobody doubted that the two sides’ weapons would work. The Soviet Union had carried out nearly 200 nuclear tests. North Korea has claimed just five.

For all the talk of intercontinental missiles, North Korea at present isn’t a credible threat to anybody except possibly its neighbours, and certainly not to the US or Britain. It is in no sense a geopolitical or economic rival to the US. Donald Trump, who, like everybody else, finds the Middle East infernally complicated, is looking for an easy, short-term victory. The Chinese will probably arrange one for him. With 3,500 years of civilisation behind them, they are accustomed to playing the long game.

Mussel pains

Whenever I read Kelvin MacKenzie’s columns in the Sun, I find him complaining about the size of mussels served by the Loch Fyne chain, a subject on which he happens to be right, though one wonders why he doesn’t just order something else. Otherwise, he writes badly and unfunnily, often aiming abuse at vulnerable people such as benefit claimants. It’s a new departure, however, to insult someone because they were on the receiving end of what MacKenzie calls “a nasty right-hander”, apparently unprovoked, in a Liverpool nightclub. He called the victim, the Everton and England footballer Ross Barkley, who has a Nigerian grandfather, “one of our dimmest footballers” and likened him to “a gorilla at the zoo”.
The paper has suspended MacKenzie, a former Sun editor, and Merseyside Police is investigating him for racism, though he claims he didn’t know of Barkley’s ancestry.

Several commentators express amazement that Sun editors allowed such tripe to be published. It was not, I think, a mistake. Britain has no equivalent of America’s successful alt-right Breitbart website, disruptively flinging insults at all and sundry and testing the boundaries of what it calls “political correctness”, because our alt right is already established in the Sun, Express and Mail. To defend their position, those papers will continue to be as nasty as it takes.

Over and out

Easter is the time to read the cricket annual Wisden and, as usual, I turn first to the obituaries. Unlike newspaper obituaries, they record failures as well as successes – those who managed just a few undistinguished performances in first-class cricket and, most poignantly, some who promised much but died early. We learn of a 22-year-old Indian who, during demonstrations against the alleged molestation of a schoolgirl, was shot dead by police and whose grieving mother (invoking the name of one of India’s greatest batsmen) cried, “Bring my Gavaskar back!” In England, two young men drowned, having played one first-class match each, and a 22-year-old Sussex fast bowler, described as “roguish” and “enormously popular”, fell off a roof while celebrating New Year with friends in Scotland. In South Africa, a young batsman was among five municipal employees killed when their truck crashed; the local mayor fled the funeral as his workmates “chanted menacingly” about unpaid wages.

Among the better-known deaths is that of Martin Crowe, probably New Zealand’s best batsman. In a Test match, he once got out on 299 and reckoned the near-miss contributed to the cancer that killed him at 53. “It tore at me like a vulture pecking dead flesh,” he said. Cricket can do that kind of thing to you. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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