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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The future of policing is still at risk even after George Osborne's U-Turn

The police have avoided the worst, but crime is changing and they cannot stand still. 

We will have to wait for the unofficial briefings and the ministerial memoirs to understand what role the tragic events in Paris had on the Chancellor’s decision to sustain the police budget in cash terms and increase it overall by the end of the parliament.  Higher projected tax revenues gave the Chancellor a surprising degree of fiscal flexibility, but the atrocities in Paris certainly pushed questions of policing and security to the top of the political agenda. For a police service expecting anything from a 20 to a 30 per cent cut in funding, fears reinforced by the apparent hard line the Chancellor took over the weekend, this reprieve is an almighty relief.  

So, what was announced?  The overall police budget will be protected in real terms (£900 million more in cash terms) up to 2019/20 with the following important caveats.  First, central government grant to forces will be reduced in cash terms by 2019/20, but forces will be able to bid into a new transformation fund designed to finance moves such as greater collaboration between forces.  In other words there is a cash frozen budget (given important assumptions about council tax) eaten away by inflation and therefore requiring further efficiencies and service redesign.

Second, the flat cash budget for forces assumes increases in the police element of the council tax. Here, there is an interesting new flexibility for Police and Crime Commissioners.  One interpretation is that instead of precept increases being capped at 2%, they will be capped at £12 million, although we need further detail to be certain.  This may mean that forces which currently raise relatively small cash amounts from their precept will be able to raise considerably more if Police and Crime Commissioners have the courage to put up taxes.  

With those caveats, however, this is clearly a much better deal for policing than most commentators (myself included) predicted.  There will be less pressure to reduce officer numbers. Neighbourhood policing, previously under real threat, is likely to remain an important component of the policing model in England and Wales.  This is good news.

However, the police service should not use this financial reprieve as an excuse to duck important reforms.  The reforms that the police have already planned should continue, with any savings reinvested in an improved and more effective service.

It would be a retrograde step for candidates in the 2016 PCC elections to start pledging (as I am certain many will) to ‘protect officer numbers’.  We still need to rebalance the police workforce.   We need more staff with the kind of digital skills required to tackle cybercrime.  We need more crime analysts to help deploy police resources more effectively.  Blanket commitments to maintain officer numbers will get in the way of important reforms.

The argument for inter-force collaboration and, indeed, force mergers does not go away. The new top sliced transformation fund is designed in part to facilitate collaboration, but the fact remains that a 43 force structure no longer makes sense in operational or financial terms.

The police still have to adapt to a changing world. Falling levels of traditional crime and the explosion in online crime, particularly fraud and hacking, means we need an entirely different kind of police service.  Many of the pressures the police experience from non-crime demand will not go away. Big cuts to local government funding and the wider criminal justice system mean we need to reorganise the public service frontline to deal with problems such as high reoffending rates, child safeguarding and rising levels of mental illness.

Before yesterday I thought policing faced an existential moment and I stand by that. While the service has now secured significant financial breathing space, it still needs to adapt to an increasingly complex world. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation