I got back to Ramsgate last night, and I am trying to arrange to fly to Accra tonight. I pause to note down the train of thought that went through my mind as I left Madrid. I should start by saying I have no expertise on Spain at all; having by some strange chance been there less often than to any other EU country!
I was there as a guest of INSEAD, and in consequence living in great luxury at the Villa Real hotel, right next to the Spanish Parliament on the Plaza de las Cortes, and very nice it is too. Watching the politicians, lobbyists and senior businessmen in the expensive bars and restaurants of that area, and the ladies shopping in the designer boutiques off the Calle Mayor, there was no clue at all that Spain was in any kind of economic difficulty.
Except for one – the quite extraordinary police presence everywhere. There were more policemen than tourists in the Plaze de las Cortes, and more policemen around our hotel than around the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. There was an unmistakeable frisson in the air. The elite were living in – a description applied to the late Hapsburg Empire – a nervous splendour.
You did not have to move far from the centre of the city to get a very different picture. A Japanese visitor might get the impression that the Spanish word for shop is “liquidacion”. I knew that a proprty bubble collapse had been a major factor in the Spanish economic crisis, but I was shocked by the extraordinary number of empty homes for sale not only in new developments, but in old established communities. They represent not a loss to building speculators, but repossessed homes of families of the unemployed. The scale of the disaster is stunning to comprehend.
On a visit to friends in Toledo, I found the same thing apparent even right in the heart of the old town, with for sale and to rent signs eveywhere. Almost the entire distance of the motorway between Madrid and Toledo is flanked with vast modern stores and depots selling building supplies, home improvement products and construction equipment. Some were obviously closed down, some you could not tell immediately as you drove past, but certainly customer car parks were completely empty. It was like some strange post-apocalyptic scene; fifty miles of it.
On the positive side, my INSEAD hosts were not only delightful and generous, but were a great deal more open to radical or non-establishment thought than I would expect to find in a similar business-oriented group in the UK. We had a very good discussion. Of course, those of their members who chose to attend to hear me were a self-selecting group, but I was nonetheless impressed with their openness.
Something else nagged at my mind in Spain, I am not sure whether it was set off by my having watched “Pan’s Labyrinth” again recently. In Toledo I was horrified by the Army Museum, a dreadfully ugly concrete structure slapped right on the the Alcazar. If you can imagine encasing the whole North and East of Castle Rock in Edinburgh below the castle in a giant concrete bunker, bristling with vents and conduits, that would give you the idea.
Yesterday was a national holiday in Spain to celebrate Columbus’ “discovery” of America. A military ceremony and parade was the centrepiece. I found myself in the peculiar position of being one of the very very few non-military people allowed to walk in the Plaza de las Cortes, while Spanish families, many of whom had turned up with Spanish flags to wave, were being turned away in their thousands. I imagine there may have been other parts of the city where the public could watch the soldiers march by, but at the centrepiece it was very strictly invitation only, with large stands erected for the military officers and families and doubtless some of those I had seen as clients of the expensive restaurants and shops. Lots of uniforms. These things are a matter of feel – and the police who were turning away the ordinary people who came to support the event (and I saw no evidence of any coming to protest), were turning them away with a definite and highly pronounced air of hostility
Just a few days in Spain, viewed from the Bullingdon side of the metaphorical barricade. But it left me feeling that Spain’s elite sees Spain’s people as the enemy. Watch this space.