At the start of one of the busiest streets in Madrid’s center, locally known as La Castellana, in the shadow of the worlds largest Spanish flag, sits a deserted gray square and an abandoned bank. The oddest attraction in the area though isn’t the bad Spanish copy of Madame Tussaud’s, the grand old Spanish national library or the token Hard Rock Cafe. It is Margaret Thatcher square. Or Plaza Margaret Thatcher.
Less of a plaza and more of an elevated piece of concrete, Plaza Margaret Thatcher sits in front of, rather ironically, the abandoned Banco Madrid, that went bankrupt, and until recently was inhabited by a group of squatters. Now, homeless people use it for shelter with associated types of cardboard boxes.
The bank sits in a dark corner of Plaza de Colón, which is dedicated to the famous Spanish backed sailor, it’s disputed that he was Spanish, but that he was actually Italian or possibly Portuguese. He sits on top of the plinth in the middle of the road, used as a modern day roundabout for drivers to navigate in congested roads in the capital of Spain.
The bank sits with its 1980s curvy architecture and black-and-white patched coloring. Somehow, it has managed to become part of the background of this gigantic plaza in the upmarket neighbourhood of Salamanca.
Similar to the fashions of the late ’80s and early ’90s, right-wing economics become popular again after the financial crash of 2008. This plan was, as Owen Jones refers to it, capitalism on steroids. It is Neo-Liberal economics.
In 2014 Ana Botella, wife of ex-prime minister José Aznar, was mayor of Madrid. She held Margaret Thatcher in high esteem, but also as a guiding light for neo-liberal economics.
Thatcher famously, along with Reagan in the United States, pushed for privatisation of services in the early ’90s. This caused a short boom in the economy and made many people rich. On the flipside, it also made many people poorer. Since then income inequality, the gap between the richest and poorest workers, has grown astronomically.
The neo-liberal economic plan is to privatise as much as possible, slash government spending on social welfare, deregulate the financial market and disempower the unions. This started in the early 90s and has continued to mold societies it has touched since. Regan took on the air traffic controllers and Thatcher took on the miners. They both won.
The ethos of neoliberalism is to create an environment where people of privilege, and that have money, can thrive and make more profit. It puts individual aspirations above those of society. The belief that if you are poor, it is your fault becomes engrained into the population. Instead of an empathetic society, you are left with an economic monster eating everything in its path. Empathy for others is scarce.
Thankfully, this monster has never been fully embraced in Spain, as they have not been very accepting of neoliberalism. Evidence of this stance was clear when they tried to rename the main square, where people meet on New Year’s Eve, Vodafone Sol. People could be witnessed walking around the Sol Metro crossing out the word Vodafone with black permanent markers. The public would not even flinch.
Margaret Thatcher is probably one of the most memorable Prime Ministers in the UK, and she is also the one that divides public opinion.
Neo-liberalism has become the new norm and has led to many changes in the world, mostly in the anglo western society. The EU pushes and upholds this value, and proved its dedication, when it forced austerity upon the member states that were controlled by Germany and the European Central bank. A shell of a country that was once Greece stands as a mark of this period.
Economics has not had it easy recently. Barclays, a British bank, once held a subsidiary which had its office on one of the corners of Colòn’s roundabout, has now gone.
Something tells me, even Colòn would have had trouble navigating the waves of Brexit.
Thatcher was famous for saying there is no such thing as society. She certainly changed it.
She changed the ethos of the UK. Many community strong towns outside London, based around an industry, changed into ghost towns as the industry shut down. Meanwhile, a more independent ’you have to make it on your own’ sort of country emerged. This is illustrated further by the UK reliance on the financial powerhouse that is London. The cracks in this plan is showing now with the mess that is Brexit.
The ghosts of these industrial towns remain in the form of scarcely populated towns with high unemployment rates and higher problems with health and social care problems. This economic punished workers further when companies started to open rafts of call centers and warehouses in these areas. They are now marked with zero hours contracts and low wage jobs, with the populations of these towns having nowhere else to turn.
Currently, the left-wing administration in the city of Madrid is looking into changing the name of the plaza to resemble the achievement of all women. More fitting to its surroundings, as it is surrounded by Calle Goya and Plaza del Colón. Hopefully, they can use his area to reflect, the often forgotten, contribution women have made to Spanish society. That is if you believe in society…
The way that it currently stands just represents the failures of the neoliberal capitalist dream that plunged the world into financial turbulence in 2008. With more financial regulation, it arguably would never have happened. The bankers would’ve not been allowed free rein and gambled with such high risks, which is of course what caused the financial crisis.
Maybe then, the general population of countries such as the UK and Spain, would not have had to pay the price of austerity to bail out the banks that Gordon Brown, Prime Minister of the UK at the time of the crisis, said were ’too big to fail’. What was once a gleaming and attractive economic model has now descended into poverty and ruin. It limps on for its survival.
Unfortunately, the UK is looking at placing a public statue of Margaret Thatcher in her hometown Grantham. At this current time, it is being debated how high the plinth should be to stop any antisocial behaviour happening around the statue.
Plaza Margaret Thatcher currently has a 1 star rating on Google maps. The plaza needs to be revamped, like our economy, to be for, and represent, the population of the country. Not to reflect the political classes wishes as it has up till now.
No matter how high they put the statue, or what they change the name of the plaza to, the changes that Margaret Thatcher made to our society, by changing our economic model in the favor of the capitalists, that ripped our communities apart, will live on a lot longer than any statue will stand.
This is why capitalism needs to change to work for society, and not against it.
This article will feature alongside others from my up and coming book: Spain, Capitalism and English Teaching. Due Summer 2019