Say I’m Talkin’ ‘Bout Madrid

In the middle of April —and in an attempt to boost the morale of the then-lockdowned local population— Madrid City’s social media accounts posted a new cover of Pongamos que hablo de Madrid [Say I’m Talkin’ ‘Bout Madrid] performed by several Spanish pop singers, including David Summers and Marta Sánchez. The song was originally written by Joaquín Sabina in 1980, in the heyday of Madrid’s then-new indy pop scene, and —especially Antonio Flores’ cover— it quickly went on to become the unofficial anthem of the capital of Spain, a city that had been at the heart of the Franco regime and was now looking to become liberal and cosmopolitan.

One month after the council’s initiative —and blatantly disregarding the advice of her own team of experts— the president of the Madrid region, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, urged the Spanish central government to relax the lockdown restrictions in her region, uttering a sentence that she knew would send shockwaves: “If you ruin Madrid, you will ruin Spain”. Forty years had passed since Sabina wrote his song, four decades devoted to a project which, in my view, has not received the attention it deserves: the construction of Madrid as Spain’s only large city.

While probing the reasons for Spain’s malaise, it has been said that Spain found itself without a collective project after achieving the two great objectives it had set itself at the end of the Franco era: to bring back democracy through the 1978 Constitution and to become a European partner by joining the Common Market in 1986. However, this statement is inaccurate: right from the start they also intended to turn Madrid into a great economic, financial and political capital, a project that went hand in had with a reformulation of Spanish nationalism, an idea that had been largely discredited due to its close ties with the Franco regime. Spanish PM José María Aznar put wind in the sails of the project with his so-called “second Transition”, together with an outrageous privatisation plan. The PSOE and the Spanish left either embraced his policies or at least didn’t oppose their core elements.

This project has totally destroyed any hope of turning Spain into a federal country and the dream of having Madrid share its capital city status with Barcelona. In Spain historically you had had a duality between Madrid and Barcelona (or a triangle, if you are willing to throw Bilbao into the equation to some extent), not unlike the relationship that Rome and Milan have in Italy. However, as Germà Bel has beautifully explained, Spain was hoping to emulate France and, therefore, Madrid had to become Spain’s own Paris. So nothing could be further from a federal model, where the capital tends to be a tier-two city (Canberra in Australia, Ottawa in Canada, Washington in the US), while the great metropolis achieves its status thanks to its capacity to draw in people, talent and finances, not because of the privileges afforded by hosting the seat of government and the country’s institutions.

In 2018 Madrid’s GDP and income per capita surpassed Catalonia’s. Needless to say, Madrid’s nationalistic media quickly put it down to Madrid’s “liberal openness” beating Catalonia, a region that looked inwardly as it “daydreamed” about independence. Still, this does not mean that Madrid is now the liberal, cosmopolitan city it had hoped to become. The fundamental contradiction between Madrid’s economic prosperity and the region’s musty politics (the list of the region’s latest —and most peculiar— presidents provides plenty of evidence of the latter) recently inspired Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca to pen an article for La Vanguardia suggesting that the underlying reasons [for this failure] are to be found in Madrid’s politics: unlike in the main European metropolises, an antiquated right dominates Madrid’s political scene. Sánchez-Cuenca wrote that “Madrid’s self-proclaimed liberal penchant is a put-on. Nowadays Madrid is the epicentre of Spain’s ignorant and bigoted nationalism”.

The emerging pro-independence feelings shared by many in Catalonia in recent years can be explained in part by Madrid’s political drift. President Díaz Ayuso herself has explained that Madrid has become “Spain’s workhorse” because “our region has kept taxes down for the last 16 years”. In other words, Madrid’s fiscal dumping has been a magnet for the wealthy and their capital. It remains to be seen whether Spain’s periphery and sparsely populated (neglected?) areas are willing to keep pumping up Madrid’s balloon and putting up with the region’s fundamental lack of solidarity in the post-pandemic scenario.

While Joaquín Sabina, like most of the Spanish left, remains “deeply shaken by what’s going on in Catalonia”, Spanish “modernity” is nowhere to be found in Madrid.

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