Losing the narrative in Spain

It's probably just as well that Elena Salgado (economics minister and 2d vice president) and José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (president) have not asked my advice about how to rescue the Spanish economy and their government, but maybe they should—they've clearly run out of ideas and when they pretend to have some, end up contradicting each other. Maybe following my counsel wouldn't save them (I fear it's too laate for that), but it could at least lend a little dignity to the débâcle.

In case you haven't been following, here's what's been happening. Zapatero and his ministers, facing a "crisis" that has hit Spain harder than any other major industrial economy in Europe (see my earlier blogs on why), have suddenly announced drastic cuts of social benefits they had promised never to cut. This is supposed to reduce the deficit, but since it is also sure to slow the recovery and cut government income to cover essential costs, it may not even do that. Cutting those benefits has also meant alienating the Socialist Party's usually steadfast supporters, the unions, who very reluctantly are finding themselves forced to strike. Reluctantly, because they know that damaging the government can only benefit the other major party, the Partido Popular, which they expect to be much more anti-labor. Yet the union leadership feels forced to respond to the anger of their members in order to preserve their own legitimacy as leaders, and their most powerful weapon has always been a strike. So they call a strike that they know will have no effect except as a demonstration of anger, and certainly won't help revive the economy. The government cannot be forced to reverse the cuts, and the strikers cannot reach their real targets, if there really are any.

If the government asked me, I'd tell them (I'm a writer, so this is the way I see things) that a big part of their problem is that they don't have a good story. It has always been an essential part of any successful leadership to explain why we are where we are and where we're going and how we plan to get there. An outstanding contemporary example has been Fidel Castro: such a magnificent story-teller that he has been able to keep a very large proportion of the Cuban population loyal to his vision even through the most disastrous crises—some of them crises that could easily be blamed on his faulty decisions, but not the way he tells it.

But that's an extreme example. Here's another one: Obama. A different vision (from Fidel's), but a coherent one that he can explain convincingly. You don't have to convince all of the people, but you have to convince a large part of them if you want them to follow you.

Zapatero used to have a story, kind of flimsy and contradictory, but good enough for his purposes of getting elected and cobbling together enough votes from different parties to pass important legislation. The story was that he represented some kind of socialism-lite, never clearly defined beyond what he called its good "talante" or, roughly, vibes. A socialism that was conciliatory (always open to dialogue), in favor or rights for all kinds of minorities including invalids (subsidies for caretakers was one of his proudest legislative victories), homosexual marriage, a more liberal abortion law; a socialism that would always favor workers and pensioners, and a socialism that would maybe free the state just a little bit from the stranglehold of the Catholic Church. Where all this was going, that is, what sort of society he imagined he was constructing, was never even mentioned (a big difference from earlier Spanish socialists), but it didn't matter, because the other guys—the unpopular Partido Popular—was so awful on just these issues.

Now with these deep cuts, he's disappointed everybody who was trying to believe in him. He's lost his story.

It may be too late for him (who will believe him now if he reverses policy again?), but the Socialist Party should still be able to recover. If the Populares win the next elections because the Socialist supporters stay home (a likely scenario), their government is almost sure to be dependent on the support of other parties and their famously indecisive leader, Mariano Rajoy, can be counted on to botch things so badly that voters will hunger for an alternative. So a PP government, if it happens, will probably be brief. But the Socialists will need to recover their story.

And they have one. It's just that their current leadership has forgotten it, or has chosen to ignore it. The Socialist Party think tank run by Jesús Caldera has elaborated a vision of where Spain should be going, toward a more equitable, more efficient, better educated and freer society exploiting Spain's great human and natural resources. They came up with a sensible plan that was published and cheerfully ignored. And that one-man think tank Felipe Gónzalez, the man who recreated the Socialist Party and led it after Franco and who new presides over the European Community's council of "wise men", also has some excellent ideas; he has always been one of Spain's most convincing storytellers. And there are other thinkers, younger ones, who will emerge and be heard. But they've got to get their story together.

(For my earlier comments on Caldera's think tank, on Felipe González and other Spanish issues, just click on the keyword "Spain" below.)

El Banco Mundial advierte de que la situación de España es "muy grave" — ELPAÍS.com