Spain has turned into a one-party state

Virtually no dissent was allowed against the disastrous and repressive lockdown.

Mark Nayler


I live in southern Spain, in a small village near Malaga. I spent lockdown there with my girlfriend. One Saturday afternoon a couple of weeks into quarantine, we realised we needed a few items of shopping, including the essential bottle or two of wine. But shortly after setting out for the only supermarket open, my girlfriend was stopped by the local policeman, who asked her where she was going and what for. When she floundered under his humourless questioning and said she was going to buy wine (neglecting to mention the other items), she was told to return home immediately.

It was a small but telling example of how common decency had deserted a normally personable officer – and one that also revealed the baffling nuances of lockdown. Who was to say what was ‘essential’ and why? If it wasn’t permissible to visit a shop only if you were buying items deemed ‘inessential’ by the government, would police actually check your shopping bag? From the beginning of lockdown, the Spanish government classed tobacconists as ‘essential’ services, so had it not been Saturday afternoon, when most shops in Spain close, my girlfriend would have been able to go and buy a packet of cigarettes without any worries.

Everyone who lived in Spain during the two-month Covid lockdown earlier this year will have similar stories to tell – tales of encounters with police officers wielding absurd new powers, ranging from the right to rummage through grocery bags to determining, to the metre, how far dog-walkers should stray from their homes. My girlfriend was lucky to avoid a fine or even arrest for her attempt to make a ‘non-essential’ shopping trip.

Before it came to power in June 2018, the socialist-led government of Pedro Sanchez had vowed to repeal a divisive piece of legislation introduced in 2015 by the conservatives. The Citizen Safety Law – often referred to informally as the ‘Gag Law’ – imposes fines for actions such as protesting outside parliament in Madrid and photographing police officers, and was slammed by the Spanish left for hindering free speech. But now Sanchez’s party seems to have overcome any qualms it might once have had about using this legislation. It was under this very law that much of the lockdown was enforced. During the first 75 days of lockdown, there were almost 1.1million fines for infringements of the stay-at-home orders.

It wasn’t just sweeping confinement orders and ever-present police that made quarantine in Spain so oppressive. There was also a stifling lack of debate about the lockdown’s (often risible) internal inconsistencies, its overall merits and flaws, and its supposed necessity – both in congress and in the media. With all the time in the world to think, it was natural to wonder about the wisdom of confinement and to ask oneself questions which the country’s politicians had no interest in. Were there perhaps good arguments for varying lockdown measures depending on how affected or densely populated a particular region was? And if not – if blanket, indiscriminate quarantine within provinces was the best solution – why?

Similarly, did it make sense to impose such a strict lockdown on all age groups? What were the likely consequences of lockdown on everything from Spain’s fragile economy to people’s physical and mental health? And were there other effective measures that would leave less damage in their wake? Was it necessary to have police and Civil Guards out on the streets in such numbers? Were they, in fact, intimidating people more than they were helping or protecting them?

Except for the final two (to which the answers are a straightforward ‘no’ and ‘yes’ respectively), these are complex and nuanced questions, rendered even more so by the unprecedented circumstances that surrounded the pandemic. But throughout March and April, there was a notable absence of ongoing, even-handed discussion of such issues in Spain. Indeed, the standard response to even a hint of lockdown scepticism quickly became: ‘Well, what else do you propose?’ Accusations of callousness or indifference to public safety sometimes followed or were at least implied.

This tense, slightly sinister ambience was not just owed to the socialist government’s authoritarian stance. The opposition – most vocally represented by the conservative People’s Party (PP) and the right-wing Vox – contented themselves with hurling insults at Sanchez and his deputy, Pablo Iglesias (leader of the government’s junior coalition partner, the leftist Podemos), rather than engaging in intelligent criticism of the confinement measures. And while it was refreshing to hear at least some dissent from the official state line in congress, Vox’s overwrought rhetoric further stigmatised lockdown scepticism – criticism of the government’s stance became associated exclusively with (or was at least portrayed as the sole preserve of) the far right. Notable by its vocal absence during these polarised sessions was the centrist party Ciudadanos, which could have provided a much-needed third approach – namely, keeping a check on potential abuses of power by the government, but without resorting to the hateful pyrotechnics of Vox and the PP.

Sanchez has recently appealed to the ‘patriotism’ of his enemies in an attempt to make them drop their ideological differences and focus on dealing with post-Covid recovery. It’s a revealing choice of phrasing, implying as it does that to criticise his handling of the virus, or his proposed manner of managing its economic effects, constitutes insufficient love of one’s country. But we should welcome the fact that Spain’s parties haven’t formed a united front on these matters: the result would be a monotone, cross-party force even less tolerant of dissent and legitimate questioning than the one currently in power. No government should be free of criticism, not even – or perhaps especially not – in times of crisis. And no one should be fined for going to the shop, even during a pandemic.

Mark Nayler is a journalist based in Spain.

Picture by: Getty.

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Gareth Edward KING

22nd July 2020 at 9:38 am

Flossy Morris, Public sector workers in Spain amount to 3 million, so they’ve been getting their furlough money. Figures put out suggest that 8 million Spaniards (including me) are dependent on the state social security system (SEPE) which also includes those who’ve been laid off ‘temporarily’ as from March. In terms of this latter group, it’s not expected by any margin that most of these people will be back at work come September. I’d talk about the ‘calm before the storm’: in July and August people are back in their home towns or on the beach. According to El Mundo (last week) Madrid is being avoided and that the ‘sierras’ (NW of the city) are unusually ‘busy’. Money isn’t being spent in the capital (I’ve already quoted 24 million losses just in this region) and businesses aren’t opening up in what is essentially a service sector economy. There are next to no tourists. All I see is a fearful population. It begs to be seen whether it’ll all spring back to life come September. If it doesn’t we’re finished and we can’t all be at home tele-working. When Sánchez came back to Moncloa (governmental base) yesterday after his stint begging in Brussels he received a standing ovation from his ministers! What is there to celebrate? His onerous policies have caused the Spanish economy to contract (by 14% come the end of this year) when it was growing by 1.6% in January; sovereign debt was at 98% of GDP. With 140 billion ‘borrowed’ from the ECB split between loans (70 billion) and the rest as part of ‘lost funds’ (it’ll mean cuts and heavier taxation rates). Spain is in enormous trouble and it can’t even lean on its tourist base anymore due to government inertia and distaste (you should list to Consumer Minister Alberto Garzón!).

Andrew-Paul Shakespeare

21st July 2020 at 8:58 pm

My father lives in France. During the wrist of the lockdown, he wasn’t allowed to leave his house without making an online application and printing off a permit.

One day, he was out for his daily walk, and made the mistake of pausing to look in an estate agent’s window. Just at that moment, a police car pulled up, and the copper demanding what he was doing.

“Taking my exercise,” he replied, “here’s my permit.”

“It doesn’t like like exercise to me,” retorted the copper: “Go home immediately!”

Gareth Edward KING

21st July 2020 at 2:10 pm

The article comes across as a little dated. Spain’s been out of lockdown supposedly since June 21st although really in Madrid you’d be hard-pressed to see much difference. The author’s right in terms of the cross-the-board agreement on the lockdown, but failed to mention that Ciudadanos did Sánchez’s dirty work for him by propping up the government by voting in with PSOE-UP three times in order for the lockdown to be extended six weeks. Since then in two regions: Galicia and Catalonia, they’re all but under lockdown again due to supposed outbreaks which are really only positive results to Covid tests; often they’re not even symptomatic. But what the heck! we’ll go on with restricting basic movements yet again! The government’s only raison d’etre is based on ‘fear’ it’s realised that banging on about this non-existent health crisis is politically feasible; none of the other parties are anti-lockdown per se and everybody goes along with this muzzle-wearing mantra. It’s profoundly depressing: I’ve been here 23 years! I went to university here and now look at the capital! It’s on it’s way to turning into a provincial backwater; Madrid region itself has ‘lost’ 24 billion Euros off its GDP since March, plus 300 million off July ‘Pride’ which was cancelled. Sánchez spent the weekend in Brussels aiming for a loan with no conditions attached of 140 billion! It was originally 180 billion according to the EU to be shared out between Spain and Italy. The total figure was 350 billion from the EU’s coffers for all Covid-‘affected’ countries, but as grants and loans not just strict condition loans. Spain’s not going to get the money and why should it? Sánchez should have thought first about the economic implications of a March 14-June 21st lockdown. 90 billion Euros have been knocked off tourism (12.3% GDP) almost as if it didn’t count for anything, but they don’t seem too concerned, to be honest. Where is this ‘lost’ money going to come from? If the people go along with this and are content to keep their ‘noses clean’ and walk around with their faces covered up, as if Madrid were Tehran, I have no sympathy whatsoever. There has to be a push-back and it’ll only arrive once the Spanish wake up out of this trance that they seem to be in with this ‘Papi-State-protect-us-from-all-risks’. It’s embarrasing!

Marvin Jones

21st July 2020 at 11:50 am

Why did your girlfriend just mention the wine, was she high and merry? simples, all she had to say “food”. But no, you pair of arrogant just did not think that you are visitors in someone else’s country, and no matter how inadequate, their laws to be obeyed. Should you two learn the language?

Barry O’Barmy

21st July 2020 at 9:45 am

This is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The example you give seems reasonably to support the notion that “lock-down” is an authoritarian over-reaction, but viruses are transmitted person to person as they survive only for very short periods outside living cells. It is therefore essential to stopping the spread of viruses to keep people from interacting with each other and this requires quite short periods of time to see a virus “die out”. Criticism of such lock-downs is misplaced in the context of epidemics ——what would be unacceptable in normal times is essential during an epidemic as Joe Public is insufficiently aware to self-isolate. It is the medical ignorance of the public that makes lock-downs necessary.

Barry O’Barmy

21st July 2020 at 9:52 am

Indeed, “freedom” in times of epidemics is freedom to pass on the responsible virus. This should be unacceptable to us all, but ideas of freedom under the circumstance of an epidemic are misplaced.

Gareth Edward KING

21st July 2020 at 3:43 pm

I don’t know where you got 50% from? Was that its mortality rate? According to a virologist at the University of Bonn in terms of Covid-19 the mortality rate was at a mere 0.06% of a sample of 900 people with similar demographics to either the UK or Spain (age, weight, general health etc.). That’s hardly a ‘killer disease’ is it? Additionally, at least in Spain, in terms of 40,000 fatalities (more or less, these figures are notoriously unreliable) 80% were of men aged over 70 with other morbidities such as obesity, diabetes mellitus II etc.). I would suggest that we’re talking about an overblown political reaction to one Coronovirus (there are c. 14 ‘species’ in the family Coronoviridae) which fortunately has left young people alone, can you imagine if young people had been amongst the fatalities which is certainly the case with flu viruses? I, for one, value freedom very much indeed much more than nebulous concepts such as ‘safety’ which is impossible to define and certainly even more difficult to guarantee.

Barry O’Barmy

21st July 2020 at 3:55 pm

I did NOT say coronavirus mortality is 50%. Can you not read???? Re-read what I DID write, not what you imagine. Good grief!!!!!!!!!!!

jamie murray

21st July 2020 at 10:35 pm

I think most people agree there was a virus of whatever danger/mortality rate level people want to argue it was worthy of, however the reaction to it was painfully hysterical and continues to be so, do you agree? Whether your answer to that question is yes or no the issue is, what do we do when the next virus hits, do we duck back down behind the sofa and quiver or do we implement specific strategies to protect the vulnerable and let everybody else carry on as normal?.
It’s very easy to say that’s selfish and ignorant when one has a (I would imagine very comfortable) consultants pension to fall back on, when one is facing job loss with hungry mouths to feed ones perspective is markedly different! Does the need for “safety” outweigh the need to have a job and pay ones bills, after all, poverty, unemployment and desperation are just as much a killer as “the” virus!.

Gareth Edward KING

21st July 2020 at 2:19 pm

‘Safety’ isn’t everything. It depends on whether the populace wants to trade in ‘safety at all costs’ versus democracy at all costs. Often they’re incompatible. For the moment, the Spanish has traded in the fact that Spain re-gained its democracy in 1977 (for all its faults) and have gone for ‘safety’, which is fine, if you want the state to stick its muzzle in even the most basic aspects of life. It began with ‘no smoking’, ‘gender equality’ and now it’s ‘muzzle mania’. Anybody would think that a ‘virus’ was something so unusual and so omnipresent that enormous sacrifices have to be made ‘just in case’. I don’t buy it.

Barry O’Barmy

21st July 2020 at 3:10 pm

This virus KILLS. Suppose it killed 50%, would you be so casual about it being spread by people demanding “freedom” to infect you? I very much doubt it.

nick hunt

21st July 2020 at 3:12 pm

How anti-public you are. Especially when expert opinion over the value of lockdown is extremely divided. For example, Sweden is now down to 5 deaths a day, and never crippled its economy. Many experts see that as clear evidence that lockdown was a mistake. Will you demean their intelligence like you do Joe Public’s? Also, in which camp are you; ignorant laypersons or omniscient experts?

Barry O’Barmy

21st July 2020 at 3:49 pm

As a (retired) consultant physician, I am sure I know a lot more about viruses and their effects than you, so I am an “omniscient expert” by comparison. Yes, Joe Public is thoroughly ignorant of Medicine, apart from what he reads on Google and judging by your comment, you fit into that category.

Vivian Darkbloom

21st July 2020 at 7:56 pm


Steve Roberts

21st July 2020 at 8:38 am

Nayler writes of the specific circumstances in Spain and there will undoubtedly be numerous different accounts of the forms of draconian authoritarianism imposed upon the demos throughout the world. As with all state impositions it is inevitable that there will be a difference of approaches by the ruling established orders, some will rule with a velvet glove hiding the iron fist of denial of freedoms, one could say preferring a more consensual method , other states will be more openly agressive in their impositions. Some will dominate with a “one party state” some will achieve the same but with a multi party system that allows more criticism.
But these differences and Nayler’s understanding misses the point entirely, it really becomes just a wish to be heard, to be able to dissent a little about particular aspects or overeach of authorities.
All established orders will find ways to absorb this limited criticism either during or post imposition of the unprecedented denial of freedoms we have just lived through.
What Nayler is really embarking upon is a journey of deciding which freedoms to give away and why. In the face of unparalleled state power this becomes little more than a whinge, albeit a genuine one, and is easily batted away as we have witnessed.
The only way to protect our freedoms, which have been so destructively taken away, was to oppose the entire narrative of the unecessary, irrational and destructive draconianism imposed upon us all, that only happened in a very small minority of situations where some news outlets , expert epidemiologists and other commentators dissented and insisted on defending our freedoms and rational thought and action in the face of global elites that collectively morally and politically collapsed and for which we will pay the price, not least in the fact the elites have become emboldened in the capacity they have again to control society at will whatever form it takes. Shame on all those political activists who failed to grasp the nettle in a period of crisis, who failed to dissent, failed to demand protection of our basic freedoms, failed to oppose an irrational destructive established order, many of them consider themselves radicals who should show political leadership to others who perhaps are not so heavily involved in political life, conspicuous by absence springs to mind.

Flossy Morris

21st July 2020 at 7:07 am

This incident with the policeman that Mark Nayler describes in the piece is shockingly close to what happened to a lady, who my Portuguese mother-in-law knows, in Torres Novas in the Ribatejo region. She went out of the main entrance of the building where her flat is located and almost immediately a police car pulled up by the pavement.
“Where are you going?”
“Give us a list and we’ll go for you,” came the authoratative reply. My wife recounted this event to me after she spoke with her mother one evening. The lady apparently complied totally.
“This is what fifty years of dictatorship does to a country,” my wife told me. Part of me can understand this, of course, since the lady was old enough to have lived under Salazar.
My father-in-law, who is in a home with Parkinsons, is less impressed with the restrictions that are still going on. Only recently has he and the other “inmates” (for that seems to be what they are now) of the home been allowed visitors, only now it’s restricted to just half an hour, once a week, sitting in the reception area, sitting in chairs facing each other two metres appart and by appointment whereas before my mother-in-law visited him every week day in the privacy of his room.
“There’s no point in you coming anymore,” he tells her, annyoyed by the fact that they are being watched so any conversation is not private. He asks constantly when things will go back to normal. He’s sick of this and it’s doing him no good mentally or physically: he’s falling down more and from what we’ve heard the disease is accelerating meaning he will be bedridden soon. My wife’s preparing herself for the fact that she may never see him again as her mother tells her not to visit for fear of infection. They’ve done a good job of terrifying the populace.
They can draw as many hearts and rainbows on any billboard on any street and window in any country but in my estimations this has been an act of mass cruelty and the highlighting of our powerlessness as individuals in the face of this hysteria leaves you hollow. It does me anyway.

Gareth Edward KING

21st July 2020 at 3:59 pm

I agree entirely. I’m in next-door Spain so we’re well aware of the fatality rate in Portugal being less than a tenth that what it is here. Frankly, after four months I’m sick to the back teeth of this ‘virus’, but it won’t go away, well, IT has, but politically it won’t. This totalitarian government bangs on and on about it and never mind about the economy! But I see now that it has no choice in the matter, it’s not as if it’ll turn around and say ‘Whoops! we got it ALL wrong and we shouldn’t’ve listened to that nice Professor Neil Ferguson’, ‘Well, Boris did! so we thought we’d go along with it too being as we’re such GOOD Europeans!’ Sánchez has mud on his handsome face but it won’t be his face that’ll save him now! However, for the present he’s little to worry about as he has the population on his side, in fact, if he called for another lockdown he’d get it no problem, the Spaniards seem to be gagging for it again! If Salvador Illa along with Fernando Simón had said that we need to put red, frilly knickers on our faces for the time being! Everyone’d’ve gone along with it! (similar to Peter Hitchens’ analogy with the let’s-cut-your-leg-off doctor). Spain is no different to ‘safe space’ Britain, it really isn’t!

Flossy Morris

21st July 2020 at 8:35 pm

I take your point about the virus having gone away; I would say it hasn’t but it’s on the wane and it’s just time for people generally to be grown up about the situation and live alongside the virus like we do others. About it going away politically, what you say is probably true. I’m no political expert but on a psychological level, the politicians seem to be playing, along with the media that never shuts up about the existential threat of the coronavirus, a deeply cynical game. I would say that people in power want the virus to remain psychologically and for that to happen politics and media are being used.
In a perverse way, the politicians have struck gold; for decades the working classes have been angry with them because they never felt supported by them. They could not protect their jobs, they could not protect the borders or stop the transformation of their neighbourhoods, they could not protect the poorest from crime, but now they can do something in their interests that everyone can agree on: they can protect our health and the majority has embraced it. I would have thought that more people, at least four months on, would have cottoned on to the fact that their best interests are not served by these “experts” and that we were being taken for a ride, yet people, even months on, still keep cowering in doorways when I walk past in the fresh air, where transmission is infinitesimally unlikely.
I don’t know if Spaniards have been getting furlough money. Maybe they will have a change of mind when that stops. I thought that might be the point people here have enough. Now I have my doubts. We shall see.

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