I was talking to a friend yesterday and, looking for an analogy to explain some impression I had of the current economic and political situation in Spain, I was reminded of the case of Britain in the 70’s. A hugely, unsustainably, unproductive public sector, controlled by the unions who more or less dictated their own terms; millions of people paid to burn money; an ever-smaller productive sector struggling to pay for it all; successive governments full of cowards, incompetents and ideologues who could not, or would not, deal with the situation; an increasing number of immigrants willing to do jobs and accept wages that the welfare state, and general prosperity, have made the locals treat with contempt.
The role of the Indian and Pakistani immigrants is being played by the Chinese. Although there have been Chinese restaurants in most Spanish towns for over 30 years, in the last few years there has been an explosion in corner shops and cheap boutiques run by Chinese. They work very long hours, have low overheads and no employees, and offer people what they want when they want it. They give their children Spanish names and make sure they integrate, study hard and don't have to spend their lives working 15 hours a day 7 days a week to make a living. It all sounds very familiar.
Because of the system of public employment, devised to combat a particular type of political corruption in the 19th C, it is almost impossible to remove the unnecessary, lazy or incompetent. With the problems the country has now there is a need for someone to change a lot of things. Mariano Rajoy, despite his merits (not being Zapatero is a good start), is unlikely to have the guts to do what has to be done. It isn’t just fighting with the unions and losing the next election that’s the problem; it’s also that restructuring the entire economy means a great deal of hardship for many people. In 80’s Britain the result was that by 1988 it was a different country from the Britain of 1979. Without the reforms, without Margaret Thatcher, it would not have happened. But for many people it meant years of hardship before the change caught up with them.
I don’t see any Spanish government in the near future changing the employment conditions of their employees (they certainly won’t ask those of us who pay them what we think). So there will be no 80's in Spain in the near future, but we could do with one.