Ever wondered why Madrid has a square named after British conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher? Alan McGuire finds out
Next to Plaza Colon, in the shadow of the world’s largest Spanish flag, sits a deserted, dreary plaza in front of an abandoned bank. This is Plaza Margaret Thatcher.
Less of a plaza and more of an extended smoking area for the neighbouring Hard Rock Cafe, Plaza Margaret Thatcher sits in front of the abandoned Banco Madrid offices that went bankrupt in 2015. For a short time, these offices were inhabited by a group of neo-Nazi squatters until they were evicted. Just a stone’s throw away from the plaza is Madrid’s lavish neighbourhood: Salamanca.
This part of Madrid is full of famous faces. Christopher Columbus stands on top of the plinth, used today as a roundabout where he continues to help drivers navigate the congested roads in the capital. The Spanish version of Madame Tussaud’s houses wax works which try to replicate famous people from Taylor Swift to Cristiano Ronaldo, but it hilariously fails at times. Across the road sits a statue of Cervantes guarding the doorway to the National library. Yet, Margaret Thatcher remains one of the most controversial names in the area.
The plaza’s inauguration took place in 2014 and was it opened by Ana Botella, the then Mayor of Madrid and wife of the previous Partido Popular (PP) Prime Minister José Maria Aznar. Botella holds Margaret Thatcher in high regard, even going as far to emulate her dress sense, albeit with a Spanish twist. At the opening ceremony, Botella praised her idol as a “pioneer and inspiration”. She also said that Thatcher was fighting for people’s liberty against the state and that she was one of the 20th century’s greatest personalities.
Mark Thatcher speaks at the inauguration of the square with Ana Botella and then British Ambassador Simon Manley. Photo: UK in Spain/Flickr
British ambassador Simon Manley added balance to the event by saying that it was an honour to have the plaza named after her, but he also reminded the crowd she was a controversial figure. Mark Thatcher, Margaret Thatcher’s son, was also there.
Ana Botella has something thing in common with her idol in that she is a controversial figure but for very different reasons. Many blame Botella for Madrid losing the bid to Tokyo to host the 2020 Olympic games. Botella gave a speech in English with a heavy accent and some questionable phrases such as “Madrid is Fun” and the phrase that would be associated with her for the rest of her life: “relaxing cup of café con leche in Plaza Mayor”.
It’s been speculated whether naming the plaza after Thatcher was an internal political dig at then Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy as many felt that his cuts on public spending never went deep enough. They also wanted taxes lowering. Thatcher’s extreme version of conservatism has not been possible on the Iberian Peninsula, with the PP leaving many of the public services in the government’s hands rather than going through a rabid privatisation era as Thatcher did. When they have tried they have been fiercely opposed. Collective agreements continue to function in Spain, and unions still play a part in people’s lives.
Many find it odd that Spain continues to have a plaza named after a controversial foreign politician. Spain is one of the best places in the world for homosexuals to live due to its accepting nature, yet Thatcher’s government was the architect of the famous section-28 law in the UK. A law that forbid schools teaching that homosexuality was in any way acceptable.
Thatcher was also famous for saying that there is “no such thing as society”. However, as anyone that has lived in Spain, even for a short amount of time will testify how important society is in Spain. Thatcher stood for individualism. It was at the core of her policies and philosophy. These stand at odds with core Spanish values family and community.
Ten months after naming the plaza, Botella was replaced by Manuela Carmena, leader of left-wing party Ahora Madrid, who promised to rename it but never fully got around to doing it.
Spaniards all over the country became aware of the plaza when far-right party Vox celebrated there following the 2019 April general elections. A coalition of right-wing parties (PP, Cuidudanos and Vox) defeated Carmena at the local elections on the same day. So, it’s safe to say that Plaza Margaret Thatcher will be here for a bit longer.
Being the only tribute to the divisive prime minister outside of the UK, Liverpool fans brought the plaza to the attention of the British media and the rest of Europe when they played Tottenham in Madrid for the European Championship cup in 2019. It went viral online when they briefly renamed the plaza after left-wing Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Cheeky Liverpool fans renamed the square during Champions League celebrations in 2019. Photo: @miguelscofieId/ Twitter.
Margaret Thatcher is not the only foreign politician to have their name over a plaza in Madrid. A 30-minute walk from the upmarket district of Salamanca is Lavapies, one of the last working-class neighbourhoods in the city.
Here locals are made up mainly of working-class Spaniards, Latin Americans and immigrants from Africa. It pleased locals when the city council decided to call one of the main plazas there after a foreign-born politician, one that they say represents the multi-cultural nature of the neighbourhood.
Also, a politician that Margaret Thatcher once famously referred to as a terrorist: Nelson Mandela.