Postcard From Gibraltar

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Sep 20, 2014 Comments Off on Postcard From Gibraltar John Butler

2013 marked the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Utrecht which ended the War of the Spanish Succession (1700 -1713) and awarded Gibraltar to Britain ‘forever without any or exception or impediment whatsoever’.

With The Rock constantly in the news over its continuing border problems with Spain, what better time to follow in William Dartmouth’s footsteps and take a look at what’s going on over there ?

It’s fair to say Gibraltar isn’t served well as far as the travel writing industry is concerned. To many of its ‘bien pensant’ writers (yes I mean you, Rough Guides and Lonely Planet), it only warrants a couple of pages at the end of a compendious volume about Spain. In their eyes, you need only go there if you really, really have to, or if you have a perverse love of greasy fish ’n chips or all day fry ups.

It really is a post-colonial anomaly that should be returned to Spain a.s.a.p so we can enjoy cordial relations with our European partners. As for it’s peoples fervent desire to remain British, well that’s just so embarrassing these days (as the great Mom Levy, a former Gibraltar Minister once said; ‘people say that we’re more British than the British. That’s not true; its just that we are more Mediterranean about it’).

In fact the first thing that strikes you when you arrive in town (Gibraltar is just 3 miles long and 1 mile wide), is how different from Britain it, and its people, actually are.

Contrary to the impression given by the recent C5 documentary ‘Little England’, it isn’t all British ex-pats; in fact isn’t even mainly British ex-pats. The Gibraltarans are a distinct national entity, and a truly multi-cultural one at that, comprising many different peoples (Spanish, Italians, Maltese, Jews, Moroccans); all peoples who have found a refuge on The Rock from more turbulent times in neighbouring countries.

The Rock’s Muslim population is thriving, well assimilated and a testament to the growing ties of friendship with Morocco, just 14 miles away across the Straits. The language is unlike anything else too – a version of Andalucian dialect peppered with slightly Cockney infused English, rattled off at rapid speed and high pitch.

The same influences are apparent in the fabric of the town.

At first glance, parts of Gibraltar’s precincted Main Street look like any other British High Street. Some (though not all) of the familiar branded stores are there; M&S, British Home Stores, Barclays, WH Smith, Morrisons. But look a little closer and you will see a whole range of thriving, family run independent little shops (there are no empty premises on the High Street here), with a very high proportion of jewellers and duty free goods being sold.

Look up from the modern shop frontages and you’ll see classic Iberian style balconies with fine decorative wrought ironwork. Look down the little side alleys and you’ll see ’hole in the wall’ cafes and bars full of locals at all hours; typical café culture scenes from any Mediterranean country.

The one thing the travel guides have got right though is Gibraltar’s taste for British pub food, and if you like it, this is the place to come.

Most of the portions seem to come in sizes to cater for hungry servicemen’s appetites, so beware ! There are pubs to suit every type of clientele from rough sailors bars to up market bistro style. However if your taste is for dining out, there are also some excellent restaurants and cafés, reasonably priced and unlike anything you’ll find in Britain, reflecting The Rock’s rich and diverse culture.

Many of the misconceptions about Gibraltar stem from the belief that it is still a ‘colony’ and as every schoolchild is taught nowadays, colonialism is part of an evil past of which we should all be ashamed. Technically it is still a colony, although Gibraltarans seem to be quite happy about it.

When the Blair government attempted to broker a sovereignty ‘sharing’ (ie. transferring) agreement with Spain in 2002, 98% of Gibraltar’s population rejected it in a pre-emptive referendum. The rock still has a Governor, who technically has the final say on behalf of HM Government, while Defence and Foreign Affairs still remain in Westminster hands. However in most other aspects, Gibraltar is self-governing, with its own elected Assembly, Chief Minister and full control over most of its internal and financial affairs. It issues its own stamps, coins and banknotes.

Its people feel as much common identity with Britain as do people of the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man, or for that matter Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

Some of this affection for Britain of course, stems from the constant antipathy Gibraltar faces from its bullying ‘Big Brother’ Spain and its need to have a powerful ally.

Recent strong words from Cameron and Hague have gone down very well in Gibraltar, although talk is cheap and if Spain did seriously ratchet up the pressure on The Rock, it remains to be seen whether their honeyed words would have any real substance behind them. Spain closed the border with Gibraltar from 1969 – 1985 and has constantly pushed the issue of Gibraltar’s ‘de-colonisation’ (ie. transfer to Spain) ever since. However Spanish claims have been severely compromised by its continued occupation of Ceuta and Melilla (two enclaves on the coast of Morocco).

It has also shown itself determined to pick territorial disputes with other neighbours: Morocco over the Western Sahara, and Portugal over the Islas Savagem near Madeira (both over potentially lucrative oil and fishing rights).

Day to day harassments from Spain continue. Just before we visited, the border was subject to interminable delays from the Spanish side, as retaliation for Gibraltar building a reef (in British waters) to deter illegal ’dredge’ trawling by Spanish fishermen. A local jet skier in British waters was ‘buzzed’ and shot at by a boat from Spain’s Guardia Civil; Spain refuses to allow the import of essential construction materials into Gibraltar – and so it goes on.

All of this petty behaviour is viewed with distain and stoicism by Gibraltar’s 30,000 or so citizens and simply reinforces their determination to remain as they are and have been for 300 years.

Spanish imposed border delays damage Spain far more than Gibraltar. The paramount (and surprising) impression one gets of Gibraltar is just how economically buoyant it seems to be.

Construction is everywhere. Nearly 10% of Gibraltar is built on re-claimed land (and this % is increasing). Huge new flats developments are going up everywhere. There is an impressive new marina with shops, restaurants and bars at Ocean Village, a new Casino, a new deep water cruise ship terminal, an offshore luxury floating hotel, a spanking new airport terminal and hospital; the place is buzzing with prosperity. And don’t believe the detractors who tell you this is all being built on smuggled cigarettes and dodgy financial dealing; Gibraltar’s financial service sector has recently been given a clean bill of health by financial services authorities from both Britain and the EU.

Gibraltar’s low regulation, low tax, free enterprise model of government seems to work. The contrast with post-industrial La Linea and Algeciras on the Spanish side of the border is stark; where unemployment is 25% and youth unemployment nearly 50%. Every morning in a scene reminiscent of Maoist China, long lines of Spanish workers queue on foot or on bicycle at the border for entry in Gibraltar, to work in the colony’s burgeoning economy. And a pack of 400 smuggled cigarettes brought back across the border into Spain can feed a family of four for 3 days.

If you want the clearest picture of why the free enterprise model of the Anglosphere is a growing success and the sclerotic, socialistic model of the Eurozone is doomed to failure, here it is.

Although its local political parties profess strong allegiance to Britain, there is a growing sense of national identity in Gibraltar.

The Gibraltar flag is as much in evidence as the Union Jack and national day is celebrated with more and more enthusiasm each year. Gibraltar’s admission to footballs governing body UEFA means that from 2016, Gibraltar teams can look forward (perhaps rather over-optimistically), to competing in the qualifying rounds of the World Cup and European Champions League. Culturally, Gibraltar is carving out its own distinct identity, one completely separate from Spain, making UN declarations about ‘decolonisation’ (ie. handover to Spain) increasingly irrelevant.

The formation of a business consortium to further links with Morocco, the improvement of ferry services to Tangier, are signs of increasing self-confidence; that Gibraltar is looking beyond its relationship with its big brother neighbour.

Which begs the question for UKIP – what of the future for Gibraltar in a United Kingdom that is free of the EU?

Politically, there seems no reason why Gibraltar’s link to the UK could not be strengthened by allowing a Gibraltar MP to sit in the UK Parliament; after all, France’s overseas territories have long been represented in this way. UKIP MEP Paul Nuttall’s petition is attracting considerable support.

But what of the border with Spain ?

One might anticipate more substantial delays and inconvenience to Gibraltar once it becomes in effect, Britain’s border with the EU. However EU edicts on the free movement of goods and peoples across borders appear to have had little effect on the intransigent Spanish, who continue to police the frontier like a relic of the Cold War, and it is hard to imagine that things would be any worse if Britain lay outside the EU. Nor do the Gibraltarans appear to have been overly impressed by the EU’s recent, rather ineffectual efforts to end the impasse.

I think that such border matters would have to put in a box marked ‘issues to resolve with Spain’. My guess is that as part of a free trade deal between the UK and EU countries, Spain would soon realise its interest lies in keeping the border with Gibraltar as open as possible.

Furthermore, if Gibraltar were designated as a free trade port, it would strengthen its economic ties with neighbouring countries in North Africa and reduce its dependence on Spain.

In the meantime, go there…

it really is the ideal place for a short break or a bit of late summer sun and for such a small area, it’s full of interest and there is lots to do; beaches, dolphin watching, cable car to the top of the rock, caves, day trips to Morocco and Spain, not to mention the vast array of military sites and memorabilia that would keep a military history buff happy for days on end.