My father grew up in Gibraltar. At the beginning of World War I his father, an electrical engineer at Devonport Naval Dockyard, was sent to the Naval Dockyard at Gibraltar to work on an electrification scheme. The whole family went. I have a photograph of my father from that time, dressed up as a “Spanish fisher lad.” His smile is earnest and trustful. He believes in what he’s doing. It is a touchingly innocent scene and reeks of empire. It was 1917.

England “acquired” Gibraltar in 1704 by the normal means of invasion with the sword. It was part of the War of Spanish Succession, and the English force was part of an Anglo-Dutch army whose main objective was containing the power of France. English possession of this strategic rock jutting into the Mediterranean, eight miles from the African coast, was formalised in the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713. Spain has never been reconciled to the loss of it and in the 18th century made two attempts to re-take it by force.

In 1830 it became a British colony; Spain maintains that it still is, although Britain now classes it as an Overseas Territory. It played an important part in the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War and World War II, and is presumably vital to Britain’s intelligence and communications network in the Mediterranean region. None of this is an argument for hanging on to it at all costs if a workable arrangement with Spain can be reached, and one nearly was in 2002, when a shared sovereignty deal was agreed. It was presented to the Gibraltarian people, and they overwhelmingly rejected it. The British Government seems to have given up at this point.

Gibraltar resembles one of those mythical monsters that has the head of one animal and the body of another. Physically Spanish, politically British, a modern tax haven with a deeply conservative world outlook, and a working population that identifies as British but commutes constantly across the border with Spain. That border has to stay open for its economy to function. Spain can close it, and has done (Franco did for 16 years), or just make transit difficult, which it also does.

What would such a population want but membership of the EU with its single market and free movement of goods, people and services? And what would it fear, deep down, but government by Spain?

And thus they voted. To remain in the EU, 96% (in 2016). To remain under British sovereignty (in 2002), 98%. Only as long as Britain remained in the single market would these two be compatible.

And, thinking about this, you might realise, if you were in Downing Street, that only as long as Britain remained in the EU would Spain continue to be quiet over Gibraltar. Theresa May appears not to have done, although the Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, warned her that trouble was in the offing. She didn’t think the Rock deserved mention in her letter of farewell to the EU. The response to this omission was swift. Donald Tusk’s reply contained the following sentence:  “After the United Kingdom leaves the Union, no agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom.”


The news that Spain will not seek to veto any application by an independent Scotland to join the EU hit the airwaves shortly afterwards. For Theresa May, that is a near shot across the bows.  It was largely overlooked, however, in the hysterical reaction to The Sentence. The grammar was wobbly 1 but the meaning was clear: if the UK didn’t come to an agreement with Spain over Gibraltar, Gibraltar would be denied the benefits of any deal Britain had reached with the EU. Admittedly, at present it looks unlikely that a deal will be reached that anyone would want to be part of, so bargain-basement are this Government’s diplomatic skills. But, if it were, Gibraltar would be left out in the cold.

The gunboats weighed anchor at once. Admiral Lord (“something of the night about him”) Howard sailed straight for the enemy vessel and engaged it with a shot just above the waterline from his trusty ship the Maggie. He recalled the Falklands and said he was absolutely sure “our current Prime Minister” would “show the same resolve.”

Stirring stuff, eh? Get ready for another Task Force. Do you remember the dockside waving of handkerchiefs, the long voyage cloaked in secrecy (it was before GPS), the bombing of Port Stanley airfield by Vulcan bombers apparently risen from the grave, the breath-bated “I counted them all out and I counted them all back again”? Mrs T’s commanding “Rejoice at that news!” outside Downing Street on the surrender of South Georgia? It was all so exciting.

Well, Lord Howard seems to want to bring it back again. So do other people who should know better. God help us if, in Europe, they believe the nightmare vision of Britain that is evoked: thousands of grey-haired people sitting bolt upright in their recliner chairs fiddling with the remote, hoping to see a rerun of the Falklands War with another bunch of Hispanics.

Downing Street is embarrassed, and has distanced itself from its barking-mad Tory grandee. The Intelligence and Security Committee has tutted. Jack Straw, who worked on the failed 2002 agreement, has said, sensibly, that it is in the interests of Gibraltarians for a deal to be done with Spain “in the new circumstances”, which they didn’t vote for. But it is the fact that they didn’t vote for the 2002 shared sovereignty proposal that is the sticking point.

Spain is flexing muscle – newly-acquired, and that’s Britain’s doing – but is only pursuing its legitimate interests (how would we feel if the positions were reversed?), and warned Britain a long time ago that a British exit from the EU would re-awaken the Gibraltar issue. The more intractable problem is that the Gibraltarians will not accept reality and that the British Government is, again, refusing to shoulder its responsibility to take responsibility when “the will of the people” yields an outcome that is contrary to common sense and sound politics. It thinks it can make capital out of outraged “patriotism,” whipped up by politicians of yesteryear who do not take responsibility for anything either.

Seventy-five years after my father came home from Gibraltar, I heard him say something in Spanish. He had never done this before, in my hearing, although he had often mentioned “Gib.” As it happened, I was learning Spanish myself. His accent sounded perfect. I thought of my hours spent wrestling with the use of the subjunctive in a conditional clause in which the condition has not been fulfilled. I asked him why he hadn’t kept his Spanish up after he came home; he could have spoken it with his brothers. He shook his head. The other boys at his school in Plymouth had laughed at him and called him a “dago.” He was deeply sunburned; he looked Spanish. As soon as he could, he dropped everything that identified him with that foreign place; the language went first. But he hung on, devotedly, to his memories of it. Gibraltar became, in his mind, Eden.

Did it have to be like that? They needn’t have mocked him: they could have helped him settle back in. He would have rewarded them: he had things to talk about of which they knew nothing. He would have felt validated. He might not have retreated, in later years, to the entrenched positions over which my mother sighed and I fought him.

But none of this was going to happen in England in 1920.

I think now: when is this country going to grow up? When is it going to stop hating foreigners? When will it accept that the empire is gone?

Until it does, it has no future. All it has is a past, and even that past is not the past it thinks it is.



1 “Without agreement between” would be OK. “Without an agreement between” would be OK. “Without the agreement of” would be OK. “Without the agreement between” is not, because it supposes an actual agreement which does not exist. Unless it is referring to the agreement of 2002, but then it would say so.



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