Gibraltar is one of international society’s great oddities. It is locked in a stalemate of resentment with what one might assume to be its natural kin in Spain, and forever looking towards London for reassurance that it is not a forgotten member of the British overseas territories. The post boxes are Royal Mail red, the currency is pound sterling, the Union flag flies wherever there is a mast to hold it and the British Ministry of Defence is a ubiquitous presence. Its veneer is that of an ersatz theme-park Britain where there is a never ending celebration of the Queen’s Jubilee. But when you turn off the main streets you can see that this is not merely a pose for tourists, some residential areas have kerbstones painted in the style of a housing estate in Loyalist Belfast.
Once of immense geostrategic importance as a gatekeeper between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, the Strait of Gibraltar remains one of the most trafficked bodies of water on the planet, but as the airplane encroached on shipping’s primacy as both a means of civilian transport and a weapon of war, its eminence has receded. The naval history of Gibraltar is part of its branding; the street names, buildings and pubs reinforce its imperial and military identity. It is an interesting stop for the Mediterranean cruise liners which dock to allow its passengers to experience the peculiarity of what some describe as a sunnier Isle of Man, before returning to their ship with bags full of duty-free cigarettes and booze.
As one of the world’s more peaceful hostile borders, the Gibraltar-Spain squabble seldom gets attention beyond its immediate protagonists. However, it has recently been in the news due to a hullabaloo about Gibraltar allegedly sabotaging fishing grounds in the name of building an artificial reef. Spain responded by being wilfully difficult at the border, where lengthy queues were already commonplace as tourists and workers in Gibraltarian businesses attempt to commute daily from Spain. That this may be nationalistic gamesmanship from a Madrid government attempting to deflect attention from internal issues is a case well made.
The entire situation is a fallout of Britain’s historical imperial ambitions: the legacy of centuries old expansionism, colonialism, and negotiation-by-canon has left a messy residue of problems such as this. One argument runs along the lines that Britain’s influence in Gibraltar should be recognized as an outmoded relic and consigned to history. The problem is that having effectively created the defining characteristic of Gibraltarian identity as “not Spanish”, Britain has some continuing responsibility to the political trajectory of those people. In separating Gibraltar from the mainland through the creation of a border, the 18th century British Empire divided not only the land, but the hearts, minds and loyalties of the generations who would live on it.
Self determination being a touchstone of modern democratic order, it was agreed that the people of Gibraltar should decide their political future. In 2002 they voted overwhelmingly (by 99% to 1%) to reject shared sovereignty between Britain and Spain, but to remain as a British overseas territory. It can’t have been any surprise that they didn’t want to develop deeper ties into the Spanish state which had locked its border for well over a decade during General Franco’s dictatorship, and continued to play hardball whenever the whim struck. Decades of animosity and antagonism has resulted in it being perfectly clear that while Spain would snatch the territory back in a heartbeat, whatever streak of Spanishness previous generations of Gibraltarians felt has been eroded through ill feeling, negative experience and inherited suspicion.
The Spanish town which borders Gibraltar is called La Linea. It’s not really a must-see attraction on a tour of Mediterranean beauty spots. It has not enjoyed the economic prosperity that Gibraltar’s seductive low corporate tax regime has fuelled. A young woman from La Linea working as an English teacher in the town once defiantly told me: “The problem with people in Gibraltar is that they think they are not Spanish. They are Spanish.”
Gibraltar has its ‘National Day’ on September 10th. A seemingly endless procession of gentlemen step up to a podium and speechify on why Gibraltar is so great, before drinking begins on something approaching a St Patricks Day scale. Most speeches go along the lines of: “Democracy is new to our friends over the border,” (pause to let everybody nod and grin at the dig about Franco), “they do not understand that self-determination means WE will decide Gibraltar’s future, NOT London, NOT Madrid!”
Yet Gibraltar’s landmark rock predates both the British Empire and the patchwork of kingdoms that coalesced as Spain. The limestone caverns within it, rich with natural formations of awesome intricacy are an entity beyond the constructed institutions of statehood, nation or self-determination. The acquisitive scourge of possession, dominion and exploitation has driven a lamentable wedge between those who settled the north Mediterranean coast and found themselves on opposite ends of the isthmus which links Gibraltar to the mass of the Iberian Peninsula when the land passed from one jurisdiction to another during the 18th century Wars of Spanish Succession.
Over 300 years later, as the gates of the border closed in a fit of pique – maybe or maybe not about fishing – queues lengthened and tempers rose in the draining summer heat. The cackles and shrieks of seagulls overhead circling the border area, wheeling out of Gibraltar, into Spain, and back into Gibraltar again with barely a tilt of their wings seem to mock the irritable humans slowly baking in the sweltering cars jammed below. Supposedly the most intelligent beings ever to grace the planet, stuck still at an impediment of their own creation while the creatures with brains half the size of a walnut effortlessly rose with the thermals before careering with abandon into the sea to feed, rest and screech with contentment at the simplicity of their station.
Buttoned Coat Skies 21st August 2013