Lecture delivered at the
University of Seville

15th September 2004

Searle MBE


By Dominique Searle

This article formed the basis of a lecture delivered at the University of Seville September 15 as part of the autumn course work for students at the faculty of geography and history. The week long series of lectures co-ordinated by Professor Rafel Sanchez Mantero looked at Gibraltar from 1704 to today and included contributions from Dr Luis de Mora Figuroa, Dr Carlos Martinez Shaw and Lord Thomas.

I am not much of a believer in anniversaries and celebrations, less still those of events relating so far into the past as to have almost no link at all with the real events and their circumstances. History is often used and abused to obtain immediate interests. I was going to apologise to you for my poor Spanish but it occurred to me that perhaps an explanation was more in order.

In the critical years of the late sixties and early 70s, as the border closed and restrictions and tensions increased, my school teachers, the Christian Brothers, joined the popular reaction against things Spanish and outlawed the language being used in the school except in our weekly Spanish lesson. The punishment came in the form of a leather strap reinforced with three pennies sewn into the layers.

In my own circumstances, living in a residential area mainly for senior British officials, we were asked not to speak Spanish in the public areas. That also applied especially to British leisure and work areas.

To speak Spanish was either to display membership of a lower social order or, worse still, some link to the evils of the Franco regime.

Nonsense. But the root of a prejudice created, not just by the closure of the border, but also the intense propaganda of a huge British military machine at the height of the Cold War. The art of British decolonisation has been one of ensuring continued economic, military or political relations between the UK and its Commonwealth bolstered by the aspiration to common values.

The system works. When Tireless arrived at Gibraltar in July 2004 Europa Sur ran the headline 'Indifference in Gibraltar'. The surprise reflects a failure to understand just where the combination of the Spanish claim and the British interests has taken Gibraltarian society. My Campo colleague Fernando Silva wrote an editorial suggesting people dare not speak against the submarine. He is wrong. The people of Plymouth would have reacted the same way.

Unfortunately recent history is something people carry with them like baggage. Spain is in a hurry to forget the border closure. I agree that we should not dwell unduly on such things. But we cannot erase their effects. Nor will they dissipate until we have some genuine process of reconciliation. Our failure to engage in a real process of healing wounds, the failure to create a period of, I would not say détente but certainly normality and political tranquillity.

The result is that Spain and Gibraltar have become consumer havens for the citizens of either side but genuine relationships have been far and few between. Perhaps we have set expectations too high and hasty.


  • Gibraltarians had to fight to return to Gibraltar after their evacuation during World War II.
  • They returned to a colonial Gibraltar, generally bad housing and social conditions and reasonable access to a poor Spain.

Several points:

Through this period many Gibraltarians continued to have intimate relations with people in the Campo thousands of who worked on the Rock. Until the restrictions of 1969 many Gibraltarians and Spaniards married. It is that generation of the Franco era who form a hardcore of Gibraltarians most strongly and emotionally opposed to Spain today.

In this era too the trade union movement in Gibraltar was strong and became intimately linked with the civil rights politics of Sir Joshua Hassan and the AACR. As I have already said the 1969 closure of the frontier has a profound effect on Gibraltarians. But this also coincides with the end of the British colonial era at a social level.

Up to the 1970s Gibraltar had developed a class system of its own based on the English model.

At the top the military officers, below them non-military British, then the wealthy Gibraltarians, the then small local professional class, Gibraltarian workers and finally Spanish workers later replaced by Moroccans. At that time, as Jose Netto often remarks, there was a collection of different toilets in the naval dockyard!


The border closure has an instant and profound effect on life in Gibraltar some of which are curious.

Gibraltar is converted into an island and at this critical moment receives its Constitution and develops the political system still in place today. This happens at a time when Britain has overtly withdrawn from being an imperial power and has retaken to the global stage as a NATO power. Coming to terms with its history it has in the previous two decades absorbed Commonwealth immigrants and accepts responsibility to modernise its relationships.

In Gibraltar that means not only greater self-government but an end to the discrimination. Gibraltarians begin to replace British expatriates in the administration and the general strike of 1972 brings in parity. The education system is much improved and a first sizeable generation of Gibraltarians who have studied in Britain, especially teachers, begins to arrive.

This era is where the social conditions that will anchor the Rock against political change are consolidated.


As Gibraltarians increasingly bound themselves socially to Britain the period of political and then economic transition in Spain is not really appreciated in Gibraltar. Britain begins to see the need to accelerate Spain's democratic credentials in the form of partnership in the EU and NATO.

On the eve of talks leading to Spain's EU accession and the inevitable opening of the border, Britain pulls the lever on the Gibraltar economy. The naval dockyard is closed and we are told the finance centre and tourism along with port activities are the new direction. Then the Ministry of Defence represented 60% of the economy, now it is 6%.

But the border opens to a Spain rapidly developing in to a consumer economy. Enter Joe Bossano. Economist and trade unionist Bossano brings imagination and energy to a Gibraltar not otherwise ready for change.

On the one hand parity has created a massive base of secure employment. Despite the dockyard closure even today almost a third of the local working population is public sector. No politician in Gibraltar can afford to pressure this sector and as a consequence it lives protected even hanging on to the luxury of summer hours. In contrast the private sector has risen to the occasion. Bossano creates a land mass with the reclamation and sets out to resolve Gibraltar's biggest social problem - housing. Commerce sans frontiers takes off.

So in the mid 1980s we have an older generation that will never trust Spain, a mid- career generation whose personal and economic lives have been frustrated by the frontier closure and my own generation then in our mid twenties perhaps the most keen to see a good relationship with Spain evolve.

Bossano's economic revolution has one crowning prize - in 1989 just after entering Government he introduces scholarships for all local students who are accepted to university in Britain.

The figures are significant. In the period 1980 - 1988 only some 24 students a year leave for university. It has tripled since then.

Gibraltar's professional class has not only grown massively, but it is fully British. Indeed, whilst Madrid occasionally suggests it might provide Gibraltarians with scholarships in Spain, the reality is that few Gibraltarians are geared to studying for a career in Spanish.

What I am saying is that Gibraltar has evolved significantly in the past 20 years since the border opening but Gibraltarians have combined a greater sense of political identity with a more widespread and deep-rooted sense of British culture. Not just through education but the arrival of satellite television, daily British newspapers printed in Spain. Only a handful of Spanish newspapers are available in Gibraltar. So we are less colonial but more rooted in normal British values.


It is fashionable to come up with solutions. So here, not a proposal but just an illustration for my argument, is one more for the pot, a variation away from the joint sovereignty. Say, for example, we create a special mini-state that encompasses Gibraltar and the Campo. The joint sovereigns are the Prince of Wales and the Prince of Asturias.

The Prince of Wales alone represents Gibraltar and the Prince of Asturias the Campo, but together they preside over one economic region which is recognised by the EU. A Chief Minister of Gibraltar and a presidente of the Campo are the separately elected sub-regional leaders who alternately preside over the joint assembly of elected representatives, half from the Campo and half from Gibraltar. The sub-regions have their own autonomous governments to run local affairs but the mini-state, through the joint-assembly, sets its own special tax regimes for the whole special region and negotiates international trade relationships etc. The idea being that each region maintains its historic cultural, political and social individuality but shares the advantages of economic pooling like a mini-EU. Of course whether this is a foolish and impractical idea or a stroke of genius is irrelevant.

The issue is not so much where history has taken us but where the various parties are trying to go today. We don't need clever models of solutions now, we do need a process of engagement, a real relationship for mutual understanding and reconci- liation. The old soldiers of the Spanish Foreign Ministry seem to cast Spain in the role of Dickens' Miss Haversham, sitting in a gloomy, decaying banquet hall waiting resentfully for the groom that never appears.

As a result she makes noises about the offshore culture and the military use of the base.

The overall Spanish policy of recent years continues to be that Gibraltar cannot be allowed to use any loopholes - for example the EU or the UN - to gain any ground that alters its status or takes it the smallest step further from Spain's grasp. Spain's minimum is a status quo in which Gibraltar is frozen and passed by.

For the British the concept of status quo has become somewhat more relative. It means preservation of interests especially her own. Crudely put that means the continuance of the military facilities at a minimum cost. That in turn has made it appear to be throwing banana skins under any Gibraltarian attempts to evolve politically in terms of increased transfer of powers, but sustaining Gibraltar's self- financing and the relationship with Britain through carefully gesture management. Despite a myth pushed about by Britain in the 80s that it no longer required the base and that it would be glad to dispose of Gibraltar if the people so wished, the reality is that Britain has long relied on the predictable reaction of the Gibraltarians. True the base need not be anywhere as big as it once was and perhaps if the Aznar, Blair, Bush direction had been continued the value of Rock would have diminished. In practice Spain has been prepared to turn a blind eye to US/UK military interests in Gibraltar but, as with the tobacco launches, incidents like the Tireless are embarrassing and demand protest.

But let us not forget that in recent years Spain, unlike the position Franco held, has been happy to include preservation of the military base in initiatives such as the Matutes proposals. Equally these proposals have contemplated the continuance of the finance centre. So Madrid is highly pragmatic and is not quite so obsessed with the Tireless or the companies' registry as it occasionally makes out.

Britain's position was most clearly exposed in the Hain proposals.

The insistence of full British sovereignty for the military base exposed a desire to isolate that interest whilst pushing the challenge of seeking a democratic solution to the dispute into Madrid's hands.

More cynically one might argue that this was in reality brilliant forward thinking. After all if through positive engagement Spain and Gibraltar were able to bring about circumstances for an agreed status why should Britain be relevant at all? In that scenario Britain would be something of a Mr 10 per cent. And if Spain and Gibraltar had come to an agreement that was economically sound - would that Gibraltar necessarily want to continue the risk of hosting a base with no apparent benefit? But Gibraltar wants its British link, and little is likely to change that bond which is now deeply embedded.

Britain has, no doubt, lived to regret the day she provided Gibraltar with the 1969 Constitution, the preamble commitment and the contingent adversarial political system.

But her interests have been preserved and Madrid seems more concerned with placating public opinion than actually changing the status quo. Again let us not forget that the Treaty of Utrecht, through recognition of the fortifications continuing and even the Brussels Agreement, in the seldom mentioned clause on military co- operation, recognise the underlying reasons for the British presence. And whether we are talking submarines, intelligence or back-up, British and US military interests are very close.


The Matutes proposals contained a crucial element. Whereas Fernando Moran had placed a 15 year time scale on his desired solution, Matutes timeframe was in the order of 50 to 100 years. That was a giant shift in perception of the problem. More recently, and despite the views represented by Carlos Martinez Shaw, I believe that broader democratic instincts and a sense of realism in Spain combined with a new wave of academics who distinguish 1704 from 2004 is repositioning politics not only in Spain but in the EU and globally.

The vast population of western Europe is made up of consumers who expect a high level of social services. Andalusia lives with Gibraltar and is clearly more affected by issues like immigration and the recent expansion of the EU. Our common concerns are employment, property prices, security and crime.

Those who influence politics may be behind the times.

For example, El Pais of September 6 carries a two page interview with Sr Moratinos touching on many serious issues affecting current reality such as Iraq. But a nebulous headline on Gibraltar is what is placed front page amidst the horror of Beslan. But since I still consider myself a pragmatic cynic I don't think I am being unduly optimistic. On the contrary the greatest challenge Gibraltar could face now is a Spain that is showing that it has moved on from the cliché embedded in people minds. The new generation of Gibraltarians is well educated and very aware of its rights. Both Gibraltar and Spain will have to steer very carefully but the gesture by Sr Moratinos of seeking improved practical relations should not be under-estimated.

It was a brilliant diplomatic stroke to seize August 4, not to deliver a diatribe, but to set out possible ways ahead.

Antonio Remiro Brotons in an article published this year says "por parte española cabe preguntarse si acaso ha llegado el momento de ser mas atrevidos para salir de la situacion actual. España no va a renunciar, desde luego, a sus derechos - los viejos del Trado de Utrecht y los nuevos de la descolonización - pero puede ser sensible a una evolucion del principio de libre determinación que en los ultimos años ha venido a reforzar las aspiraciónes de una población cuya identidad ha ido creciendo, reconociendole un protagonismo que le haga mas responsable de sus propios actos."

It is an interesting argument and one which should be read against the Gibraltar perspective with the question as to whether Gibraltar can take a leap into that responsibility given that its rejection of the concept of independence is probably a sensitivity to the depth of such a challenge. Gibraltar grumbles about Britain but is ultimately happy to live with the devil it knows in a relationship which apparently underwrites economic security. For centuries Gibraltar lives addicted to the adrenaline of the uncertainty that surrounds it and which gives it a romantic and polemic image. If Spain moves on from Gibraltar Español' and creates the opportunity for an imaginative reconciliation, Gibraltar may well have to rethink itself too.

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