Sunday, 4 January 2015

My little lump of rock with apes on the top

Steve and I are just back, having spent New Year in Gibraltar. We visit the Rock twice a year for a short break; usually three or four days long and we always stay at The Rock Hotel. In recent years we have spent Christmas there but this was our first NY. We tend to visit out of season as flights and accommodation are much cheaper and in summer it's too crowded and too hot.

Many people are intrigued about my love affair with this strange Mediterranean land, which few have visited and most know very little about, other than of its ongoing rows with its truculent Spanish neighbour. Before I try to explain here is a potted history, as over the past twenty years I have not just visited Gibraltar but I have increasingly studied her history and the extraordinary lives of her people, in particular and the brave residents who shaped her development and led her to being the vibrant, wealthy, patriotic and decent place we know today.

In a nutshell Gibraltar was captured in 1704 by joint British and Dutch forces in the War of Spanish Succession. The Rock was ceded to Britain in perpetuity by the Treaty of Utrecht. For much of that time, including up to the early 1950s, Britain did not treat the residents of Gibraltar with a great deal of respect. The Rock was a military garrison with almost the entire workforce employed in the Royal Navy dockyard or associated industries. Government was by decree with laws and justice imposed by the Governor, with no independent judiciary, no elections and no civic representation. Most of the population were poorly paid and many lived in appalling housing conditions. At the outbreak of WW2 all non-military residents (including retired men and all women and children) were forcibly evacuated. Britain's treatment of the evacuees was nothing short of shameful, with families separated (including cases of young children being removed from the care of their mothers) and placed in camps as far apart as the Isle of Wight, Yorkshire, Madeira and Jamaica. The last of the evacuees were not repatriated by the British Government until 1951. The heart-wrenching and at times harrowing story is told in detail in Tommy Finlayson's  superb book The Fortress Came First.  

It was the treatment of the evacuees and the demands to bring them home that brought together various "elders" in an organisation called Association for the Advancement of Civic Rights, led by (Sir) Jossuah Hassan. This group later formed Gibraltar's first political party and after the war negotiated the transfer of power from the British appointed Governor to first an elected "City Council" and later self-government with a fully-functioning multi-party democracy. Sir Joshua Hassan became Gibraltar's first elected Mayor (from 1955-1969) and apart from a 3 year period as Leader of the Opposition between 1969-1972, he was First Minister in the devolved Government of Gibraltar from 1964-1987. The full story of the transfer of power from Military Governor to multi-party government and the amazing role played in the development of modern Gibraltar can be read in From Fortress to Democracy - the Political Biography of Sir Joshua Hassan.

I make these points not to overly decry Britain's imperial past but to show that standing by Britain has not been a bed of roses for the people of Gibraltar. Their loyalty and patriotism is not based on convenience, wealth or favour, but a deep rooted sense of belonging, cemented over centuries of cultural bonding and respect. 

Twice in recent history the people of Gibraltar have been consulted about their future in referenda. The first was in 1968 when 12,138 (99.4%) voting to remain British and 44 (0.3%) opting for Spain. More people spoilt their ballot paper than voted to be Spanish. A second referendum was held in 2002 after the then British Labour Government had shamefully held secret talks with Spain and announced that the UK would "share sovereignty" with Spain if the people of Gibraltar agreed. By this time, with Spain a fully functioning democracy and modern transport, economic and communication links bringing the people together, the result was closer. The pro-Spanish side managing 187 with 17,900 (98.5%) rejecting any form of shared sovereignty. 'Nuff said!

So this brings me back to the main point of this article; why do I love Gibraltar as I do?  Well, I have already written twice as much as I intended, and to add part two would make this blog interminable long. So I will leave part two until tomorrow. At least readers who may not have read or studied the history, will have a basic (albeit biased) view of the Rock's recent development - and understanding the past is key to understanding what makes Gibraltar the wonderful place it is today.

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