‘Whatever Spain says Gibraltar is as British as Churchill’ our man in Gibraltar writes

Posted on Nov 26 2018 - 4:47pm by admin

Europe’s most southern British enclave does not hide its allegiances. Union Jacks are prominent in the Mediterranean heat. Red telephone boxes are splashed around. Pubs with names like The Lord Nelson and the Angry Friar serve up pints of ale with fish and chips. Scampi fries and Vimto can be found in shops around bustling main drag Main Street. The local bobbies wear the familar British police uniforms as they patrol the streets.

You don’t get this in La Linea, the Spanish town just a brief walk across the border that has an umbilical relationship with the Rock.

But then Gibraltar’s Britishness has never been up for question. Certainly not among the Rock’s 32,000 population. Displays of Britishness are an instinctive response to decades of Madrid hostility. This is a part of Britain steeped in centuries of the the bulldog fighting spirit.

Lord Nelson’s body was shipped to the Rock on HMS Victory in a brandy-filled cask after he was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805. (Two casualties from the battle are buried in Gibraltar’s Trafalgar Cemetery).

Around 34 miles of tunnels were burrowed into the Rock by the British Army, much of it by Royal Engineers during World War Two.


Gibraltar is facing renewed demands from Spain over Brexit deal (Image: Getty)

Some are now open to the public, but it’s a reminder that in Gibraltar the past is never far away. Spain’s threats to veto Gibraltar’s place in any future Brexit trade deal this week are a reminder of that.

For a homesick expat like me, living across the border in La Linea, tuning into the Shipping Forecast each night for a nostalgic whiff of England’s wind-blasted shores, the Rock had more modern reminders of home comforts.

Trucks from the UK supply Gibraltar’s bustling Morrison’s store. Matalan opened earlier this year. And when hit with pangs of yearning for home, I would peruse the Marks & Spencer Percy Pigs’ aisle.

The barbary macaques scampering around the iconic Rock were a far cry from the foxes that patrolled my old south London stomping ground, but the price of cigarettes (around £2.30 for 20 fags, as I recall) took me back to the days when I first started smoking.

With Gibraltar’s close military ties, Royal Navy sailors who have just docked are a common sight. So too are visitors teeming off cruise liners towards picturesque Main Street’s shops, with scores of huge vessels disgorging passengers every year.

Gibraltar is now a busy, modern economy, with the Ocean Village marina and floating luxury hotel The Sunborn attracting tourists and locals alike. The MTV Presents Gibraltar Calling music festival brings international talent like the Kings of Leon, Fatboy Slim and Stormzy. 

But this proud outpost has known darker days. From 1969, it endured General Franco’s 16-year border closure. It suffered the heartache of the mass evacuation of its civilian population in World War Two.

Recently, it’s Brexit gales that have howled around its iconic Rock. But as it has throughout an often turbulent history, Gibraltar is staying rock solid.

It certainly did on June 23, 2016.

Francis Sheriff walked out of Gibraltar’s Ince Hall polling booth just after 7am Central European Time (CET) time after casting one of Britain’s first votes in the Brexit referendum.

Like 96 per cent of The Rock, the 67-year-old had voted to Remain.

Gibraltar police

The Royal Gibraltar Police force uniform and iconic red phone boxes are British staples (Image: Getty)

He told me: “My time in this world is not that long. But I’m voting Remain for my children and grandchildren and the interests of my community.

“I lived with a 15-year frontier closure. We managed to survive. But things will be much more difficult for us if we are to leave the EU.”

Less than 24 hours later, I stood with assembled local politicians at the University of Gibraltar count as the results came in from around Britain.

Gibraltar was first to declare. But despite Nigel Farage prematurely conceding defeat, by the time I cycled home across the border to the town of La Linea, it was clear Britain was heading out of the EU.

Other Gibraltarians I spoke to on that momentous referendum day also recalled the heartache caused when Spain closed the border in 1969.

General Franco’s cruel decision to seal the frontier piled misery on Gibraltarians, who were cut off from family across the border, which did not fully reopen until 1985. Instead of walking to Spain, Gibraltarians had to take a ferry to Tangier in Morocco, then another to the Spanish port of Algeciras, just a short drive from Gibraltar.

Marie Martinez, a Ministry of Defence (MOD) worker, told me: “I remember vividly going to the frontier and screaming over the border giving news of deaths, giving news of births.

“Holding babies over the top of the border fence and hoping that guys on the other side could see. It was horrendous.”


Gibraltar’s Barbary macaques can be seen scampering up the iconic Rock (Image: Getty)

The border is key to Gibraltar’s relationship with Spain. Every day, around 12,000 cross-border workers travel from Spain into Gibraltar.

Unlike Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, Gibraltar already has a hard(ish) border, as it is not in the Customs Union.

Border checks on cars are not uncommon, with cigarette smuggling from Gibraltar into Spain a problem. But the process of crossing from one country into the other is normally straightforward, with traffic and queues moving reasonably well.

The biggest hold-up for a pedestrian was usually the hugely ineffectual passport scanners, which almost invariably failed to work when I tried to use them.

But on one occasion, I endured one of the infamous border queues when hundreds of motorists were stuck for four hours as Spanish police officers slowed traffic down on a roasting hot April evening last year.

Suspiciously, drivers, many with young children, were put through this misery just days after the fallout from the EU’s decision to grant Spain an effective veto on Gibraltar being included in any future trade deal in its draft negotiations.

Adrian Dann, a Gibraltar-based engineer, who was waiting to get home to this mother and father-in-law visiting him from the UK, told me: “Unfortunately this is far too normal.

“The likes of you and me can’t change this. This comes from way, way above.”


Marks & Spencer on Gibraltar’s Main Street is a familiar sight to UK eyes (Image: Getty)

Many of the workers stuck in the queue that night were Spaniards traveling in form La Linea. The border town is home to several thousand expats, many of them British workers. It also has one of the highest unemployment rates in Spain, with around 33 per cent out of work.

The La Linea mayor, Juan Franco, a warm-hearted local politician with a tough job on his hands, has attacked the previous Madrid right-wing government’s stance on The Rock. La Linea has been at the sharp edge of threats by Spanish governments to tighten the screws on Gibraltar, with extra border checks causing more queues which could threaten vital jobs.

The town of around 63,000 has earned an unfortunate reputation as Spain’s drug trafficking hub. On frequent visits to Madrid, Spaniards would raise their eyes in horror when I told them where I lived.

On early starts, I would sometimes see gang members at the bottom of our flats communicating on walkie-talkies as hashish supplies were shipped across the Strait of Gibraltar on RHIB boats under cover of darkness.

And while La Linea is a busy, friendly, lively place, its restaurants and bars teeming with life each night, it relies on the jobs Gibraltar has provided. 

Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo has navigated Gibraltar through the Brexit process admirably over the past two and a half years.

So with the end of this tortuous stage of the negotiation process almost in sight, it must be maddening to hear Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez threaten to vote against the withdrawal agreement.

But one thing is for sure: Gibraltarians are tough. They are resilient, entrepreneurial. In two referendums they voted overwhelmingly to stay British.

Whatever Brexit throws at them that won’t change. And the Rock will stand firm.

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