In the old days of a century ago, the atlases used to show a lot of pink. This was the British Empire which stretched from Henley to Hong Kong, via Australia, India, most of North America, large chunks of Africa, bits of the South Pacific, oh, and Gibraltar.
A hundred years later, the pink has shrunk to just a ghost of its former glory. There’s not much more than Pitcairn Island, Ascension Island, Diego García (no relation), Rockall, a pizza-slice of the Antarctic decided by some geographer in Greenwich, the Malvinas (where we damn’ well showed ‘em), Bédar, the Scilly Isles and the old part of Benidorm after six in the evening.
And, of course, the brightest jewel in our crown, Gibraltar.
Gib didn’t start off British. It wasn’t discovered by an Old Etonian with a rucksack and a boat-load of natives and, in a sense, it’s only ours because we asked Spain nicely when the patatas fritas were down in 1713 after the Spanish War of Succession, a conflict designed to stop the proposed union of France and Spain in 1700. The war was in essence an early attempt to control the international balance of power. Gibraltar, some pirate gold, together with a few new paintings for the National Portrait Gallery, were the rewards for the British involvement.
The treaty was knocked together by some pesky lawyers. It starts with ‘The Catholic King does hereby, for himself, his heirs and successors, yield to the Crown of Great Britain the full and entire propriety of the town and castle of Gibraltar, together with the port, fortifications, and forts thereunto belonging; and he gives up the said propriety to be held and enjoyed absolutely with all manner of right for ever, without any exception or impediment whatsoever’. No mention of an airport, a Marks and Spencers or an off-shore banking scam. But, all things considered, it was pretty much tied up in legal knots for ever.
But the lawyers couldn’t leave it there. They added a bit to keep up appearances and, well, to stand on principle.
‘And Her Britannic Majesty, at the request of the Catholic King, does consent and agree, that no leave shall be given under any pretence whatsoever, either to Jews or Moors, to reside or have their dwellings in the said town of Gibraltar.’
A bit like not letting gypsies overnight in Mojácar (which may still be on the books: it certainly was prior to Franco’s passing).
So Britain got Gibraltar and, for a while, it was a useful place to own. With a few huge guns pointed out to sea from your network of caves, you control the mouth of the Mediterranean. It was also considered as a nice little earner for Britain long before the international association of usurers and bankers showed up with their cash-boxes and sealing wax. In the mid nineteenth century, Gibraltar used to smuggle goods over to Spain (still does, come to think of it). In those days, the main product was tobacco. There was a time when fully one quarter of all baccy smoked in Spain had come into the bay in Estepona at the dead of night. The Spanish government of the day complained to their British counterpart and the governor of Gibraltar was invited to drop by Westminster pronto. ‘Smuggling has to stop’, said the minister, ‘it’s not on, old chap’. The governor disagreed, explaining how the smuggling was saving the British Treasury a fortune in aid to the Colony. The point was carried and the British Government decreed that Gibraltar would be legally empowered to continue with its activities as a smuggler.
Which just goes to show that you should never get between a politician’s money and his principles.
Spain has been chasing after Gibraltar ever since it signed the Treaty. Talk about bad losers. According to their point of view, it used to belong to Spain, therefore it does now. A bit like, could I have my house in Vera back – the one I sold a few years ago? You see, it used to be mine! And before that, it used to belong to somebody else. The people living there now…? Well, that’s not my problem is it?
Franco was particularly keen on the Gibraltar Español thing. You’ll find a street in Almería with that name, by the way.
In the second half of the 1960s, the prime minister of Britain, an old Marxist cretin called Wilson, decided that tourists could only take fifty pounds a year out of the UK and that this must be recorded in the back of one’s passport. Even in 1967, fifty quid didn’t buy you too much, so there was a lively smuggling service going on for those of us who had fled England in search of a civilized life-style in Foreign Parts (which involved a lot of cheap drinking). We used to use the services of an Indian called Bullshand, who ran a nick-nack shop in the Gibraltar Main Street and would take an English cheque, leaving you the pesetas, less a modest commission, in a place called Jack’s Bar in Estepona (with just the faintest whiff of tobacco in every envelope). Everyone – except for the absurd Harold Wilson – was happy with this arrangement, which meant a trip down to Gibraltar every few months and the chance to stock up on tea-bags.
Then Franco locked the Spanish side of the frontier. Every day at dawn, the British soldiers would march out, tootle their trumpets and shout strange instructions to each other ‘Abaaht turn Sarnt Major’ and so on, and solemnly open their side of the border with a large iron key. A few feet away, the Spanish border guards would nonchalantly light up their Ducados and leave their gates firmly shut and bolted. A few people who were on the wrong side – one way of another – would gather and shout messages across to the other. ‘Tobacco’ and ‘Has anyone seen Bullshand’, being popular subjects.
For us, and anyone else who started out in Algeciras, it meant a trip across to the North African port of Tangiers followed by another trip back to Europe, Thanks to Franco, a three minutes walk across the frontier had become an agreeable three or four day jaunt (Tangiers was lots of fun in those days).
Gibraltar immediately turned into East London, rising to its best under the threat of invasion. Cups of tea rattled and slopped all over the colony as it was cut off from Europe. The British Government, beginning to cut back on military spending and having not the least interest in its subjects overseas, spluttered but did nothing.
Eventually, when Franco finally left this mortal coil, the siege was lifted and Gibraltar was once again open for business. Unfortunately, Wilson was long gone and money changing was just a pleasant memory.
So, should Gibraltar become part of Spain – a bit of tidying-up that wouldn’t bother Whitehall for a second? Should it remain British like that absurd island off Argentina where everyone wears Union Jacks ‘neath their shirts? There isn’t a third way unfortunately. The Treaty of Utrecht – the one that goes on about Jews and Wogs – doesn’t say anything about independence, say the Spanish, whose interest and concern for the Gibraltarians in this entire hullabaloo is palpably absent.
But let’s leave this argument with the header from a webpage written by a Gibraltarian’s (A Gibo’s Tale).
‘Gibraltar belongs to the People of Gibraltar.
It is neither Spain's to claim nor Britain's to give away!’