Gibraltar might be living history, but it needs to change

I’ve always found support for the British Empire to be a wonderful in-joke. Playing the right-winger and the man out of time has always been a good wind up for people with political dispositions far too sensitive to spot the caricature being used to get under their skin.

There was an element of truth in it all: my interpretation of British history had always acknowledged the bad, but I’ve refused to let it subsume the positive legacies of law, language and literature bequeathed to the world. It’s the foundation for my conviction that in the right hands the UK’s history and power could a definitive engine of progress in the European Union and in the world.

There are, however, a few unfinished matters that must be addressed first, one of which I recently visited.

Gibraltar / Google Maps
Gibraltar / Google Maps

Gibraltar: controlled by the United Kingdom since 1713, it’s one of 14 British Overseas Territories under the protection of the United Kingdom. With a population of 30,000, it sits on a southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula and shares a border with the Andalusian province of Spain. With some irony, it is north of Ceuta, a Spanish city across the Strait of Gibraltar which Morocco is similarly contesting.

As a gateway to the Mediterranean it was historically significant as a military juncture and remains as such, if considerably less so, to this day. Aside from the novelty of being a living relic of British imperialism, Gibraltar enjoys a functional existence as a curious community rather than an emblematic throwback maintained to irk its Spanish neighbours (who, like the Argentinians with the Falkland Islands, claim it as their own. There were even accusations the Spanish engineered a blockade as recently as 2013).

While the Spanish claim it, Gibraltar is an autonomous community with control over its economy, taxation, tourism, government and culture, with no direct influence from the UK Government but for the rights and privileges of British citizenship and protection by Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.

Gibraltar-Spain border / Alastair Stewart
Gibraltar-Spain border / Alastair Stewart

The entry point to Gibraltar is from the neighbouring Spanish town of La Línea de la Concepción. It’s a mini border of 1.2km, but it looks like someone took the seriousness and the scanners of a big arrivals terminal and put them in two buildings the size and look of public bathrooms. Nevertheless, since the United Kingdom is outside the European Union’s Schengen Area, Gibraltar is too and identity checks are therefore required to cross what is an international border. Cars and searched and passports scanned by both the Royal Gibraltar Police when you’re entering and the Spanish Civil Guard and the Spanish National Police when returning to Spain. This is the routine of an estimated 6,000 workers moving to and fro every day.

That’s not even the weird part. Cross over from Spain and your next obstacle is to walk across North Front Airfield. To divine an understanding as to why someone thought this design was a good idea is to divine the meaning of life at the same time. For all that Gibraltar looks British, it’s probably the last hold out against health and safety as planes are taking off from a runway which intersects Winston Churchill Avenue, the main north-south street, which requires movable barricades to close when aircraft land and depart. The History Channel programme Most Extreme Airports ranked the airport the fifth most extreme airport in the world and it’s no wonder.

British imperialism is largely confined to the history books and pub banter. Few would actually suggest it should return and fewer still consider it a worthy topic for schools to learn. Nevertheless, here it is, a living counter-factual reality where one can walk the streets and contemplate what the world would be like if the British Empire had never ended.

Alastair Stewart / CC
North Front Airfield / Alastair Stewart

A few hundred metres into Gibraltar and the contrast between it and Spain is stark. Everything looks like home, eerily so in fact. The police follow British police uniform design, traffic lights and pedestrian crossings look identical to back home and there are even red phone boxes littered around the town centre. There are British looking pubs, the sound of the English language (among others) in the air and everything becomes noticeably greyer, more overcast and just different to the preceding Spanish town. It feels like you’ve walked into a faux town, the kind used to train foreign troops before an invasion. Everything is the same, but off by a telling few inches.

The Spanish town that sits on the border, is in the province of Cádiz in Andalucia. An unremarkable place, it is distinctly Spanish in sound and style but it is let down by compacted streets and dilapidated buildings. It is unmistakably rustic, possessing little by way of charm or attraction but for the knowledge, it is a transitional place into its more famous neighbour. Even the hotel, the Hostal la Campana (picked for the budget conscious and because it’s a few hundred metres from the border) is a dreary building that feels like being inside a ballpoint pen. It’s run by an elderly Spaniard who speaks no English, it’s decorated in Spanish colours and designed in a Spanish style.

Yet only a few short minutes away you have a real-life demonstration of how the British Empire would have coped with the realities of daily, 21st-century living if it had endured. Gibraltar might have a very British feel to it, but thousands cross an international border every day and it has a distinct culture merged from these influences which have grown and moulded around a strong British centre. Even with a predominant British population, Gibraltar has a diverse population of 30,000 descended from British, Spanish, Maltese, German and Jews (to name but a few). Postboxes, red telephone boxes and British pubs and a visible military heritage (from statues of Lord Nelson to insignia caps from at least three dozen vessels lining the back of a bar) are everywhere. Indeed, even though the official language is English, Gibraltarians often converse in Llanito, a language unique to Gibraltar based on Andalusian Spanish with a mixture of British English and elements from languages such as Maltese, Portuguese, Genoese Italian and Haketia.

Author & Friend / Alastair Stewart
Author & Friend / Alastair Stewart

The fluidity of populations, the amalgamation and room for growth in cultures highlights the futility of artificial borders. To see the dichotomy of Spain and Britain in aesthetics from a hotel window, but to walk amongst a culture that is so vibrantly unique, begs the question why the two largest parents of it do not make more of an effort to get along and share responsibility for it.

Anglo-Spanish relations are strained because of Gibraltar and have been so for all of Gibraltar’s existence. On 10 September 1967 there was a referendum asking Gibraltarian voters whether they wished to pass under Spanish sovereignty, with Gibraltarians keeping their British citizenship and a special status for Gibraltar within Spain or to remain under British sovereignty, with institutions of self-government. 99.64 percent chose the latter and Gibraltar National Day has been celebrated on 10 September since 1992 to commemorate the vote).

The issue was revisited in 2002 with the then British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, proposing that the UK and Spain should share sovereignty of Gibraltar. A referendum was again held, asking:

“On 12 July 2002 the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, in a formal statement in the House of Commons, said that after twelve months of negotiation the British Government and Spain are in broad agreement on many of the principles that should underpin a lasting settlement of Spain’s sovereignty claim, which included the principle that Britain and Spain should share sovereignty over Gibraltar.

“Do you approve of the principle that Britain and Spain should share sovereignty over Gibraltar?”

‘Gibraltar’ / Dennis Keller

This time, 98.48 percent gave an unequivocal ‘no’. I’m not suggesting that Gibraltar be unceremoniously handed over to the Spanish. There is no legal or moral argument for their claim. But the reality of being fractious with a neighbouring country when Spain, Britain and the Government of Gibraltar have a responsibility to the territory begs the question of when the three are going to find a lasting solution that does not descend into mere flag waving.

The UK Government should make the case to the citizens of Gibraltar and its other territories that cooperation with their neighbours is a much more realistic alternative to this perennial stalemate. No one is suggesting cultural assimilation, it is naturally diluted anyway, but shared responsibility for the territory, and territories, in the spheres of multiple countries has many benefits. The argument is more economic than cultural or indeed militaristic. £55 million is spent annually protecting Gibraltar along with other territories although, according to the Financial Times, “London refuses to disclose how much it spends defending it”.

‘Gibraltar’ / Scott Wylie

However, in 2013 Jim Murphy MP asked Andrew Robathan, then  Minister of State for the Armed Forces:

Jim Murphy (East Renfrewshire, Labour)

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how much his Department spent on programmes or projects related to (a) Anguilla, (b) Bermuda (c) British Antarctic Territory, (d) British Indian Ocean Territory, (e) British Virgin Islands, (f) Cayman Islands, (g) Falkland Islands, (h) Gibraltar, (i) Montserrat, (j) Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Oeno Islands, (k) St Helena and St Helena Dependencies (Ascension and Tristan da Cunha), (l) South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands, (m) the Sovereign Base areas of Akritiri and Dhekelia and (n) the Turks and Caicos Islands in each of the last three years.

Andrew Robathan (South Leicestershire, Conservative)

Costs shown in the following table reflect Ministry of Defence (MOD)’s commitment and responsibility for defence and security of the UK’s Overseas Territories as a standing military task and are rounded to the nearest £ million.

£ million
Financial year
UK’s Overseas Territories 2010-11 2011-12 2012-13
Anguilla 0 0 0
Bermuda 0 0 0
British Antarctic Territory 0 0 0
British Indian Ocean Territory 2 3 2
British Virgin Islands 0 0 0
Cayman Islands 0 0 0
Falkland Islands including (Ascension Island)(1) 95 68 67









Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Oeno Islands




St Helena and St Helena Dependencies (Tristan da Cunha)




South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands




Akrotiri and Dhekelia(2)




Turks and Caicos Islands




(1) Figures for Falkland Islands include the costs associated with Ascension Island as these figures cannot be broken down further without incurring disproportionate cost. These figures do not include the costs associated with St Helena or Tristan da Cunha (of which there are none). (2) Figures for Akrotiri and Dhekelia include all MOD sites in British Forces Cyprus as these cannot be broken down further without incurring disproportionate cost.

‘Gibraltar’ / Scott Wylie

These costs represent the Joint Forces Command Top Level Budget from 2012-13 and the Chief of Joint Operations Top Level Budget prior to this period. It also includes Defence Infrastructure Organisation costs incurred for these locations.

The cost is considerable for maintaining these territories, particularly at a time when public services in mainland Britain are facing considerable cuts in public services. Davis Lewin, political director of the foreign policy think-tank the Henry Jackson Society said: “The democratic point is important but there is a much bigger strategic argument [for keeping the overseas territories], which people tend to forget in peacetime.” Even if true, why does this preclude negotiations to share the military responsibility of Gibraltar and other territories with neighbouring countries to reduce the cost? 

According to the Financial Times, when Peter Hain, the former Welsh secretary, suggested that the UK and Spain should share sovereignty over Gibraltar “he found himself politically isolated”. The paper also considers that the predominant view in Westminster is summed up by Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell who says the case for British sovereignty based on instinct and emotion: “It is … important to defend a member of your own family which may be a long way away but has a cultural and historical link,” he says. “You don’t give away British people.”

‘Gibraltar’ / InfoGibraltar

No one is suggesting that we give Gibraltar to the Spanish. Rather, it should be seriously discussed how territorial protection is managed in a way that reflects the wishes of its inhabitants but also the cost to the British taxpayer.

Responding to the ‘winds of change’ would hardly be new. Britain launched a process of mass decolonization from 1951 onwards under successive Conservative prime ministers, but  it never really came to terms with the overnight loss of an Empire whose tributes and trophies are scattered around the UK, largely forgotten. As such Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands and others are the last hold out and are bound to be a more visceral emotional symbol than the handing over of India to Hong Kong and everything in between.

To many Britons still mourning the decline of UK power abroad, the loss of the final hallmarks of the empire would be difficult to stomach. Nearly two-thirds of British voters said in 2012 for example that the Falkland Islands should be protected “at all costs”. It appeals to a visceral instinct. Someone is threatening what’s yours and it provokes the most primal of defensive feelings. It’s as old as time, the foundation of international relations but emotion should no rule pragmatic decision-making.

'Gibraltar' / Dennis Keller

Moving from Britain to Spain and then back home without crossing water is novel, but actually living in Spain and looking at it, you wonder why we so vigorously refuse to work with the Spanish on it. As someone who lives in Spanish town with a thousand-strong contingent of ex-pats who retain a British passport (one of many such communities scattered across Spain), you have to wonder why Gibraltar is such a pocketed community. It is one of the most densely populated territories in the world, with a population of around 5000 inhabitants per square kilometre, and has the features of a potential international hub: an airport, a major tourist industry and a thriving business community. Some room to breathe might be a good idea in the coming decades and opening the doors, even more, might bring greater prosperity.

What this article is advocating is a change of British foreign policy which advocates greater responsibility and cooperation agreeable to both the British territory, the UK and neighbouring countries. Let’s move away from the myth of imperialism, the arrogance that goes with it and policy pledge support to our citizens to work with their neighbours. It can only bring them prosperity, extra protection and would change the British mindset away from hanging on to its past and embrace a more cooperative future.

If this trip has done anything it’s confirmed to me that empire is culturally stale and rather dull. The joy of having amenities styled as they are on the mainland Britain might be convenient for the locals, but the novelty of being in Spain one minute and British soil the next does not stir jingoistic pride.

A guilty confession, I admit, but an honest one.