A British bubble attached to Spain

Most Gibraltarians find UN ideals of decolonisation ‘outdated’ and irrelevant.

Gibraltar - last colonies
Gibraltarians have no qualms about flying the Union flag and 98.5% voted to stay a British colony [GETTY]

The United Nations Special Committee of 24 on Decolonisation is meeting in New Caledonia, a French territory that is among the 16 countries and territories on the UN’s list of places that are yet to be decolonised.

As part of a special series on the world’s remaining colonies, Al Jazeera’s Laurence Lee visits Gibraltar, a British territory located at the southern end of the Iberian Peninsula.

Gibraltar is, by any measure, a curious place. It has its own microclimate, for a start. It can be sunny up the road in Marbella, yet the top of the Rock of Gibraltar, which rises sheer from the Mediterranean, will be swathed in cloud.

To enter Gibraltar, you cross, in the queues of traffic, from mainland Spain, past indifferent looking border staff, and then have to go across the runway of Gibraltar airport to get to the territory proper.

They have no choice here but to squeeze as much as possible into a tiny space.

Indeed the aerial pictures all over Gibraltar show how far they have begun to build into the sea, a bit like Hong Kong has, to create more space. But this has more to do with the economic boom the territory is experiencing than population growth.

Booming economy

While Spain has become one of the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) countries of Europe, with double-digit unemployment and the Costa del Sol’s famed construction industry grinding to a halt, Gibraltar’s booming duty free and low tax climate has attracted all kinds of people.

Cigarettes and alcohol are far cheaper here than at the airport and on the main street almost every other shop sells jewellery, electronics, and all the kinds of things you would buy in a big airport terminal.

Against normal measures, they have the 11th largest GDP per head in the world, with annual income of almost a billion pounds (they do not have the euro here).

Offshore tax relief has also attracted online gambling companies, many of whom have relocated here.

The only downside for the locals is that it has pushed property prices through the roof.

Gibraltar is probably the only territory in the whole of Europe to be experiencing rapid economic growth right now.

Bad blood

Yet when you talk to many locals they have this look in their eye, a mixture of defiance and defensiveness.

There is no actual guilt here about flying the Union flag, or walking down Winston Churchill Avenue, when you are stuck on the edge of Spain – it is more that they seem to expect you to criticise them for it.

Mind you, you do hear some amazing things.



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The very first man we met – a taxi driver who picked us up at immigration and drove us in – had this to say about the new British deputy prime minister. He then repeated it, in a slightly watered down way, for us on camera.

“I really liked Nick Clegg in the television debates. Then I found out he was married to a Spanish woman. No way I’d vote for him now. I wouldn’t trust the Spanish as far as I can throw them.”

Oddly, many Gibraltarians are not actually British at all by heritage – our tour guide, who drove us up the rock and down again, is called Peter Lombard.

His family, unsurprisingly, come from Lombardi, now in Italy. He does not even speak with an English accent, but when he talks, he is all wrapped up in the flag.

Spain is a “young democracy” that might one day “go back to dictatorship”, he says remembering Franco and the “terror”.

He reminds me that when the old regime closed the border, trapping Gibraltarians, they did not even allow medicines to enter. Instead they had to be taken from Portugal to Tangiers and on to Gibraltar by sea, while people died waiting, he says, adding that “you couldn’t trust the Spanish then and you can’t trust them now”.

Pure Britishness

Gibraltar: a hermetically sealed bubble of pure Britishness? [GETTY]

Peter Caruana, the chief minister who is looking for a fourth term in charge, is an extremely affable man who is very interested in Al Jazeera and more than happy to give us a long interview.

He then spends even more time chewing the fat, even though it is eight in the evening and he must have better things to do.

We are doing a story about how the United Nations is holding a conference on decolonisation, and wants territories like Gibraltar to have the right to self determination, I tell him.

He knows all about these conferences already – they have stopped attending, because it is all a complete waste of time, he says.

In a way you can see his point.

When Tony Blair, the then British prime minister, and Jose Maria Aznar, the then Spanish prime minister, made a backstairs deal to try to arrange joint sovereignty of Gibraltar in 2002, the rock exploded in anger.

They ended up holding a referendum – 98.5 per cent of the population voted no and Caruana says there will not be another vote.

Why, asks Caruana, does the UN have these “outdated modalities” for dealing with colonies?

Spain signed off Gibraltar to Britain in 1704. The map of the world looks entirely different now, and the bureaucrats need to wake up to the new reality, he tells me.

“People are happy here,” he says. “We’re self-governing, don’t cost Britain a penny to maintain, there’s zero crime.”

His government is talking to Spain about issues of relevance to both parties – the environment, telephony, that kind of thing.

But, utimately Gibraltar does not even see itself as a colony any more.

Life, for Caruana and this hermetically sealed bubble of pure Britishness, is absolutely perfect.

Source: Al Jazeera