8th May 1954: A boy chatting to a local fisherman repairing his fishing lines at Catalan Bay, a small village on the eastern side of the Rock of Gibraltar. (Photo by Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Getty Images)
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Bordering on Britishness: what does it really mean to be Gibraltarian?

The public’s understanding of Gibraltar’s people often fails to account for the nuances of history and cultural diversity, says Professor Andrew Canessa, the academic behind the “Bordering on Britishness” project. He explains why this ambitious new oral history fills a much needed gap, and some of the surprises they’ve already uncovered.

Gibraltarians regularly appear in the British media as arch Royalists festooned with the Union Jack and declaring themselves to be “more British than the British.”  There is no doubt that Gibraltarians can be relied upon to come out in great numbers to celebrate their British identity and loyalty – especially when there are problems on the border with Spain.  But what does it mean to be Gibraltarian and how did an overwhelmingly Spanish-speaking population with intimate connections with Spanish people and culture come, over the span of a single lifetime, to identify so resolutely against any identification with Spain?  What does it mean to be more British than the British?  

There have been numerous studies on this question but the approach has largely been historical -- based on colonial archives and predominantly English sources with some small social science surveys, almost always conducted exclusively in English and with a limited set of questions.  All of these studies confirm that the Gibraltarian identity developed over time from Genoese, Maltese, Spanish and other populations, but especially during the twentieth century, through the trauma of the enforced WWII evacuation of women, children and elderly, which ultimately led to the creation of a modern British Gibraltarian.  But is that all there is to it?

To date, no one has conducted a survey of Gibraltarians in the language of their choice, including the local dialect of llanito.  “Bordering on Britishness”, an Economic and Social Research Council funded collaboration between the University of Essex (where I teach) and the Gibraltar Garrison Library (Dr. Jennifer Ballantine Perera), therefore fills a much needed gap. We will talk to over 400 Gibraltarians in a series of interviews, lasting several hours in total for each participant.  The researchers are locally recruited, able to conduct themselves in llanito, and come from a wide range of backgrounds: unionists and company managers, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Christians, older and younger, male and female and so on.  One part of the project will also include people across the border in the Spanish hinterland.  The project team only began collecting data in January 2014 but there are already some striking findings.

The first is that Gibraltar is a much more diverse place than previous research would suggest.  Related to this is the way in which experiences of the border – which so defines Gibraltarianness – are equally varied.  The border simply means different things to different people.  Crossing it means something to a young Gibraltarian who may enjoy the diversity and anonymity of night life in Spain; it may mean something else to people with a disability when crossing the border is hot and difficult.  It will also mean something else to an older generation who never experienced these border difficulties in pre-1960s Gibraltar.  Different religious and ethnic groups experience the border in different ways: Orthodox Jews, for example, might enjoy living in a walled city, which has certain consequences on the Sabbath, and will have difficulty finding kosher food once they cross the border into Spain, whereas long term residents with Indian or Moroccan nationality will need visas to travel to Spain.  Other Gibraltarians will blithely pass through the city walls on a Saturday and go to Spain precisely to enjoy the food. 

Furthermore, I have been struck by the number of people we have met who have a story of not being able to attend a family funeral in Spain when the border was shut during the last decade of Franco’s regime, and well into the era of democratic Spain. This single act, for many, is the moment of rupture for people born on both sides of the border, and some articulate it with disarming clarity. As one woman married to a Gibraltarian said: "That was the day I stopped being Spanish".

There is no doubt that many Gibraltarians feel the daily harassment and humiliation of crossing the border and this translates to a profound and very public antipathy towards Spain.  There are also many Gibraltarians who have quite a complex relationship with Spain and the Spanish language.  Some may dislike Spain but have been born in Spain themselves or have a Spanish mother; some prefer speaking in English but can only write poetry in Spanish, or lament the fact that the younger generation no longer speaks Spanish but insists on speaking English to all children, including their own. Others might underline the profound cultural differences between Gibraltarians and Spanish but then point out that Gibraltarians are temperamentally much more like Spaniards than English people, and so on.   We have also found that class is a strong determinant in how the border is experienced and the networks that are established between the various communities.

On the other hand, many Gibraltarians say they are proud to be British but can’t imagine living in England; that they were shocked at how different everything was when they first went to the UK. They might see Spanish people as unreliable and untrustworthy in contrast to English people, but the latter are cold and don’t value their families. People’s attitudes to both Spain and the UK are infinitely more nuanced and complex than might appear at first glance. 

The central hypothesis of our project is, therefore, that before the Second World War (and to a considerable extent after) people on both sides of the border shared language, culture and kinship ties and there was little distinction between those who were “Spanish” and those who were “Gibraltarian”. Today these links are much more tenuous and differences, rather than similarities, are most likely to be stressed – especially in public.  This study aims to trace these changes over time, to explore the genesis of a Gibraltarian people and their identity through the life stories of those who have lived through the modern period, and to bring out the extraordinary diversity of experience of those who call themselves Gibraltarian. 

Andrew Canessa is a professor of sociology at the University of Essex


Photo: Getty
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Looking to the future

In our last regular article on Gibraltar for a while, Gibraltar Chronicle editor Brian Reyes looks to the economic and political outlook for the short and medium term.

At the beginning of March, over 150 members of the local business community gathered in the World Trade Center construction site for a ‘topping out’ ceremony. As the last beam was placed on the structure, guests heard speeches about Gibraltar’s resilient economy, its potential for international growth and the need to offer global businesses the necessary working environment to remain competitive.

The EU referendum and the prospect of a so-called Brexit are dominating the headlines, and much of the coverage is gloomy. But in the background, Gibraltar’s private sector continues to drive projects which, in the long term, will help attract international investors to the Rock.

Earlier that same day, Gibraltar’s Development and Planning Commission heard submissions from well-known British architect Jonathan Manser, who leads the design team behind Eurocity, another major development that has its eye on Gibraltar and a prosperous future.

There are other schemes too, some still on the drawing board, some already under way. The MidTown Development, a mix of offices and top-end flats, is funded by a local consortium on a prime site in the heart of town. On the east of the Rock, the ambitious Bluewater project promises a mix of luxury and affordable homes alongside a marina. There are plans too for a former Ministry of Defence site named after Admiral Rooke, while in the Old Town, developers and individual home owners are breathing life into this run down but charming warren of steep, narrow alleyways.

Elsewhere, work is progressing on key infrastructure that will be essential for Gibraltar’s future, in or out of the EU.

Experts are finalising the environmental impact assessment for a facility that will store liquefied natural gas for Gibraltar’s new power station, already under construction. Work should resume too on the airport tunnel project, vital to freeing up Gibraltar’s clogged roads. A new sewage treatment plant, although still some way off, is also in the pipeline, a critical and long-overdue element of Gibraltar’s infrastructure.

There are new attractions for tourists - the opening of the Upper Rock rope bridge and sky platform is eagerly awaited by locals too - and important developments in culture and education, where the University of Gibraltar is building strong academic links across the community and beyond.

And against the background of uncertainty over the UK’s - and by extension Gibraltar’s - membership of the EU, the Gibraltar Government is leaving nothing to chance. A team of economists is analysing the different possible permutations of membership of the EU, EFTA or the EEA, including the potential effects on the Rock’s export economy of membership of the Common Customs Union. 

Despite the combative nature of Gibraltarian politics, there is unity on this question. Both the Gibraltar Government of Gibraltar and the Opposition agree that the UK and Gibraltar should remain in the EU and that Brexit could undermine the Rock’s economic model, creating uncertainty that Spain will undoubtedly seek to exploit. They add that the UK must factor Gibraltar into any post-Brexit negotiation with the EU.

Gibraltar’s long-term economic future will also be placed under scrutiny locally this year by the 2025 Committee, which brings together the public and private sectors and unions to draw up 10-year strategies for the different sectors of the economy, identifying challenges and opportunities in areas as diverse as e-gaming and shipping. A key element of this will be to find new opportunities for business in emerging markets in Asia, the Americas, the Middle East and Africa.

In parallel, a cross-party select committee of the Gibraltar Parliament will analyse various aspects of the 2006 Constitution ahead of a constitutional conference with the United Kingdom on a date yet to be determined. Along with the UK’s referendum on EU membership, the constitutional review will dominate much of parliamentary and political activity during 2016 and likely into 2017. If any changes are proposed as a result of the review, they will first have to be put to a referendum before they can be adopted.

Gibraltar is keeping a wary eye too on Spain, which has yet to swear in a government following an inconclusive general election last December. The future of cross-border relations will depend not just on whether the UK remains within the EU, but on the outcome of the post-election wrangling in Spain.

But even as Spanish politicians try to hammer out a coalition pact in a bid to avoid a return to the polls in June, there is grassroots contact across the border.

The Cross Frontier Group, which brings together business and union interests from Gibraltar and the Campo de Gibraltar, is forging ahead with a proposal to access EU funding for cross-border initiatives. Separately, the government continues to maintain contact with Spanish politicians ranging from PSOE senators to the mayor of La Linea, Juan Franco.

The hope is that, having cleared the EU referendum hurdle, Gibraltar will be able to develop positive dialogue with Spain, irrespective of who is in government. There is much to be gained through practical cooperation in areas as diverse as commerce, culture and sport.

There is, inevitably, a degree of caution. Spain’s acting Foreign Minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, has signalled that if Britain left the EU - and if his party remained in power - he would seek to revive the joint sovereignty proposal robustly rejected by Gibraltar in 2002. 

It would be a move doomed to failure because Gibraltar will have nothing to do with such a a proposal, and neither will the UK. Their shared view is that nothing can be decided on Gibraltar’s future without the agreement of the Gibraltarians.

When he was sworn in as Gibraltar’s new Governor last January, Lieutenant General Edward Davis reaffirmed the UK’s double-lock commitment to the people of Gibraltar, underscoring their inalienable right to self-determination and the UK’s commitment to secure their consent in all matters that pertain to the sovereignty of Gibraltar.  

In doing so, he was reflecting the words of one of his predecessors, General Sir William Jackson.

“Gibraltar is neither Spain’s to claim nor Britain’s to give,” Sir William wrote, in a sentence that resonates to this day and sums up the situation succinctly.

“It is the rock of the Gibraltarians.”

This will be the last item on the New Statesman’s Gibraltar hub for at least a while. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed bringing you insights and hopefully greater understanding of the issues affecting the Rock as well as its politics, culture, geology and a great deal else. We would like to thank our sponsors the Gibraltar government, our many writers and above all our readers.

Charlotte Simmonds, editor, March 2014-March 2015

Guy Clapperton, editor March 2015-March 2016

Brian Reyes is the editor of the Gibraltar Chronicle.