A Grand National

If you’re a resident you’ll be well aware of the implications of Gibraltar National Day and the celebrations around it; if you’re visiting on the 10th of next month, enjoy the celebrations. 

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As I write, August is ebbing away quickly and will give way to September and the big event – that’s right, Doctor Who is coming back. On a slightly more global (and relevant) scale, Gibraltar will once again be celebrating National Day.

The backdrop to this annual event on 10th September dates back to 1992. The then chief minister Joe Bossano went to the UN to argue for the right to self-determination and in doing so gave rise to the Self Determination for Gibraltar Group (SDGG).

At an initial glance, people new to the subject might wonder why there was any need to raise the issue. Self-determination is after all fairly fundamental in the Western world. It hasn’t always been thus and Gibraltar’s right to it has been threatened relatively recently.

The SDGG’s site is, happily, most informative on the subject. Gibraltar came under UK rule in a process starting by it being taken by allied forces in 1704 and a conflict ending in 1713; by 1960 the colonies were going independent as the Empire dissolved and Europe asked for a list of them from all countries.

In 1963 the UK presented its list to the UN Committee of 24 but, according to the SDGG’s history, it “neglectfully” didn’t ask the populations themselves. This was a particular issue in the case of Gibraltar because Spain still considered (and in some quarters still considers) that it had a valid claim to the Rock.

So in 1967 the referendum happened and Gibraltar stayed British, overwhelmingly. After negotiations with the UK a new constitution was in place in 1969. There have been other refinements since; the Lisbon Agreement in 1980 particularly signalled that things might change and in 1984 there was an agreement to renegotiate relations.

This brings us almost to Mr. Bossano’s UN visit to reiterate the need to ensure the right to self-determination. The newly-formed SDGG held the first National Day in John Mackintosh Square on 10 September that year, this being the anniversary of the 1967 referendum so it made a neat celebration.

Too many people turned up to that initial celebration to be accommodated, so after a number of location changes the main celebration has been held at the Casemates Square and the Naval Ground. The format has changed over the years; political speeches have been shortened and in 2007 the Government took over the running from the SDGG; in 2008 the emphasis shifted from political affirmation to a civic celebration.

Political machinations in the background have ensured that the feeling behind National Day has intensified rather than slackened off. By 2000 the Spanish opposition to self-determination and an apparent negative disposition of the British Foreign Office led to a push for final decolonisation to meet a UN deadline by which all colonies should be freed; Gibraltarians were surprised then to find Foreign Secretary Jack Straw negotiating for joint sovereignty over the Rock with Spain. This led to a push for a second referendum, held in 2002, over the notion of joint sovereignty; the result was a 98.48% vote against. Straw described the result as “eccentric”; it was left to the media to comment that Spain hadn’t done enough to make the prospect of joint sovereignty appealing (from El Pais in 2002).

In the late part of the last decade National Day extended its reach to become a family affair on the Rock, kicking off with a children’s fancy dress display and moving on to a street party with food and drink stalls including the national dish, calentita. A school choir sings songs and the Mayor recites the names of people who have received the Gibraltar Medallion of Honour, and a reading of the Gibraltar National Day declaration. Doves and balloons are released from the Parliament Buildings and the school choir leads the singing of the Gibraltar anthem.

There is a bouncy castle for the kids at Casemates Grand Square as part of a fun day and the event rounds off with fireworks. There have also been celebrations in the UK attended by dignitaries both from Gibraltar and the UK.

The political element has not been lost, however. At the core of National Day is the assertion that Gibraltarians insist on their right to self-determination and always will. Recent British Governments have been supportive of this, with Prime Minister David Cameron sending a video message in support of the day on one recent occasion. In this election year for Gib, you can expect the politics to be an important facet of the event.

If you’re a resident you’ll be well aware of the implications of Gibraltar National Day and the celebrations around it; if you’re visiting on the 10th of next month, enjoy the celebrations. 

Guy Clapperton is the freelance journalist who edits the New Statesman’s Gibraltar hub. You can also find him in the Guardian, Computer Business Review and Professional Outsourcing which he edits.