Tea, biscuits, and exceptionalism: The curious performative Britishness of Gibraltar

Its entire history and identity is, rightly or wrongly, built on a very particular British identity.

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Gibraltar is in many ways an anthropologist's paradise, a surreal case study which encapsulates the current crisis of British identity being played out through Brexit. Out of sight and out of mind in the Costa Del Sol, British Overseas Territory was seldom mentioned during the referendum campaign by either side. Yet this week saw it become the focus of the world's attention, as Britain postured about going to war with Spain over its constitutional status.

With a land mass measuring just 2 square miles, Gibraltar is primarily a large rock gutting out of Spain. It is dominated by a cliff face, with grassy verges as its crest. At its feet, the lives of its 32,000 inhabitants are played out, in an atmosphere which is at times stiflingly claustrophobic due to its minute size. It became British in 1713, when Britain secured ownership of the territory under the Treaty of Utrecht, and has remained British ever since.

Gibraltar's constitutional status is complex. While it is not quite part of the UK, it is a British Overseas Territory meaning the region uses pounds as its currency, Royal Mail as its postal service and has arrangements to use the NHS. Crucially, its membership of the European Union is inherently linked to that of the UK motherland - once Britain leaves the EU, so must Gibraltar.

The idyllic region has been rocked by Brexit and its residents now live in fear and uncertainty. Spain wants Gibraltar back. While British policy has always been to resist Spanish attacks to do so, that commitment is now less steadfast. It has previously been a strategic spot for the British military to use as a base, but as military attacks are based less and less on naval attacks and more on high technology, long-range attacks, this strategic advantage is lessening.

Furthermore, a recent You Gov poll found two-thirds of Britons would happily accept Gibraltar's constitutional status changed in some way if that gets the mainland UK a better Brexit deal. Gibraltar faces being yet another bargaining chip in the great Brexit gamble.

If Gibraltar remains a British territory it may now have to have cumbersome borders between them and Spain, with long queues or visas required to move out of the small region, making daily life extremely difficult for those who live in Gibraltar but work or study in Spain. However, few wish to join Spain to retain EU membership, fearing their British culture will evaporate. 

Whilst Gibraltarians view the UK as the motherland and see themselves as entirely British, its fair to say the feeling is not entirely mutual. Few in Britain know much about Gibraltar, what its politics are or what our relationship to it is.

Visiting Gibraltar this week, I flew to Malaga and took a bus to the border between Spain and Gibraltar. On the Spanish side, tanned teenagers scoot past on mopeds, while hawkers flog keyrings and other nick nacks to tourists. Under the blazing Costa Del Sol sun, locals aloofly smoke cigarettes, while visitors gobble ice cream, racing the stifling heat to consume it before it melts.

At the border line itself lie sheds decked with EU flags, Spanish flags and the Union Jack. They house electronic passport scanners and bored-looking Spanish immigration officers. Once inside, visitors seeking to cross the border are told to submit their credentials to the scanners before face recognition technology scrutinises their features to see if they match the image on their passport.

Within minutes, one is waved in, to enter the British corner of the Costa Del Sol. The sun blazing just as mercilessly, but our transition from Spain to Britain is unmistakable. Immediately after exiting the tin immigration shed, we are confronted with the sight of the iconic red phone box and a street sign informing us we are on Winston Churchill Avenue.

A few further steps bring into sight the local supermarket, which, a sign informs us, is a proud stockist of Waitrose "Britain's finest". Gibraltar's shopping mall also boasts a Debenhams, Costa coffee and an M&S, the ultimate hallmarks of British culture. No opportunity to make a flamboyant display of Britishness is missed, even the public toilets bear logos of the British royal family on their walls. Along with Waitrose essentials scones and PG Tips, local shops flog the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, Daily Express and The Sun.

Locals, clad in M&S polo shirts, chinos or sundresses, speak English with clipped British accents. Bursts of "bloody" and "gosh" reveal themselves to be the going expletives. Some are retired pensioners from Cheshire and Kent looking to retire to sunny Spain, without the effort of learning Spain's language and customs, or the distress of giving up home comforts like the Daily Mail and a decent cup of breakfast tea. Other residents have been here since the first families at the turn of the eighteenth century. They have never integrated with their Spanish neighbours or strayed far from the 2 sq mile landmass, other than occasional trips across the border for work, school or healthcare.

Walking further into the centre of Gibraltar, iconic double decker red buses whizz past, vintage models that London's streets won't have seen for a decade. Young boys play soccer in the sports stadium, named, of course, Victoria Stadium. 

The Britishness of Gibraltar can appear at times a garish parody of that in their UK motherland. It has been comprised of eighteenth century legacy, scraps of memory from the elderly Englishs' nostalgia for childhood at home in Blighty and fused with the Britishnessness they see played out in the pages of the Daily Mail and Express, often their closest links to daily life in Britain.

The great gender philosopher and theorist Judith Butler posited that all gender is performance. She suggested that there is no fixed state of gender, but rather a continual process of gendering which occurs. She argued that this happens in every day life in a continual basis, but is encapsulated in drag queen performances, which pivot on gender being played out in parodic and playful proportions to achieve in high camp. In Gibraltar, we might see a similar performativity of identity, where Britishness is substituted for gender. Here, Britishness is played out in high camp, to almost farcical effect.

This performativity of Britishness can also be seen among Protestant communities in Northern Ireland, another part of the UK where British identity is not stabilised or guaranteed but which is only achieved through daily performance. From Ballymena to the Shankill, Northern Irish Protestant communities engage in an elaborate performance of Britishness, from hanging portraits of the queen above family fireplaces, to decking homes in Unionist Jack bunting and ending community events with rousing renditions of God Save The Queen.

Such heightened performed Britishness however, inherently undermines itself. In seeking to prove their similarities to mainland Britain, they only achieve in making a drag performance of constitutional politics. In engaging in flamboyant acts, they seek to be more British than the British themselves but in so doing they create a culture which few in Britain would recognise.

While it would be easy to sneer at such culture, it would be wrong to do so. As with Northern Irish Protestants, the Gibraltarians have been forced into such a position due to the insecure nature of their communities which generations of neglect and disinterest from the mainland UK have foisted on them. Talking to Gibraltarians here, their fears for the future are clear and heartfelt. One shopkeeper told me she feels pure rage towards how the British have neglected Gibraltar in Brexit talks, "I can't even listen to the news any more, I just feel so angry all the time."

Another woman, a 63-year-old who runs the local pharmacy and can trace back her family by ten generations to some of the first Gibraltarians shook with anger as she spoke of her disappointment at Theresa May. She told me she doesn't identify as British or as Spanish but as distinctly Gibraltarian. She fears a disinterested Britain will now hand her homeland back to Spain. For her, it would be better for Gibraltar to cease to exist that to exist under Spain rule "I don't trust them. The Spanish will pretend they have Gibraltar's intentions at heart to get us, then as soon as the world's backs are turned they will go against us. I would rather this whole place goes up in a mushroom cloud than concede to the Spanish."

Among retirees from the British mainland now living in Gibraltar, anger is also palpable. One elderly Scouser and former paratrooper from the British army struck up conversation as we were travelling through the border check point. In many ways, he would appear the archetypal Ukip voter, a pensioner, a former Army man from the North of England. But he told me "I despair about what will happen to us after Brexit, it's unthinkable. Nigel Farage has a face I'd never tire of slapping." Brexit has complicated his identity immensely.

Sadly, the despair felt here is not unwarranted. It is difficult to see how Gibraltar could continue to exist after EU withdrawal,  especially if it returns to Spanish control. Its entire history and identity is, rightly or wrongly built on a notion of British exceptionalism. Once that goes, it has little left to hold it together. For the Gibraltarians, three hundred years of sovereignty looks poised to be washed away in exchange for the motherland achieving its desire to get its own sovereignty back from the EU. The irony of that is not lost on them, and it serves as little compensation for what they now face.

Siobhán Fenton is a Belfast-based writer covering gender, politics and Northern Ireland.