Aug 15 - UK Academic Writes For YGTV On Current Spain-Gib Dispute

The PP may follow Franco’s line on the ‘Gibraltar problem’, but history demonstrates a very different relationship between Gibraltar and Spain...

By Gareth Stockey, Lecturer in Modern Spanish Studies at the University of Nottingham.

In opposition, just days before the Spanish general elections in 2011, the Partido Popular rejected the recommendations of a government commission to make significant changes to the monument which houses the remains of former dictator General Franco and still glorifies the values of his regime, El Valle de los Caídos. The PP’s argument, as with so many other ‘historical memory’ initiatives ongoing since that election, was that ‘Spain’s problem is unemployment, not Franco’. How sad that they cannot follow their own advice in relation to another of the dictator’s damaging legacies for Spain, namely the country’s handling of the ‘Gibraltar problem’.

It is easy to forget, at a time of perceived crisis and after so many decades of difficulty in the cross-frontier relationship, that the ‘problem’ between Gibraltar and Spain is a narrative created largely by the Franco regime. So too responsibility should be attached to the dictator for the tactic – sadly maintained by most Spanish administrations since the transition to democracy – of using the border as a means of irritating, cajoling or bullying Gibraltar. A generous reading of Franco’s motives for reviving the cry of ‘Gibraltar Español’ would portray him as a ‘traditional’ Spanish nationalist genuinely pursuing a long-standing diplomatic claim of Spain. A less generous reading would suggest that Franco was usually seeking to distract public attention from Spain’s more pressing internal problems. In the wake of crippling economic hardship, exacerbated by counterproductive and ideologically-motivated austerity measures, and amidst the revelations of the Barcenas scandal, it has not escaped many observers that yet another parallel can be drawn between the PP and its ideological forebears before 1975.

If Gibraltar’s (and Gibraltarians’) desire is to have a constructive relationship with their neighbours, however, rather than retreat into a familiar attitude of ‘always the same’ and ‘what do you expect from Spain?’, it is always worth recalling the history of the often-complex cross-frontier relationship.

For well over a century after the British-Spanish alliance during the Peninsular War, Gibraltar’s relations with Spain were extremely cordial. To be sure, Spanish governments often offered token protests to London and registered their continued claim to the Rock, but on a local level, and at the level of daily existence in the area in and around Gibraltar, officials and civilians alike got on with the business of creating and maintaining friendly relations. Primarily, the driver of this interaction was economic. Whether through licit trade in serving the needs of a British garrison (and later an increasingly prosperous Gibraltarian merchant class), a major naval base and commercial dockyard, or through the less reputable (but consistently enormous) smuggling trade, a truly symbiotic economic relationship developed across the frontier. And from this economic base came myriad forms of social, cultural and even political engagement between Gibraltar and Spain. The Royal Calpe Hunt was one of the more famous and consistent features of close relations between elites on either side of the frontier. Less well known, perhaps, are facts such as that General Sir George Don even lived in the Campo for a period when he was Governor of Gibraltar; that in 1849 the Prince of Wales was received with enthusiasm during a visit to the Campo; and that in the same year two Spanish princes were offered a warm welcome on the Rock, where the streets were adorned with Spanish flags. This is a far cry from the ‘shame’ and ‘historic treachery’ that sections of the Spanish press used to describe the visit to Gibraltar of the PSOE foreign minister, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, in 2009.

It is in the lives of the majority, civilian populations of the region that close relations were most impressively and consistently manifested, however. Cross-frontier economic activity prompted large-scale intermarriage between Gibraltarians and Spaniards, which in turn further cemented close relations. It led to the infusion of Spanish language, literature, theatre, music, and dance into Gibraltar. In turn, it offered not a few ‘Spanglish’ words into the local Spanish dialect, created an interest in British military and naval cultures across the border, as well as early and lasting enthusiasm for the competitive sports that Britain was exporting around the world. In short, from politics to polo, from food to football, the two communities had much to share and to enjoy together.

Before Franco, this was the ‘normal’, lived experience of the Gibraltar-Spain relationship for those on the ground. Indeed, relations were so close and symbiotic that when the national priorities of London or Madrid possibly threatened to upset it, one could expect the communities on either side of the frontier to unite in defence of their interests. Gibraltarians, for example, were not afraid to oppose those ‘bad’ governors such as Robert Gardiner or Archibald Hunter who placed British imperial and military priorities ahead of local economic interests. In the 1920s, Spaniards in the Campo campaigned ferociously against rigid customs checks at the border, which were ordered by another Spanish dictator, General Primo de Rivera. When one border incident in 1928 led to two Spanish deaths and several injuries at the hands of Spanish customs guards, hundreds of Gibraltarians crossed to La Línea to attend the funerals.

Once he began a more aggressive campaign for the return of Gibraltar in the 1950s, Franco worked hard not only to sabotage the economic engine that promoted cordial relations, but also to change ‘hearts and minds’ in the Campo towards the Rock and its people. Arguably, this met with some success. Periodically, however, there is evidence of that old shared interest re-emerging. Perhaps not always for the same reasons, residents of the Campo were nonetheless also quick to join Gibraltarian protests against the repair of the nuclear submarine HMS Tireless on the Rock in 2000, and again this year. Most recently, the mayor of La Línea has pointed out that the PP’s supposedly disinterested pursuit of Spain’s ‘traditional’ claim to ‘El Peñón’ has damaging practical repercussions for Spaniards whose livelihoods depend on Gibraltar. Meanwhile, as was the case with underground Basque politicians in the 1950s, Catalan politicians have sided with Gibraltar in the recent border dispute. The Gibraltar-Spain relationship is not, and never was, as simplistic as more intransigent Spanish (and yes, some Gibraltarian) nationalists would have us believe.

Despite periodic difficulties, the reopening of the border in 1985 gradually saw a return to the economic, and subsequently socio-cultural, exchange that had long characterised this relationship before Franco. Many Gibraltarians have since chosen to live in Spain, as they did before 1939, and many thousands more travel to Spain and spend lots of money in the Campo. Meanwhile, thousands of Spaniards have once again come to owe their living to Gibraltar. It is surely ironic that a party like the PP has chosen to hinder economic interaction across the Gibraltar-Spain border. One might expect a broadly neoliberal party to favour economic liberalism, free markets and free movement of labour to combat the problem they identified in November 2011 as Spain’s priority. It would seem for the PP, however, that Spain’s problem is now Gibraltar, not unemployment.

Gareth Stockey is a Lecturer in Modern Spanish Studies at the University of Nottingham and has been researching the history of Gibraltar for 15 years. His published work includes (with Chris Grocott) Gibraltar: A Modern History (University of Wales Press, 2012). A paperback edition of his first book, Gibraltar: a Dagger in the Spine of Spain? (Sussex Academic Press) will be published in November.