Gibraltar's great day

Gibraltarians celebrate their National Day on September 10th. It dates from a poll in 1967 that took place on that day. Spain was then still a dictatorship under General Franco's rule, but the United Nations had requested that the UK enter negotiations with Spain concerning Gibraltar's sovereignty. The UK's response was to consult the people of Gibraltar, at their request, in a sovereignty referendum. The UN criticized the UK for holding such a vote, presumably thinking that the Gibraltarians should have no say in their future.

The referendum went ahead on September 10th, achieving a huge turnout of eligible voters. The result was that 12.138 voted to reject Spanish sovereignty, and 44 voted to accept it, representing a 99.64 percent majority. The UN seems to regard Gibraltar as a colony, but its status is in fact a self-governing British Overseas Territory. It is tiny, a mere 2.6 square miles, on the Mediterranean just to the South of Spain. It currently has about 30,000 inhabitants in a densely populated town at the foot of its famous rock.

Its importance lies in its strategic position at the Strait of Gibraltar, where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic, a gap of only 8.9 miles of waterway that separates Europe from Africa. In the War of the Spanish Succession, an Anglo-Dutch force captured it on behalf of the Habsburg claimants, and it was ceded to Great Britain forever in the 1713 Treat of Utrecht. Britain has retained it ever since as an important naval base, in which capacity it was exceptionally valuable during World War II.

Today its economy depends upon its use as a base for refuelling cargo freighters and on tourism, and on its "offshore" status for financial services and online gambling. When I have won political bets, the winnings have been paid to me in cheques drawn on a Gibraltar bank. Half of the world's entire seaborne trade passes through the Strait of Gibraltar.

Spain has long sought to incorporate Gibraltar into its territory, regarding it as an anomalous legacy of a colonial past. Curiously enough, they do not seem to regard their continued holding of territories in Africa, including two autonomous Spanish enclaves and the Canary Islands, in the same light. The UK view is that any change in its status can only take place with the consent of Gibraltar's inhabitants. They rejected Spanish sovereignty in that 1967 referendum, and in a 2002 referendum, they rejected the Labour government's suggestion of shared sovereignty. The Spanish government's response to the 1967 vote was to close the border in 1969 and restrict movement. This lasted until 1985, prior to Spain's entry into the EU in 1986.

On the 25th anniversary of the first vote, Gibraltar's government held a National Day on 10th September 1992, and have done so on that date very year since then. When the people of Gibraltar voted overwhelmingly to Remain in the Brexit referendum, Spain renewed calls for joint sovereignty, but has made it clear that it will not use the issue to veto any Brexit deal that might be reached between the UK and the EU.

The Gibraltarians are proud of the British Status and fly the flag. Their students pursue higher education at UK universities, and UK television programmes by the BBC and Sky are widely watched. It seems inevitable that their status and sovereignty will not be changed unless and until they want it to. In the meantime, we wish them a happy National Day.