Gibraltar and Its Strange Relationship to Empire
What is Gibraltar, and how can we understand its complicated relationship to empire?
Conquered by an Anglo-Dutch force in 1704, the fortress of Gibraltar was officially ceded to the United Kingdom by the Spanish in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. As this was done at gunpoint, Spain has never felt particularly bound by the treaty, and laid siege to Gibraltar twice more in the 18th Century. However, the famous Rock of Gibraltar underpinned the defences, allowing for the fortress to hold out until help came in the form of the Royal Navy.
Why was the UK so determined to keep this rocky outcrop?
Its location at the mouth of the Mediterranean gave the Royal Navy a convenient place from which to re-supply the Mediterranean fleet and ensure that commerce was unmolested by pirates or hostile powers in the area. In the latter half of the 19th century, the opening of the Suez Canal in the eastern Mediterranean made Gibraltar even more crucial; the logistics of the British Empire now ran through the Mediterranean to Suez, and then on through the Red Sea to India and on to Australia. Maintaining the flow of ships through the Strait of Gibraltar was crucial to maintaining the defence of the empire and the flows of goods that enriched the UK and fuelled its industrial expansion.
During this period, Gibraltar’s civilian population grew as various merchants, fishermen and laborers from all over the Mediterranean arrived to provide goods and services to Gibraltar’s fortress and fleet. The 1930s and 1940s would shape their political views in two ways that still resonate today.
First, during World War 2 the Gibraltarians were evacuated from the territory, under the assumption that the fortress would be attacked, and sent to London, Northern Ireland, and Jamaica, among other places. Repatriation began in 1944, but it took until 1951 to get them all back to Gibraltar. The Gibraltarians’ experience as second-class citizens of the Empire confirmed their sense of being a specific nation, with rights to self-governance in a de-colonising empire.
However, the other event that shaped Gibraltarian views was the rise of Fascism in Spain under the dictator Franco. From 1936 until 1975, Spanish democracy just across the frontier was squashed, with violence and oppression following in its wake. While the Gibraltarians were newly aware that they had to stand up for themselves against the British authorities, who would not necessarily consider the Gibraltarians’ needs, they were equally aware that they could not trust Franco and his government, which still coveted the return of Gibraltar. To that end, Franco closed the frontier with Gibraltar, intending to throttle their economy into submission (this failed). For this reason, as well as its reliance on British military spending, Gibraltar leaned into its British-ness, never pressing for decolonisation or anything more than ministerial government. It was a happy corner of the still-extant empire.
This began to change in the 1980s as decolonisation reduced the importance of Gibraltar to the UK.
No longer was Gibraltar the Lion guarding the Strait.
Contemporary Shadows of Empire
Military spending in Gibraltar plummeted and the Gibraltarians had to re-make their economy to become more self-reliant. This they accomplished by eliminating VAT to bring in tourists interested in military history and fish and chips by the Mediterranean, and by lowering their corporate tax rates to become a centre for online gaming and financial services. Efforts by the UK government in the 1990s to negotiate shared sovereignty over Gibraltar with Spain – without consulting the Gibraltarians – led to a further erosion of confidence in the UK (and a humiliating climbdown by the Blair Government).
A final betrayal came with the Brexit referendum, which has pulled Gibraltar out of the EU despite a 96% majority in favour of remaining. The reason for this overwhelming majority is partly because EU membership meant that Spain had to keep the frontier open, the one tendril of land connecting Gibraltar to the rest of Europe, and partly because Spain is likely to use EU-UK trade negotiations as a bargaining chip to raise the question of shared sovereignty again. This is not only anathema to the Gibraltarian identity, which incorporates Britishness, but also to the Gibraltarian economy, which is based on its autonomy and ability to set its own tax rates. And so, in 2020 Gibraltar finds itself with few options but to remain the staunch proponent of – not quite empire – the ‘British family of nations’ around the world.
Professor Jason Dittmer teaches Political Geography at University College London. Notable Publications include Diplomatic Material: Affect, Assemblage, and Foreign Policy (Duke University Press, 2017), Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero: Metaphors, Narratives, and Geopolitics (Temple University Press, 2013) and (Rowman and Littlefield, 1st ed. 2010; 2nd ed. 2019).
Follow him @RealJDittmer