In last week's Notebook, I reminisced about my first German lessons at Leith Academy in the August of 1989. I now remember that the month before I'd been on a family holiday to Malaga, which had included a day trip to the tiny British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar. Last week I returned, this time for a spot of what the Scottish Green MSP Andy Wightman once called my 'constitutional tourism.' I remembered little except 'The Rock' with its monkeys, and the engagingly out-of-context British traffic lights.
At Gatwick, I'd eavesdropped on two Gibraltarians who were lamenting Brexit. The morning after the vote, one said, 'I just didn't feel I belonged here any more.' I assumed she was one of many in the territory who divided their time (courtesy of EasyJet) between the UK and the Iberian peninsula's southern tip. That's one section of Gibraltar's roughly 28,000 inhabitants, another – tens of thousands of Spanish workers – constitute another, which is where Brexit might cause problems. More of that in a moment.
Just as in the UK, where the 'beast from the east' was about to strike, bad weather was brewing in 'Gib', so I made a point of ascending The Rock before it became impossible. I took the cable car up and descended on foot, taking in various sights, some of them chintzy to the point of absurdity, en route. Twenty-nine years ago, I did the same with my brother and parents; I remember being dehydrated (foolishly, we'd brought no water at the height of summer) and one of The Rock's native monkeys attempting to bite my twin. I kept well away from them on this occasion.
One of the last sights was a 14th-century Moorish castle, a reminder of Gibraltar's deep and varied provenance, the signs of which are still on the streets. There, veiled women mingled with elderly Spanish ladies dressed all in black. English is spoken, but not exclusively so; mostly, however, there are hordes of tourists from the south of England determined to live as they would back in Birmingham or Brighton. The local restaurants are happy to oblige, boasting of their 'authentic' British fish and chips, as are newsagents with copies of the Sun and Daily Mail. Otherwise there's a listless quality about the territory: ticket sellers, waitresses – even the policemen – none seemed fully engaged. And the motorists drive like crazy people, as if to compensate for the limited size of their curious state-let.
I was curious to know what Spaniards thought about this slice of British territory on their doorstep. In my admittedly unscientific survey, most seemed unfussed. 'I've always said that Gibraltar is British territory,' said one guy I spoke to in La Linea, an unlovely Spanish town just across 'The Frontier,' 'and I hope it stays that way forever. The people who live there have always cared for everything and keep it very well.' Clearly, this wasn't a universal view. Also in La Linea was some graffiti which had originally read 'F*** CITY GIBRALTAR,' although someone had altered the first word so it read 'ROCK' instead.
Over breakfast with my Airbnb host, a teacher from England, I gleaned another point of view. 'Of course, it's absurd that Gibraltar isn't Spanish,' she said, before carefully adding that public opinion couldn't be ignored. Indeed, most Gibraltarians are unequivocally pro-UK, a stance made clear in every plebiscite held there. The Spanish government thinks that irrelevant (a bit like nationalists in Scotland and Northern Ireland), but Madrid is also guilty of hypocrisy, maintaining two Gibraltar-like enclaves in Morocco, the north African country that can be seem from Europa Point, the territory's southernmost tip.
Gibraltarians were also overwhelmingly 'Remain', a whopping 96% of whom voted that way in the 2016 referendum (Gib is the only one of the UK's 14 overseas territories which is also part of the EU). Initially, Fabian Picardo (the chief minister) warned that Brexit posed an 'existential threat,' but when I caught up with him at No 6 Convent Place (Gibraltar's equivalent of No 10 Downing Street), he told me that his view had shifted 'considerably' over the past year and a half. In short, it's the economy, stupid.
On analysing the territory's finances following the vote, his officials were surprised to discover that more than 90% of its trade in financial services (one of its key sectors) actually depended upon its links with the UK rather than the EU. Now the single market remains important (this is where Gibraltar's Spanish labour force comes in), but not overwhelmingly so.
Thus Picardo – a slick, thoughtful politician in the Blair mould – is determined to make a 'success' of Brexit by working in concert with the UK government rather than at loggerheads with it, which is the Scottish government's preferred strategy. I left our half-hour meeting impressed at a leader willing to change his opinions according to the evidence.
Before my interview, Picardo's press officer had arranged a last-minute tour of 'The Convent,' the governor's office just across the street from the chief minister. So-called because of its Franciscan past, its most important occupant appeared not to be home – carpets were being cleaned and bits of the sprawling building patched up. But when I politely asked where he was, my guide's friendliness evaporated. 'I can't tell you that!' he snapped. He then showed me the garrison city's (huge) ceremonial keys and we moved swiftly on.
Gibraltar is famous for the 'Siege' of the late 18th century, when the Spanish bombarded the city for four horrible years in an unsuccessful attempt to reverse the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht which had ceded it to Britain 'in perpetuity.' To this day, the King's Chapel (which is connected to The Convent) bears testimony to that onslaught, its once cross-shaped floorplan now an awkward rectangular shape. My decision to tackle The Rock upon my arrival, meanwhile, proved wise, for on day two the heavens opened up and lashed the place with wind, rain and even hailstones.
I was scheduled to leave on the 11.30am EasyJet flight to Gatwick, but it became obvious as I walked the 'Winston Churchill Avenue' to departures that this wasn't going to happen. Sure enough, we were soon crossing The Frontier to board several coaches to Malaga, our flight having been diverted via an airport with better weather conditions. It was the same journey – but in reverse – I'd done with my family almost three decades earlier.