How the people of Gibraltar came to feel British

Dining out in Gibraltar. Ben Birchall/PA Archive

With red phone and letter boxes and Bobbies on the streets, Gibraltar offers a glimpse of a bygone age when Britishness was confidently exported. Now, amid renewed controversy over the status of the territory, the phrase “British forever” has been heard once again in Gibraltar.

In the recent debate about Gibraltar and its future after Brexit, British and Gibraltarian ministers alike have stressed the very British nature of Gibraltarians. When asked by the BBC what would be so bad about joint sovereignty, Gibraltar’s chief minister, Fabian Picardo, replied: “It would strip us of who we are.”

In research my colleagues and I have been conducting for the last four years in the Bordering on Britishness project, we have found that the contemporary sense of Britishness of Gibraltarians is much more recent than the Rock’s 300-year history as a British territory might suggest.

Being Gibraltarian

Most Gibraltarians do not have their origins in the UK but are, rather, a mixture of Genoese, Maltese, Spanish, Moroccan Jewish and other peoples. Gibraltarian nationalism is still, however, tied to Britishness. As a Gibraltarian in his 70s told me (speaking in Spanish):

Yes, I speak English with an accent, but so does someone from Scotland or Wales. We are British in the same way they are.

Gibraltar has a local identity with its own flag and anthem, but this identity is bound with the UK. Not all Gibraltarians, however, are comfortable with this sense of Britishness. As a man in his 50s put it: “What’s happened now is that we imagine ourselves to be blue-eyed, blond Brits; and we are not!”

There are few Gibraltarians today who imagine a future independent from the UK – although Brexit has certainly focused the minds of some on this matter.

The overwhelming majority of people we have interviewed see themselves as British Gibraltarians – with a varying emphasis on each of those terms. Although the journey from colonial subject to citizen took time, since 1981 there has been no legal difference between UK British citizens and Gibraltarian ones. Today, many Gibraltarians imagine themselves as having the same status as people in Wales vis-a-vis the UK: certainly not English but British nevertheless.

Yet, there is a collective amnesia at play about what this identity meant in the past. When prompted, many Gibraltarians can recall what it was like to be second class citizens in Gibraltar. Until the 1960s, the Royal Naval Dockyard had separate toilets for British (of UK origin), Gibraltarians and Spaniards – as did the offices of Cable and Wireless. Gibraltarian’ wages were different from other British people based on the rock well into the 1970s. Many people we interviewed remember when “English” people were always served ahead of Gibraltarians in shops. They recalled feeling that they were not regarded as “one of us” by other British peoplee.

Forging Britishness

Going back further in time, for much of the 20th century Gibraltar’s civilian population was overwhelmingly Spanish speaking. There was not much difference between working class Gibraltarians and their neighbours immediately across the border: no difference in language, the music they listened to or the religion they practised.

All roads lead to Spain. betta design/flickr, CC BY-NC

When pressed to identify differences in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, our older interviewees said that Spaniards wore inferior footwear or “smoked different cigarettes” – essentially economic differences. When this generation was asked who were the Spanish people when they were young, they talked about the fishmonger, the hawker, the grocer, the barber and so on. But no one mentioned mothers, aunts, grandmothers who were born in Spain – almost a third of marriages before the war were between Gibraltarian men and Spanish women.

Today’s sense of Gibraltarian Britishness was primarily created by a Spanish campaign to “take back” Gibraltar which began in 1940. This developed with increasing intensity until the death in 1975 of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s. It saw the closure of the border between 1969 and 1985. Much of contemporary anti-Spanishness in Gibraltar has its roots in this period. There continues to be a profound mistrust of the Spanish political class with the chief minister likening Spain to North Korea.

In Gibraltar, the argument is often made that Gibraltarians became a specifically British people through the experiences of wartime evacuation of most of Gibraltar’s women and children to the UK. There were, however, important continuities before and after the war, during which most men stayed on the Rock and women and children lived in Spanish speaking communities, first in London and later in camps in Northern Ireland.

It was during the war that the UK government decided Gibraltarians needed to be made more British and a plan was developed to promote the learning of English in Gibraltar and strengthen the “imperial connection” with the UK. Since then, Gibraltarians have studied the UK curriculum in English and currently all 18-year-olds have access to free university education in the UK, meaning the Gibraltar government covers fees, subsistence, and flights home.

Spanish speaking falling away

The result is a much greater familiarity with British than Spanish culture. Gibraltarians are becoming increasingly English speaking and whereas in the recent past they shared a language with their Spanish neighbours, for young Gibraltarians this is now a social barrier. One woman in her 70s told us:

My grandparents could … only speak Spanish … Even though my father spoke English, at home we spoke Spanish as my mother was Spanish … When I went to school I did not know any English, but luckily I learnt it … Now … everyone speaks in English … When we go to Spain to visit the parents of my son-in-law, they cannot understand a word of what my niece says … Today most children do not learn Spanish anymore.

Brexit threatens Gibraltarians’ sense of Britishness. Gibraltar’s economy requires membership of the EU to ensure the border remains open for people and goods and its financial and gambling sectors also depend on access to the EU. Despite some of the recent jingoistic posturing, Gibraltarians are concerned that the UK is neither willing nor able to defend Gibraltar’s political interests if it is outside the EU. Britishness itself is radically changing and there may not even be a United Kingdom in a few years. This suggests an existential crisis is brewing for Gibraltarian Britishness.

The Conversation is a non-profit + your donation is tax deductible. Help knowledge-based, ethical journalism today.