(First published by the New Statesman)
May 12 – Between A Rock And A Hard Place – A Gibraltarian Politics Student’s View On The Dilemmas Of GE2015
by Mark E. Montegriffo
2015 is seeing general elections in the United Kingdom, Spain and Gibraltar. It does not take a young politics aficionado like myself to realize the importance of the outcomes of these elections for my 30,000 compatriots in Gibraltar.
Last year I had the privilege of representing Gibraltar in delegations at EU and UN level. To my delight, I was able to experience the international diplomacy that the Rock has been engaging in for the purpose of commerce, lobbying and, above all, utilizing our right to defend our political wishes – not just regarding the defence of British sovereignty over Gibraltar versus Spain but also because there is a consensus that a ‘Brexit’ would virtually bring Gibraltar to its knees.
However, with cross-border (and cross-water) tensions on an incline ever since the election of the Partido Popular Government in Spain, Gibraltar could take some comfort in the news that the rise of support for parties in Spain such as Podemos and Ciudadanos may damage the chances of a PP re-election.
Though I am writing to talk about the shock election of the Conservative majority Government in the UK – I follow British politics far closer than I do Spanish politics. This is due to several reasons, one of them being that I am studying modern Britain’s Political History for my A-levels. I was certainly not the only one with a keen eye on the developments in the May election, as Gibraltarians know that the governing parties in the UK have not always lived up to our expectations. Gibraltarians are growing weary of empty ‘robust’ rhetoric from the Foreign and Commonwealth office and would appreciate a more proactive UK government.
But Gibraltarians have not been particularly pleased with the UK Labour Party during their recent years in Governement – especially under Blair. New Labour’s attitude to Gibraltar effectively ignored the democratic freedoms of Gibraltar and attempted to seek a joint sovereignty solution whereby the Rock would be half-owned by the Spanish state, this is known as the infamous ‘Andorra Solution’. This started the new millennium on the wrong foot with regards to Gibraltar’s relationship with Straw, Hain and Blair. Locally they are considered as traitors for trying to ‘sell us down the river’.
Naturally, the general feeling seems to be that Gibraltar is safer under a Conservative government in the UK. Though if we are judging by 2014’s EU election result, Gibraltarians voted overwhelmingly for the UK Liberal Democrats; this is in great part thanks to the dedication of Sir Graham Watson to Gibraltar’s cause. Despite this, no Liberal Democrat represents Gibraltar at EU level because it is part of the South West region of the UK who voted in a different range of politicians. Indeed, Europe is an issue for Gibraltarians at this election. We are overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU and perhaps that might have persuaded some that a Labour-led Government would be safer for Gibraltar. Though the party did not do itself any favours when they allegedly recognized Gibraltar as a tax haven – a claim which Gibraltarians and Europeans will prove to you is wholly untrue.
I find this very unfortunate as I was able to find some good common ground with Miliband’s Labour. Abolishing the bedroom tax and enforcing non-dom tax seemed to be ethical and agreeable, despite claims that GDP will plummet. The coalition oversaw tuition fee hikes and a surge in foodbanks, which the Labour party has rightly spoken out against. Then again, a Conservative Government promising a referendum may put to bed the appeal of UKIP for many UK voters if the result was in favour of remaining in the EU – an issue that has haunted the stability of UK Governments since their first application was rejected in 1961 under Macmillan’s Tory Government.
I predicted last week that we will see a government that is, in some form or other, Labour-led. In any case, the Rock would stand strong against any falsehoods or hints of indifference towards her sea and land. The general consensus in Gibraltar is that Cameron’s Conservative Government will protect Gibraltar’s interests, whereas a Labour government would have had a lot to make up for to the Gibraltarian people.
Given the outcome of the election, my prediction was fatally wrong. But at least I was not the only one. Pre-election polls and UK journalists predicted that we would see a hung parliament and possibly a Labour minority Government – with the aid of the SNP bloc. Speaking to locals in Gibraltar, you will find a sense of relief regarding this election. Despite Len McCluskey, leader of Unite the Union, telling the Gibraltar Chronicle that Gibraltar would not see a repetition of the dubbed treachery that occurred during the previous Labour Government, there is a feeling that ‘there is something of the night’ about a Labour Government’s attitude to Gibraltar. This is purely to do with the actions of Labour rather than left-wing politics. Of course, Gibraltar’s Governing party is currently the Gibraltar Socialist Labour/Liberal Party Alliance. But what does ideology mean nowadays anyway?
This distrust in Labour is contrasted to a feeling of security under the Conservatives that arguably goes back to the handling of the Falklands Crisis by Thatcher in 1982 – a symbol that the Tories will never break British Commonwealth ties, whatever the cost. It is fair to say that since then, the Tories have not put their foot in it. They have supported Gibraltar’s autonomy under the 2006 Gibraltar Constitution and have not got in the way of the success of the Rock’s economy in the financial sector, when economies have been failing in every other direction around the Mediterranean. With Hammond as Foreign Secretary, described by Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo as ‘a good friend of Gibraltar’, I would agree with the Gibraltar Chronicle’s comments that the Tory party remains ‘a staunch supporter of the Rock’s British Sovereignty and its right to self-determination’. After all, the Conservative manifesto exclaimed that Gibraltar will remain British for ‘as long as they wish’ – Labour’s manifesto did not mention Gibraltar at all.
Although things could have seemed a lot worse for Gibraltar with a different election result, there are still some concerns. Albert Poggio, Gibraltar’s Representative in London, says ‘we’ve lost 12 of our friends in Parliament’. Brian Reyes from the Gibraltar Chronicle acknowledged this and stated that: ‘Gibraltar’s support base was dented in Thursday’s election’. Additionally, the more perilous issue is that of the promised EU referendum by 2017, which is widely accepted to have potentially disastrous consequences for Gibraltar in the result of an ‘OUT’ vote – arguably one of the only qualms about the election of a majority Conservative Government, but it has the ability to diminish confidence in the Tories and pose a threat to the economic and diplomatic survival as Gibraltar as we know it. For this reason, the position that Gibraltar would ‘sleep easier’ with Labour is just about understandable. In fact, the esteemed Dr. Grocott of the University of Leicester has argued that, ‘for all of Labour’s baggage’, a Labour victory would have been the better outcome.
In consideration of all the arguments presented, I would disagree with Grocott’s assessment and contend that Gibraltar can be happy with a Conservative Government. Gibraltar has been part of the European trade bloc for as long as the UK, thanks to Heath’s successful negotiation in 1973. Perhaps I can be accused of youthful idealism or naivety, but I just don’t see a Brexit coming. It seems to be a non sequitur that Britain can thrive outside of the EU and I can’t see it happening. I will take reassurance in the dismal failure of UKIP in this election and in the apparent minority group of anti-Europeans in the House of Commons and the British public. I know that whatever happens, Gibraltar will do her all to keep its ties with the EU.
Mark also has a blog at www.yourgibraltartv.com. His latest piece was a precursor to this piece for the New Statesman.