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Tuesday, 20 November, 2001, 14:46 GMT
Gibraltar eyes uncertain future
British traditions still hold sway on the Rock
By the BBC's Justin Webb in Gibraltar

Betty is in a pickle. She's at reception with her two friends and they are not happy. Betty's luggage was in the luggage room but it seems to have gone missing.

The three elderly ladies - sensibly attired in light cashmere and pearls - berate the staff, who had been chatting to each other in Spanish and showing insufficient interest in the unfolding drama.

Finally a bellboy is sent to the luggage room and discovers the missing bags are all there. They'd just been moved.

Betty and her friends mutter something about the hotel's inadequacies and retire to the bar for a stiff drink.

Ladies taking tea in a garden
For those who remember Britain in the 50s Gibraltar feels familiar

Watching these events I was reminded of Evelyn Waugh's description of Gibraltar in a travel book he wrote in the 1930s. Waugh and his companions had cruised around the Mediterranean and put in at the rock on the homeward journey.

"The Ladies," said Waugh, "declared that for the first time since leaving London they felt truly safe".

For ladies of a certain age that is still the case today.

Feeling at home

Gibraltar is a Mediterranean holiday destination - it is further than the Spanish Costas. But if your luggage is temporarily lost - and that is probably the worst thing that could happen to you - you can issue commands in English that will be as well understood here as they would be in the tea room at Fortnum and Masons.

For the glorious truth is that if your Britishness is rooted somewhere in the 1950s you have not really left home.

Gibraltar is physically Mediterranean, with its pavement cafes and summer heat, but the trappings of genteel Britishness are everywhere.

Marks and Spencer's shopping bag
Everywhere there are reminders of Britain

The roadsigns, the bobbies on the beat, the Marks and Spencers, the gentle tolling of the church bells, the ringing tones on the telephones, the fact that everyone wears knee breeches and morris dancing is compulsory on Tuesdays.

Yes, I made those last bits up. But only just.

There is a strangely Gilbert and Sullivan air to the rock. Someone told me that when the royal family visit, the lengthy queue of dignitaries has to be seen to be believed.

All sorts of governors and chief admirals and gartered knights line up for introduction to the royal personage - and even the representative of the local population, the grandly titled Chief Minister, is certainly not lacking in Ruritanian dignity.

Princess Margaret, Queen Mother, Queen (British Royal family)
The Royal family are popular visitors

Even on non-ceremonial occasions he is driven around the Rock in some style.

I say some style - the car is an elderly Rover - but it is shiny and black and sports the number plate GB1.

Other politicians - and Gibraltar seems to have hundreds of them among its 30,000 souls - harbour comic opera rivalries whose intensity and complexity seems to be deepened by the toy town size of the place.

Claim for sovereignty

They pass each other every day in the street and scowl over freshly remembered rows about the Hattersley memorandum of 1976 or the constitution of '69, or, for all I know, the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713.

The Royal Gibraltar Regiment taking over guard duties at Buckingham Palace, London
Gibraltarians take part in British ceremonies

It was of course that treaty that forced the Spanish to accept British rule over Gibraltar after Britain invaded it in 1704.

To sleek New Labour modernists like Foreign Office Minister Peter Hain all that seems rather a long time ago. But to the Gilbert and Sullivan brigade the ink on the Treaty of Utrecht is hardly dry.

There is one local politician who will publicly tell you the Spanish claim for sovereignty must one day be accommodated. But he is regarded as a maverick of the most outlandish sort and the nicest thing anyone said about him in my hearing was that he was "brave."

Most Gibraltarians are not for changing. Not now, not ever.

5th November is celebrated on the Rock

Typical of them were the couple I met on Guy Fawkes night - yes, they are enthusiastic followers of this British tradition. As the rockets zoomed into the air around us Wayne and Sandra talked eloquently of the their love for Britain but their loathing for what in their view the British Government was doing to them.

"We're being sold down the river," they said. "All we want is the right to be British." And they listed the petty and vindictive acts of successive Spanish governments - right down to their refusal to allow the Gibraltar Kennel Association to take part in dog shows in Madrid.

As we stood there I was overcome by a sense of deja vu. Where was it that I had heard this speech before? Of course. In very different weather conditions but with equal intensity, Northern Ireland unionists used to give me the same lecture when I worked in the province in the mid-1980s.

I felt sorry for the unionists then and I feel sorry for the Gibraltarians now.

I think it was Woody Allen who said that just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean people aren't out to get you.

Justin Webb
"Gibraltar is physically Mediterranean .. but the trappings of genteel Britishness are everywhere."
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