Gibraltar, my father’s lost Eden, is still shackled to a dream of empireBy Anita Mason (St Hilda’s, 1960)

My father grew up in Gibraltar after my grandfather, a naval dockyard electrical engineer, was sent to work on an electrification scheme at the Royal Naval Dockyard there. I have a photograph of my father dressed up as a ‘Spanish fisher lad’ (right). His smile is earnest and trustful: he believes in what he’s doing. It is a touchingly innocent scene and reeks of empire. It was 1917.

England ‘acquired’ Gibraltar in 1704 by the normal means of invasion with the sword. It was part of the War of Spanish Succession, and the English force was part of an Anglo-Dutch army whose main objective was containing the power of France. English possession of this strategic rock jutting into the Mediterranean, eight miles from the African coast, was formalised in the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713. Spain has never been reconciled to the loss of it, and in the 18th century made two attempts to re-take it by force.  

In 1830 it became a British colony; Spain maintains that it still is, although Britain now classes it as an ‘overseas territory’. It played an important part in the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War and World War II, and is presumably vital to Britain’s intelligence and communications network in the Mediterranean region. None of this is an argument for hanging on to it at all costs if a workable arrangement with Spain can be reached, and one nearly was in 2002, when a shared sovereignty deal was agreed. It was presented to the Gibraltarian people, and they overwhelmingly rejected it. The British Government seems to have given up at this point.

Gibraltar resembles one of those mythical monsters that has the head of one animal and the body of another. Physically Spanish, politically British, it is a modern tax haven with a deeply conservative world outlook, and has a working population that identifies as British but commutes constantly across the border with Spain. That border has to stay open for its economy to function. Spain can close it — Franco did that for 16 years — or just make transit difficult, which it also does.

What would such a population want but membership of the EU with its single market and free movement of goods, people and services? And what would it fear, deep down, but government by Spain?

And thus they voted. To remain in the EU, 96 per cent (in 2016). To remain under British sovereignty (in 2002), 98 per cent. Only as long as Britain remained in the single market would these two be compatible.

Gibraltar, my father’s lost Eden, is still shackled to a dream of empire

Although Gibraltar’s Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, warned her that trouble was in the offing, Theresa May appears not to have realised that Spain would continue to be quiet over Gibraltar only as long as Britain remained in the EU. She didn’t think the Rock deserved mention in her letter of farewell to the EU. The response to this omission was swift. Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, said:  ‘After the United Kingdom leaves the Union, no agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom.’

The meaning was clear: if the UK didn’t come to an agreement with Spain over Gibraltar, Gibraltar would be denied the benefits of any deal Britain had reached with the EU. Admittedly, it looks unlikely that a deal will be reached that anyone would want, so bargain-basement are this Government’s diplomatic skills. But, if it were, Gibraltar would be left out in the cold.

The news that Spain would not seek to veto any application by an independent Scotland to join the EU hit the airwaves shortly afterwards. For Theresa May, that is a near shot across the bows. It was largely overlooked, however, in the hysterical reaction to Tusk’s message.

The gunboats weighed anchor at once. Lord Howard (Tory grandee Michael Howard) sailed straight for the enemy vessel and engaged it with a shot just above the waterline from his trusty ship the Maggie. He recalled Margaret Thatcher’s actions over the Falklands, and said he was absolutely sure ‘our current Prime Minister will show the same resolve’.

Gibraltar, my father’s lost Eden, is still shackled to a dream of empireHMS Cardiff during the Falklands War, 1982

Stirring stuff, eh? Get ready for another Task Force. Do you remember the dockside waving of handkerchiefs, the long voyage cloaked in secrecy (it was before GPS), the bombing of Port Stanley airfield by Vulcan bombers apparently risen from the grave, the breath-bated ‘I counted them all out and I counted them all back again’? Mrs Thatcher’s commanding ‘Rejoice at that news!’ outside Downing Street on the surrender of South Georgia? It was all so exciting.

Well, Lord Howard seems to want it back again. So do other people who should know better. God help us if, in Europe, they believe the nightmare vision of Britain that is evoked: thousands of grey-haired people sitting bolt upright in their recliner chairs fiddling with the remote, hoping to see a rerun of the Falklands War with another bunch of Hispanics.

Downing Street is embarrassed, and has distanced itself from Lord Howard. The Intelligence and Security Committee has tutted. Former Labour foreign secretary Jack Straw, who worked on the failed 2002 agreement, has said, sensibly, that it is in the interests of Gibraltarians for a deal to be done with Spain ‘in the new circumstances’, which they didn’t vote for. But it is the fact that they didn’t vote for the 2002 shared sovereignty proposal that is the sticking point.

Spain is flexing muscle (newly-acquired, and that’s Britain’s doing) but is only pursuing its legitimate interests. How would we feel if the positions were reversed? It warned Britain a long time ago that a British exit from the EU would re-awaken the Gibraltar issue. The more intractable problem is that the Gibraltarians will not accept reality and that the British Government is, again, refusing to take responsibility when ‘the will of the people’ yields an outcome that is contrary to common sense and sound politics. It thinks it can make capital out of outraged ‘patriotism’ whipped up by politicians of yesteryear who do not take responsibility for anything either.

Gibraltar, my father’s lost Eden, is still shackled to a dream of empireAfter the family returned to Britain, my father hung on devotedly to his memories of Gibraltar. In his mind, ‘Gib’ became Eden. I once heard him say something in Spanish, his accent perfect. I asked him why he hadn’t kept the language up, but he shook his head: at his school in Plymouth, where he arrived deeply sunburnt, boys had called him a ‘dago’. As soon as he could, he dropped everything that identified him with Gibraltar.

They needn’t have mocked him. He would have rewarded them: he had things to talk about of which they knew nothing. He would have felt validated. He might not have retreated, in later years, to the entrenched positions over which my mother sighed and I fought him. But none of this was going to happen in England in 1920.

I think now: when is this country going to grow up? When is it going to stop hating foreigners? When will it accept that the empire is gone?

Until it does, it has no future. All it has is a past, and even that past is not the past it thinks it is.

Anita Mason (pictured above right) read English and worked in publishing, journalism and other occupations before writing novels. Her second, The Illusionist (1983), was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Her latest (The Right Hand of the Sun, 2009) deals with the Spanish conquest of Mexico, and a further novel, Chuichui, is under revision. Since 1999, she has held various fellowships of the Royal Literary Fund and has worked and taught in higher education. She has been writing her anti-Brexit blog at since February.

Roy Mason photograph courtesy of Anita Mason; Gibraltar by JIL Photo via Shutterstock; HMS Cardiff during the Falklands War, 1982, by Griffiths911 via Wikipedia under Creative Commons licence.


By Martin NewmanDL

This women obviously has no feeling for GIB or the Gibraltaraians. It isn't about the UK wanting to retain its empire. It's the Gibraltarians wish to be British and not live under Spanish...often oppressive....rule.

By Robin Percival

Thank you, Anita, for this constructive and illuminating article.

By Yago Martin

Well, the Gibraltarians are quite Spanish in essence. They want to be brits to feel they are "special", and to have all tax benefits Gib provides. Talk to them, and you will see Andalusian people speaking a kind of... English. They live better in this tax heaven, and that's why they don't want to leave. But at the same time they need Spain to survive, so they want the best of both worlds. I think they should stay in one or the other, and assume consecuences. UK should also comply Utrech treatment, which gives them the land and the small port, but not the water around. I agree that colony imperialism times are over in this century...

By Julie

I have to agree with the above comment.

The line "The more intractable problem is that the Gibraltarians will not accept reality" is too dismissive of the people who actually live there.

By Laurence Cook

I completely agree with the sentiments expressed in this article. Better to negociate, better not to have got ourselves into this mess in the first place. But while we are on the subject of this type of enclave, what about Ceuto and Melilla? They too have financil advantages within the EU. Should Spain not give them up?

By Anthony

Spain does not have a legitimate interest in relation to the ownership of Gibraltar. It transferred ownership over 300 years ago, and nothing has happened to change that ownership.

By Martin Lambert

Beautifully written article! Enjoyed and agreed with every word (and to earlier commenter I think the author was just one woman - name of Anita Mason - and not a league of anti-imperialist females).

By Julia Rivalta

Thank you for this poetic and informative account and comment of a situation very much part of our current 'affairs'. If poets could rule, the world would be a better place

By Emlyn Stephenson

Anita is quite correct that Gibraltar is 'Physically Spanish, Politically British'. Presumably she would also acknowledge that - just over the Strait - Melilla and Ceuta are 'Physically Moroccan, Politically Spanish'. In the interests of 'post-Imperialism', I trust that she will be saving some of her intellectual powder to launch an attack on that historical anachronism as well.

By Paul M Elliott

I applaud Anita Mason's unabashed political partisanship, but watching the chaotic mirror from my home across the Atlantic, I also see the common thread that unites peoples around the world protesting against globalization: the desire to feel more in control of their own affairs and less subject to what is perceived as being at the whim of distant bureaucracies. The bigger issue seems to be how to give concrete expression to the glaring need for greater human cooperation, whilst satisfying the desire of ordinary citizens to be free to decide their own fate. Part of the answer is to extend people's sense of identity. The EU's manifest failure to create, as a priority, a European Identity for the majority of its citizens would seem to be its greatest weakness. A lesson from across the pond perhaps?

By Agnes Thambynayagam

Many thanks for this beautiful article. It is interesting to note how Gibralta was occupied by the Spanish while South Africa was initially occupied by the Portuguese and then by the Dutch and the North Europeans before it was taken over by the British. According to my findings Roman Empire controlled many lands between 1500 and 1658. The Jesuits who came from Spain, Portugal and Italy established Roman Christian Religion all over the world. In this Empire Pope was the head. The rulers who supported the Roman Christian religion were Roman Emperors.

By Chris Southworth

Why include in Oxford Today an article so lacking in academic rigour? I expected an enlightening analysis of the Gibralta situation on which I could make a value judgement of the issues. What I got was unsubstantiated waffle of the cheapest tabloid variety, like "Admittedly [why?], it looks unlikely that a deal will be reached that anyone would want [please give evidence for analysis], so bargain-basement are this Government’s diplomatic skills" [again please show quantitively how you have determined this]. We can all give vent to unreasoned prejudices - but Oxford Today is not the right place to do so.

By John Marsh

This is the first sensible comment on the Gibraltar issue I have read since the UK voted for Brexit. It is one of the disastrous results of that vote - more will emerge over time. The three questions at the end sum up the reality of our situation in contrast with the illusory vision that is promoted by most of the UK press and exploited by unscrupulous politicians who will give anything for power, including the future of their children and grandchildren.

By Diplodoctus

What a glum and condescending article! On what clairvoyant, omniscient basis can the author possibly assert that Gibraltar "has no future", and what does that mean anyway? Is the Rock going to sink beneath the waves?

One doesn't have to be a Sun-reading jingoist to know that self-determination is a fundamental principle of international relations, or that geographical proximity confers no right of sovereignty. Or should Hawaii be "decolonised" along with Ceuta and Melilla, and Timor Leste awarded to Indonesia?

The world is full of historical oddities such as Gibraltar, many of which are too small or threatened for independence. This applies to all of the UK's remaining Overseas Territories. The author may think that "the empire is gone", but try telling that to anyone living in these dozen or so fascinating places. They are real people whose lives matter as much as Anita Mason's in metropolitan UK. What a shame she has joined the UKIPers in their Little Englander blinkeredness!

By Marie

I have enjoyed reading this comment on the present (or should we say past in the present) situation of the Gibraltarians but I must point out one rather excessive comment on Britain as a whole. It is clear that the author has never lived in Germany because if she had she would know that there is no where else in central Europe (well the Hungarians may be even worse) than Germany for hidden and deep seated hatred of all things foreign. Move here for a few months and you will come to truly understand what rejection of all things foreign means. Don' t be fooled by the politics of Merkel they are as deep as her choice in clothes is varied. German society at its core has never warmed to foreigners or the open door policy of its government. The only reason Merkel has not been outed is because they are too afraid of change to do so.

By David Dumas

The writer appears to assume that Gibraltar was always Spanish prior to being British. In fact, Gibraltar was "Spanish" for a relatively short period in its history and, indeed, it has been British for longer than the USA has been in existence. The portrayal of the Gibraltarians' choice to remain British as being outdated and blinkered disregards the fact that no-one used to living in a free democratic world would want to be part of a country which is prepared, not just to make life difficult for Gibraltarians, but also for the 4,000 or so Spanish frontier workers who cross daily into Gib to earn a living: the Spanish hinterland being the poorest region in Spain with up to 40% unemployment. Would the writer willingly transfer allegiance to a country which regularly taunts and provokes the British Government by making incursions into British waters - and, despite being a NATO ally, refuses to allow British warplanes to cross Spanish airspace on their way to Gibraltar. Would the writer give in to the regular bullying tactics displayed at the border crossing with up to 3 hour delays for pedestrians (young and old) and even longer for cars? Would one willingly want to be part of a country which is so insanely obsessed with sheer hurt pride that it is prepared to act in this way and risk the livelihood of their own nationals. It is frightening that Spain has managed to manipulate 26 other EU countries to use the EU as a tool for depriving Gibraltarians of their right to choose their own destiny by holding them to ransom after Brexit. It is incredible that an institution which was designed to maintain peace in Europe after two world wars should allow itself to be used to better Spain's wholly undemocratic and selfish ends.

By David Anderson

The conclusion of the article is a reflection of the very disappointing level to which discourse seems to have fallen in modern years. There appears to be a large body of people, of whom the author is one, who divide the world into two:

1) People who agree with me.
2) People consumed by hatred and idiocy.

The idea that a fellow human being might have a reasoned disagreement, and not simply be immature or evil, seems to have slipped beyond the range of possibilities that a growing number of people are capable of conceiving of.

By Geoffrey WHITE

On the contrary, I think Ms Mason shows proper concern for the future of a territory which has been British a lot longer than it was ever Spanish, but has been ignored by a deluded, slim, majority in two constituent parts of the UK. They have been persuaded that they can somehow bring back the world of 1953, and ignored the reality of what has brought us prosperity & relative peace in Europe for the past 60 years or so.

By Timothy Keates

Gibraltarians have absolutely nothing to fear from the Spanish government — as nor do British expats settling in Spain by the tens of thousands. If any government behaves repressively it is the UK one, currently under headmistress Mrs May, who promises to settle the hash of "foreigners" (aka as Continental Europeans, the eternal target of British contempt). Will we ever grow up?

By Javier Garcia

This article is pure drivel. The reality of the Gibraltarians is that of having been bullied for YEARS by the Spanish Government in every way possible. Why would anyone want to have anything to do with a bully like Spain? Gibraltarians are a people with a unique identity. An identity they are proud of and not one that we are willing to surrender!

I'm not sure your father would agree with this article

By Barbara Ritchie

There is so much wrong with this article. the author of this article obviously does not and never has actually lived in Gibraltar. The article above is just another facile "armchair pontification" written by a person with no depth of understanding of the lived reality of The Rock. Sad that you would publish this drivel.

By RHfindlay

Ah, when will France restore Normandy and Burfundy to their rightful owner, England? Only 600 years ago, by right of reverse conquest in 1066, Calais was ours!

. Only 600 years ago, Calais was ours!

By Richard Watson

This is a rather sorry article from a lady who has such a biased and one dimensional view of history that it sadly distorts all her thinking.
The U.K. government is entirely consistent that Gib, just like the Falklands is entirely free to self determine, and should they choose, they can be entirely independent from the UK, only takes one vote.
However, I hear no mention from her of the Spanish foothold of Ceuta in North Africa, or the past rape and pillage by the Spanish in South America, or of the French in North Africa.
Very sadly, this lady is another bitter remainer, who just cannot accept the will of the people. A typical hand- wringing liberal establishmemt figure, who only believes in democracy when decisions go her way.
Rather sad then that Oxford Today should choose to publish such a sorry, bitter article.

By John Borda

If forced to change "administering power" Spain would not make it into the long list of "friendly democracies", being neither. We have already voted twice (98% in both cases) NOT to be Spanish. The hatred for us built into their education system is just one factor, as well as that the ruling parties have no interest in a solution, needing us as a smokescreen for corruption and incompetence. Spain's "claim" is not legitimate (as proven in an international court), and Gibraltar is not a tax haven. Even the Spanish ABC has been forced to recant that bit of #fakenews. I suggest you withdraw this article.


I fail to see how a photograph of a boy dressed as a Spanish fisher lad 'reeks of empire'.

What does 'reek of empire' is the constant need for people like Mason to harp on about empire when the reality is that most Britons never cared much about it and contemporary Britons, other than committed and often professional seekers of the reek, have forgotten that it even existed, is her comment "I think now: when is this country going to grow up? When is it going to stop hating foreigners? When will it accept that the empire is gone?".

I think now: when are people like Mason going to grow up and move on from the adolescent desire to constantly berate Britons for apparently hating foreigners. Look around, open your ears. What do you see and hear?

By Mark Whitwill

To come up with a deal that all sides can live with will require imagination, creativity and a win-win attitude. All these seem to be sadly lacking in the current Brexit positioning.

By David Dumas

I meant to mention in my Comment yesterday that I am a Gibraltarian who read Jurisdprudence at Exeter College (1977) and am a Queen's Counsel in Gibraltar. I sincerely hope that you publish my Comment.

By Israel Garcia

DAVID DUMAS, in fact Gibraltar was "always" Spanish before being British! The "always" meaning being Spanish/Iberian since there was existence of a population there. Interest has always been merely strategic, and that is why UK is there. Of course, it is interesting for Spain strategically too, but they also have a right over their land. Look at the map like if you were a kid. Does it make any sense this small rock belongs to UK? Or would you say it is Iberian (Spanish/Portuguese)? What would you think if a small village in UK territory was Spanish or German or Sirian?

By David C C Pearn

Oxford Today, in its choice of contributors, went overboard in support of
Remain after the In/Out Referendum in June 2016. The article on Gibraltar
by Ms Mason is long on prejudice and ideology, and short on common sense.
Yes the Gibraltarians voted overwhelmingly to remain.  They were voting
for the No Risk option.  They can scarcely be blamed for this.  Brexit
will have been perceived by Gibraltarians as  potential danger to jobs
and to their cherished way of life.  Surely the question now is how we
British can provide them with the necessary reassurance as regards their
future.  Now is not the time to side with their  opponents.   Nor have we
the right to lecture them for wanting to retain their British identity.
Perhaps, if Spain persists with an attitude of intransigence, we must
give thought to incorporating Gibraltar fully within the United Kingdom,
in the same way that Majorca is an integral part of Spain.
Whether this happens or not, in the end the mutual common interest of
maximising trade and cultural links will surely be appreciated by both
Spain and Britain/Gibraltar. It is no intractable problem.
Incidentally, Ms Mason has kept a very strategic silence in relation to
Spain's North African colonies of Ceuta and Melilla. What's source for
the goose.....

David C C Pearn
(Magdalen , Modern History, 1970-73)


I must answer DAVID C C PEARN and others by saying that this is an article of Gibraltar and UK, not Spanish territory (which, by the way, has no colonies anymore). It is not about Ceuta/Melilla/Canary Islands, Majorca, etc. By the way, you seem to ignore that Ceuta, Melilla and the Sahara were Spanish before Morocco did even exist, and the territory is a logical extension from Spanish/Portuguese land, it is not a piece of land in the middle of another remote country. As you and other suggest, I don't think Spain or any surrounding Spanish village has any interest in keeping commercial routes with Gibraltar, there is no need - see that it is an extremelly small village! With the only advantage of being a tax haven. However, Gib needs Spain for survival. As it is right now, Gibraltar only causes problems to Spanish fishers and other workers. The "bully" attitude some mention is not like that - simply the Treaty of Utrecht said UK has the small rock but not the sea around, so it is ilegal to use the surrounding sea as british. The UK Government seems to ignore the treatment and uses the sea as if it was their own space, having the Royal Navy around, etc. This is a violation of the treatment at all lights, and when Spain uses their own space, people like you consider it bullying. I think it is time for European and countries alike to leave the colonism times (as UK did with HK, Egypt, etc pieces of land that were not British in the 1st place). Imperialism is over. Gibs can decide whether to be British or Spanish if that's the best solution, but don't try to be both at the same time. And they should respect international treatments, it is basic for a peaceful coexistence.

By J. Louis Pozo

I presume Gibraltarians have the same rights to self determination as the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish. Perhaps one should ask the Catalans why they want to separate from the Madrid Government. Before anyone suggests that the Gibraltarians should be subjugated to a Madrid Government, I would suggest they read "the Ghosts of Spain" by Giles Tremlett to understand the real truth of politics in Spain.

By Ian Hardee

The most extraordinary thing to me, highlighted in just one comment, is that the EU has allowed Brexit to become a tool to be used exclusively to Spain's advantage regarding Gibraltar. Why should an EU-wide agreement regarding the relationship of a former member (the UK) and its territories with the entire Union allow - in fact, not just allow, but specifically provide leverage to - just one member to further its territorial ambitions to take over a territory which, overwhelmingly, does not want to be taken over?

Having spoken to many Gibraltarians, I fully understand their reluctance to be forced to join a state that shows that sort of attitude to democracy.

By Yago Martin

J. LOUIS POZO - when you say "Madrid Government" you are just being sneaky. Don't you know that the president of Spain is from Galicia? With ministers from all around Spain - Andalusia, Madrid, Bilbao, Cataluna, and so on? Any region of Spain constitutes and contributes to change the Government, so more accurate would be for you to say "Spain". People with your speech is what makes us in other regions to feel insignificant. IAN HARDEE, I don't think nobody is pushing Gib to become Spanish, but I agree nobody should force Gibraltar to become Spanish, nor to remain British either. Why don't give them their own state? That would be the fairest for them. Note that, equally, Gibs cannot force Spain to treat them as a EU country any more, because they are politically British.

By Richard Mellish

How about Gibraltar becoming an independent statelet like Monaco, Andorra, etc, but within the EU?

By Professor Paul ...

Some factual comment albeit subjective: I have just visited Gibraltar for the first time in my life and found it totally different to Andalusia where we spent 5 weeks and in comparison Gibraltar is rather backward in infrastructure and facilities. The late night life and partying of Andalusia was notably absent thereby giving one an impression of the 1950s in Britain. It clearly has great strategic value even now to the UK but does not deserve to be on the tourist's itinerary.
The last time I attempted to visit when living in Coimbra some 44 years ago, Franco made it impossible as he had closed the Border. I think he did me a favour.
It is now a political football in the Brexit negotiations just like Northern Ireland. Politics rarely in my experience will produce a sensible outcome rather a compromise is more likely. However Ceuta does weaken the Spanish argument. If democracy is the bedrock of Western Society, then the Residents of Gibraltar must decide in a proper, internationally monitored plebiscite.

By Peter Marx

Gibraltar is a convenient distraction for the Spanish government to divert attention from more pressing problems such as...... Catalan secession, perhaps.