The Political History of Gibraltar

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The Political History of Gibraltar

By Dr. Joseph Garcia

The Rock of Gibraltar has always been a fortress and historians have tended to focus on its military role. By comparison, the history of the civilian population, particularly in its most recent aspects, has not been nearly so well documented.

Dr H W Howes's study of the origins and development of the population of Gibraltar from 1704, was first published in 1951, and since then no detailed academic study has emerged to supplement his researches and bring them up to date. The aim of this extract is to do precisely that. That is to say, to chart the political and constitutional development of the people of Gibraltar from the problems created by the evacuation of the civilian population during the Second World War, up to the present day.


It is essential, however, to establish from the outset exactly who the people of Gibraltar are. When the Rock fell to an Anglo-Dutch force in 1704 during the War of the Spanish Succession, almost all its approximately 4000 Spanish inhabitants left for the neighbouring parts of Spain. Immigration from other Mediterranean regions then took place, with incomers from Malta, Genoa, and Portugal, among others, settling on the Rock. It was formally ceded by Spain to Britain under Article X of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Eight years later a count of civilians able to bear arms was taken and this revealed that 45 were English, 96 were Spaniards and above 169 were Genoese. This Genoese element supplied a vital contribution towards what was to make a Gibraltarian. By 1753 the civilian population had grown to 1816 persons, the main elements in which were 597 Genoese, 575 Jews and 351 British inhabitants. This British component were mainly merchants, who arrived on the Rock to service the needs of the military, and who soon recognised the importance of the place as a trading post from which to advance northwards into the Iberian peninsula, southwards towards Africa and east into the Mediterranean.

The first real census of inhabitants was taken in February 1777. It stands as testimony to the agglomeration of nationalities that have made the modern day Gibraltarian. The total number of civilians was 3201, of these 1832 were Roman Catholics, the rest were British Protestants. The majority of the Roman Catholics were classified either as natives (845), as Genoese and Savoyards (672), and as Spaniards (134). Other minor Catholic groups included English, Irish, Moroccans, Portuguese and French. It is significant to note the appearance of this 'native' element in the registers of 1777, containing the implicit recognition of the birth of the Gibraltarian. Dr Howes concluded from his researches that 'the basic element in what has become the Gibraltarian is the Genoese', conceding at the same time the importance of other groupings, namely the Spaniards, Jews and British.

Regarded for many decades purely as an appendix to the military base, the constitutional development of this heterogeneous community was understandably slow. Under letters patent a civil judiciary was authorised in 1720, and in 1739 criminal and civil jurisdiction was granted to Gibraltar, but no courts were created and this jurisdiction was exercised by the military, headed by the Governor himself. Justices of the Peace were appointed in 1753, and forty years later a Vice-Admiralty Court was established to tap the first real basis of Gibraltar's wealth, the public auctioning of enemy ships captured by the Royal Navy.


The Governorship of General George Don, which started in 1814 and lasted for 17 years led to the first real advances in the political development of Gibraltar. In 1817 the Exchange and Commercial Library was founded, largely to rival the Garrison Library from which civilians, however eminent, were excluded. The Exchange Committee concerned itself with forwarding the interests of the prosperous merchant group which had grown up in the city. Initially, they had no political objectives, and concentrated on matters of a social and economic nature in so far as they affected the merchants. Thus the Exchange Committee had little to do with the first moves which led to Gibraltar being given the status of a Colony in 1830. A Charter of Justice was granted in that year, a civilian magistracy established, and civil rights bestowed on its inhabitants. A Supreme Court was also created by letters patent, with a resident chief justice and jury system. Only a year after Sir Robert Peel's Metropolitan Police Force was created in London in 1829, Gibraltar followed suit, setting up what has become the second oldest British police force after Peel's. "The City and Garrison of Gibraltar in the Kingdom of Spain" , had become the "Crown Colony of Gibraltar. " The changes of 1830 were vitally important in that they recognised the inherent duality in a fortress-colony, and sought to cater in some measure for the administration of the civilian inhabitants.

These political advances were cut short by the appointment of Sir Robert Gardiner as Governor in 1848. The new Governor had strong views on how a fortress should be administered, and this drew him into a series of undignified wrangles with the Exchange Committee, a body which by then claimed to be representative of all the civilian inhabitants of Gibraltar. Gardiner contended that the population of Gibraltar could not aspire to the political freedoms granted to other British Colonies because Gibraltar was primarily a fortress. In strongly worded correspondence he accused the Exchange Committee of encouraging 'notions of political rights which it has never been the intention of any British concede to the commercial settlers on the Rock.' With reference to the Gibraltarians, Gardiner was adamant that there 'are no grounds on which they can, with any shadow of right or claim, demand elective franchise.'


In 1852 the Governor banned a meeting of merchants, landowners and other local inhabitants which had been arranged for the purpose of petitioning the Secretary of State for the Colonies to set up an enquiry into the civil administration of the Rock. The merchants were deeply critical of Gardiner's government of Gibraltar, arguing for the necessity of creating some form of municipal administration, and a consultative council of civilian inhabitants. Relations were strained to the extent of the Governor banning members of the Exchange Committee from functions at Government House. In order to silence the increasingly virulent attacks on his administration, Gardiner issued a press ordinance in 1855, bestowing upon himself as Governor the power to control publications in Gibraltar. When Gardiner started to threaten the economic interests of the merchants, they used their links with Chambers of Commerce in Manchester and London to lobby Members of Parliament against him, and their enemy was finally recalled in 1855.

Since 1749 the Governor had been assisted in the administration of civilian affairs by a 'civil secretary', and in 1859, perhaps as recognition that Gibraltar had become a fully-fledged Colony, the post was replaced by that of a 'colonial secretary'. The colonial secretary became the corner-stone of the civilian government and all correspondence addressed to the Governor passed through his hands. Throughout this book, the term 'colonial secretary' will be used when referring to this Gibraltar official, as opposed to the term 'Secretary of State for the Colonies', which is self explanatory.

A severe cholera epidemic in 1865 led to the 'Sanitary Order for Gibraltar', which created a Sanitary Commission consisting of twelve members, all of whom were civilian and nominated by the Governor. The Sanitary Commissioners took responsibility for problems of health and water-supply. In 1880 it was decreed that four of the twelve were to be non-civilian, and in 1891 that only four were to be Gibraltarians. The Exchange Committee appealed at regular intervals for a larger representation of Gibraltar ratepayers on the Sanitary Commission, but the Secretary of State insisted that as Gibraltar was a fortress, he could not accede to the Committee's demands.

In 1889 an ordinance issued by the Governor decreed that only native born inhabitants had a right of residence in the Colony. Everyone else, including British subjects, but excluding officials of the Crown had to obtain permission to live on the Rock. Inadvertently perhaps, the definition of a Gibraltarian had been created, as natives of a territory possessing exclusive rights of residence, entrenched in their birth on the Rock, which not even British subjects could claim. The ordinance of 1889 was thus a landmark in the political history of Gibraltar and in the development of its inhabitants. It was in part the response to local resentment at the number of aliens on the Rock, but it was also a tacit recognition by the London government that the local people of Gibraltar could boast certain rights in the colony which others could not.

The First World War saw the Rock play a crucial role in the control of the Straits as an assembly point for convoys, and for its services Gibraltar was rewarded by the creation of a City Council in 1921, replacing the Sanitary Commissioners. The Council, albeit with a majority of 5 nominated officials to 4 members elected by ratepayers, was an important advance for a civilian population which by then had passed the 18000 mark. The concerns of the council were essentially matters of a municipal nature, streets, sanitation, sewage disposal and water supply. Gibraltar was not incorporated as a borough in the English sense, no Charter of Privileges was granted to the municipality, no aldermen were created, and the City Council was presided over by a Chairman, not a Mayor. the presence of representatives of the three fighting services on the Council served as a further reminder that any future political advances would always be subordinate to the requirements of the military base.


On 1 December 1921 the first elections were held. For perhaps the first time since 1704, it was recognised that the civilian inhabitants of Gibraltar had a right to elect their own representatives, however limited the nature of the suffrage (only male ratepayers could vote), and the powers of the representatives. It is interesting to compare the very limited suffrage in Gibraltar with that in force at the time in the United Kingdom, where three years earlier the vote had been granted to all adults, male and female. On 14 October 1922 a consultative Executive Council was established to advise the Governor. It consisted entirely of appointees, four official and three unofficial members all nominated by the Crown. The Governor remained a military man, with all legislative and executive authority vested in him, and was at the same time Commander-in-Chief of the garrison.

Demands for greater local representation continued throughout the twenties and thirties. In February 1926 the call for a majority of elected members on the City Council was rejected by the Governor, Sir Charles Monro, as was a further request by the Exchange and Commercial library three years later. In 1934 the Exchange Committee, the Chamber of Commerce and the Transport and General Workers' Union all independently agitated for greater representation of the people of Gibraltar in the government of the colony. A mass meeting was held in August 1934 and a petition to the King-in-Council signed by 3152 out of an electoral register of 3890. It was supported by the Transport and General Workers' Union, but the Chamber of Commerce held aloof. The petition was rejected and no more significant advances were made on the road to self government for the time being.

What happened, in the event, was a retrogression, with the concessions that had been so gradually won destroyed by a single blow. That blow was the Second World war, which made military considerations paramount over civilian rights. During the First World War, Spain remained neutral and was not a danger to the security of the fortress. By 1939 all that had changed. The three years of bloody civil war that swept Francisco Franco to power had been marked by the aid he received from the Axis countries. In the autumn of 1939 Britain was at war with Germany. Mussolini soon joined Hitler, and in doing so he opened a new theatre of war in the Mediterranean. There was a very real danger that Franco would join the men who had helped him win Spain. Gibraltar was thus judged to have been in acute danger. At the beginning of 1941, the Governor assumed all the powers of the City Council, and the Executive Council was suspended, but more important than this was the earlier action taken to evacuate approximately 16700 civilians, women, children and other non-combatants, who were judged to be a hindrance to a fortress at war. It seemed that all the political gains made in over 230 years of British rule had been lost.

The evacuation of the civilian population was a traumatic time in the history of Gibraltar. The elderly, the infirm, women and children left their homes on the Rock for temporary accommodation in Jamaica, Maderia, Northern Ireland and London. At the same time, a group of people on the Rock got together to agitate for a greater say for the civilian population in the running of the colony. That group was formally launched in December 1942 as the Association for the Advancement of Civil Rights in Gibraltar (AACR). Albert Risso was its first President, and Joshua Hassan, a young lawyer who had drawn up the movement's constitution became its Vice President.

The Association became the spearhead of the demands for greater political reform which took shape after the war. In 1945 the City Council was reconstituted for the first time with a majority of elected members over nominated officials. Five years later, the Duke of Edinburgh opened the Rock's Legislative Council, which contained a majority of members who were not officials of the Crown, but not an elected majority.


The Rock saw a visit by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 1954, while under Hassan the pace of internal political reform continued to quicken. By the end of the decade the Gibraltarians had obtained a Legislative Council with a majority of elected members, and a Speaker replaced the Governor presiding over its meetings. The changes continued and in its 1964 constitution control over the civil service and over policy was vested for the first time in a democratically elected Government of Gibraltar, with Sir Joshua Hassan as the Rock's first Chief Minister.

In 1963 and 1964 the question of the Rock's decolonisation was placed on the agenda of the United Nations special committee on the subject. After listening to Britain, Spain, and petitioners from Gibraltar, the committee took a line which favoured the Spanish point of view. Spain interpreted this as carte blanch to impose a series of restrictions at her land frontier with Gibraltar, something which culminated in the complete closure of the border in 1969. Two years before that, a referendum was held at which the people of Gibraltar were asked whether they wanted to remain British or be handed over to Spain. Over 12,000 people voted for Britain, with only 44 choosing the Spanish option.

From 1969 until the border opened for pedestrians only in December 1982, Gibraltar was a city under siege. General Franco had cut off the territory by land and by sea. Telephone communications were also removed and air restrictions imposed. The only lines of communication kept open were travel by air to London and by sea to Morocco.


On 1 January 1973 Gibraltar joined the European Economic Community with Britain, as a European territory for whose external affairs a member state is responsible. A number of special arrangements were negotiated which means that Gibraltar is not liable to pay VAT, does not belong to the Customs Union nor to the Common Agricultural Policy.

The closed frontier years saw several attempts being made to remove the restrictions, which were given a new impetus by the death of General Franco in 1975. An agreement was drawn up at Lisbon in 1980 which declared that both Britain and Spain were committed to solve all their differences over Gibraltar, in return for which Spain would lift the restrictions. This did not happen, and several dates set for the opening of the border went by with the gates remaining firmly shut. The election of a socialist government in Madrid saw them swing open for pedestrians only, and the full opening of the border came about after an agreement between the British and Spanish Foreign Ministers at Brussels on 27 November 1984. Britain would put the sovereignty of Gibraltar on the table in exchange for the lifting of the restrictions.

Spanish accession into the European Community on 1 January 1986 opened a new dimension to the Gibraltar question, when Madrid moved from a policy of being content to safeguard their position over the Rock to one of actively using the Community as a vehicle to advance their claim. Thus in December 1987 Gibraltar airport was excluded from a measure of EC law on civil aviation unless the Gibraltarians accepted joint control of their airport with Spain. Previously Gibraltar had become liable to pay pensions to the Spanish workers who were employed in Gibraltar before Franco closed the border, even though they had not made pension contributions during sixteen years of a closed frontier. In the summer 1991 Spain held up the signing of the external frontiers convention of the European Union, arguing that Gibraltar should not be included within the frontiers of Europe. The position of the British government was and remains that Gibraltar must be included, and the definition of Europe's external borders remains held up on this point.

Sir Joshua Hassan retired as Chief Minister in December 1987, a few days after the airport agreement, having been at the helm of Gibraltar politics for over forty years. In elections held in March 1988 Mr Joe Bossano, leader of the Gibraltar Socialist Labour Party was elected Chief Minister. Mr Bossano bettered this win in the elections of January 1992, where he was re-elected on a huge landslide, winning 73% of the vote.