The first Gibraltarian politician I interviewed was Dr Joseph Garcia. He was then the young leader of the unelected GNP; today he is Deputy Chief Minister and leader of the Liberals who have three MPs. Back in the mid 1990s he was very young. Of course today he is still young: it is me that has grown much older. The GSLP Liberal government is built on a firm coalition so today we talk coalitions.
David Eade: I know many people on the left in the UK are intrigued by the coalition between the GSLP and our Liberals. They are intrigued by the longevity of the pact and how it worked in both opposition and in government. Neal Lawson, the chairperson of the Compass action group which advocates a broad coalition of the left between socialists, liberals, environmentalists etc has studied our left coalition. What would be your message to those seeking a similar alliance to which you have helped create here?
Dr Joseph Garcia: It is often a mistake to attempt to transpose the political situation in one country to that of another in this context because the histories, parties, policies and personalities are not the same. The reality is that there are examples of long-lived political pacts in the Iberian peninsula. The one that springs to mind is Convergenica y Unio who are now the Government of Catalunya. It is made up of two parties, Union Democratica de Catalunya, which is in the Christian Democrat International and Convergencia Democratica de Catalunya, whose members are closely involved in Liberal International. This relationship has worked for them, in Government and in Opposition for decades.
I know that there are many people in the Liberal Democrat party in the UK and also in the Labour party who consider that a broad coalition of the left is the way forward. The political scene in the United Kingdom is unusually fluid at this moment in time so I suppose that anything could happen in the future. There may need to be an overriding national issue which makes it important for parties to cooperate and work together. In
Gibraltar, about 16 years ago now, that issue was that our position in the EU was being seriously undermined by Spain.
DE: The coalition in the UK between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems seems to be a case history in how not to achieve an alliance. Do you think the coalition as constructed after the 2010 election was a mistake?
Dr Garcia: I have friends in the UK Liberal Democrats, and indeed in the Conservative and Labour parties so I have to answer with a degree of caution. I think part of the problem in the UK is that people are not used to coalition politics. The negotiations that follow general elections elsewhere in Europe, when there is no overall majority, provide a considerable degree of give and take and this is very common. I have discussed this over the years with Liberal Ministers in places like the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany where coalitions are the norm. This is not the case in the United Kingdom because the electoral system has traditionally favoured the election of majority Governments. There was no majority Government elected last time round and two parties had to agree on a common programme which meant that both had to make compromises in the wider interests of the country. The case studies of Gibraltar and Catalunya will show that it is much easier if the programme for Government is agreed before the election and not afterwards!
DE: It is interesting the number of people who cut their political teeth with the GNP then the Liberals who have gone on to hold posts in the GSLP, GSD and indeed the PDP. There was dynamism in the party in those early years, do you feel the Liberals have now lost that edge and why did those talents jump ship?
Dr Garcia: Somebody on the other side of the political divide once told me that we started as a political project ten years too early. Maybe he was right who knows!
DE: The GSD recently took issue with the Liberals, as a political party, being allowed a separate platform in a broadcast debate arguing they all but merged with the GSLP. Given the close alliance how do you still define the Liberals as being an independent party from the GSLP?
Dr Garcia: These arguments are well-worn now and over a decade old. Each party has its own members, its own Executive and its own ideas which come together in the parliamentary group as they have done for more than ten years. We have contested elections together in 1999, 2000, 2003, 2007 and 2011. It is probably safe to say that the system is tried and tested. The Liberal Party brings a very important international dimension to the table as a full voting member of Liberal International, the worldwide
federation of Liberal political parties. We started this work at a senior level soon after the 1996 general election. We have since then had the opportunity to meet and lobby politicians, parliamentarians and Government Ministers from countries all over the world. It is no secret that Simon Hughes MP, the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats and Graham Watson MEP are both influential friends of Gibraltar inside the party. I am also lucky to count them as my own friends. We have seen that the support of the UK Coalition Government on issues like Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands is almost unprecedented. It is why David Cameron and Nick Clegg included the reference to defence of our right to self-determination in the Mid Term review and why the Queen's Speech mentioned the support of this right for the first time in my political memory. These international and particularly European connections, thanks to Graham Watson MEP, are now serving Gibraltar well in Government. This was clear during the high profile visit that the Chief Minister Fabian Picardo and I made to Brussels earlier this year. We are also promoting our contacts with Liberal parties and Governments in other countries.
DE: Finally the million dollar question. Given the closeness of the GSLP and Liberals, given the man or woman on Main Street doesn't know whether say for instance, and I am just choosing two names at random here, Steven Linares is a Liberal or Paul Balban a socialist, to them it is all one government, is there a case for the two parties to merge?
Dr Garcia: There are two parties but one Government. This is the same as it was in Opposition from 1999 until the end of 2011. All that has changed is that we now have the opportunity to put our ideas and our policies into practice. The truth is that the present system has worked and continues to work very well for Gibraltar as a whole. The GSLP/Liberal Government is committed to deliver our manifesto to the electorate and I know that every single one of us is working hard to ensure that this happens.