Last Tuesday in the Brighton Conference Hall waiting for Ed Miliband to give his speech I found myself sitting next to a Labour Councillor from Waltham Forest.
We exchanged the usual greetings and on hearing I was from Gibraltar we chatted about the Rock. He’d seen in the media the reports on our long hot summer so we discussed that. He was very keen to take a holiday here and so we talked about the various options and so on and so forth.
He then caught me by surprise and asked did the Foreign Office still want to give Gibraltar back to Spain? If it did, how would that pan out? Curiously phrased questions as if Gibraltar belonged to the FO which of course it doesn’t nor has it ever.
My first response was that if given the chance the FO would have handed Gibraltar over to the Spanish many years ago. However I explained that the world had changed and it was a previous Labour Government that had put the locks in place to ensure that Gibraltarians self-determined their own future – as is their right under international law.
Now the Foreign Office would have hardly featured in the summer reporting of the latest crisis with Spain. The headlines were dominated by Cameron staunchly defending Gibraltar and promising to stand by us which he has done. Hague, who is the Foreign Secretary, was equally robust with his counterpart Margallo. The Deputy Prime Minister and Lib-Dem leader, Nick Clegg, is totally onside despite having a Spanish wife and the Labour Party has made it known that if they were in power Gibraltar could count on the same strong support as the Coalition is giving. So where did the Foreign Office spring up from?
Of course the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as it is now known is no more than a ministry staffed by civil servants albeit they believe themselves to be elite ones. It is their job to carry out the wishes and policies of the government of the day. Their power comes from their elected representatives and in theory they advise on but do not create policy.
The Foreign Office, had it had the power and the chance years ago, would certainly have sold Gibraltar out to Spain. However I am not convinced that this policy was driven by a dislike for Gibraltarians but rather for the desire for an ordered world. Gibraltar would always be a stumbling block in relations between London and Madrid. If it was given away the red on the international map would hardly have lessened and the British and Spanish Governments could have got on with wider matters of mutual interest.
Of course the days when people or bits of Rock could be traded for the benefit of the past colonial power are long gone but the sentiments may still linger in certain offices in Whitehall especially the Foreign Office. I have read reports of Gibraltarians in the past having being talked of in disparaging terms in the corridors of power and of some of our Governors having been accused of going native. Certainly a number of past Governors are good friends of Gibraltar to this day. However in 2013 it is the UK’s and our own Government that holds sway and relations between elected politicians of all parties are good. It is the Government that rules and not the Foreign Office.
Yet it is intriguing that a councillor from a London Borough should believe that Gibraltar is a chattel of the Foreign Office. What is even more astonishing is that he should believe that if its Mandarins determined our future was with Spain that would be set in stone with Gibraltarians having no say in the matter.
It was a conversation out of a bygone age.