The democratic winter
As the debate ahead of the EU referendum gathers pace, local barrister Nick Cruz peers into the future with this cautionary tale.
I woke feeling a little worse for wear, well a few drinks does that to most people and New Year’s night 2016 was one that required all in Gibraltar to have a moment of downtime in the name of sanity.
What an interesting year 2016 had been, regrettably “interesting” in the Chinese sense. Who would have foreseen such change just this time last year? The western world seemed to be suffering its own democratic version of the Arab Spring, with similar somewhat poor outcomes, perhaps a democratic winter. The extraordinary election of Trump to the US presidency had seen increase tension between the East and West and his careless and inflammatory rhetoric had aggravated the moderate Muslim world in the west, creating sympathy for those who supported an intensified Isis campaign of terror. It seemed that daily, home grown terrorist cells were committing unspeakable and incomprehensible acts of violence throughout many major US and European cities.
One such act in the UK only days before the UK EU referendum had swung the finely balanced vote in favour of the “out” campaign. Ironic because its perpetrators were third generation Brits, whose parents had been born in England and their origins were the Commonwealth. This had seemed irrelevant to the media and the populous, who chose to blame the attacks on what they called migrant origins and linking that to the migration crisis that plagued all European borders. It made no difference what those who argued the point intelligently said, Europe was, in the eyes of an anti-establishment populist movement, the root of all evils.
The “out” vote was, to the UK, the equivalent of a vote for Trump in the US, an angry anti-establishment vote of protest, all protest, any protest.
Notwithstanding that, it had come down to a difference of only 8,351 votes out of the close on 20 million that had bothered to turned up on that June day. One of the closest votes in referendum or electoral history, reminiscent of the US 2000 George W Bush-Al Gore presidential election, where the verdict came down to less than 171 votes in Florida. Like the American experience the result had been subject to recounts and a failed legal challenge that had reached the Supreme Court in London. Finally on the 22 July 2016, David Cameron conceded defeat, only moments before resigning himself. His position had become untenable. Sturgeon’s call for a second Scottish Independence vote had become deafening and, after months of tearing each other apart, the Conservatives party was in open civil war.
Cameron’s resignation had led to acting PM George Osbourne agreeing to a September Conservative party leadership election, followed by a November general election. Notwithstanding the charismatic campaign led by Boris Johnson, the new Tory leader, the Conservative vote had been badly damaged and, as expected they did not succeed in reaching a parliamentary majority. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour had achieved most seats and in what appeared, few would have predicted, the unhelpful alliance of Labour, the resurgent Liberals and the SNP had formed a left wing coalition. It had of course all come with a price, and a second Scottish referendum, due in spring would be likely to end with the breakup of the UK. The new socialist Prime Minister had also secured the SNP’s and Liberals support to cancel trident. The Trump presidency had made it clear that such a measure, would really bring into question, the UK contribution to NATO in the face of Russian aggression and importantly would threaten the “special relationship” between them, already weakened by the exit from the EU.
The UK was lurching further right and left and it was unlikely that Corbyn’s Government would last the term. In the meantime sterling, as expected, had gone into almost free fall as uncertainty over the UK’s exit terms, which were still no close to being resolved, remained. It appeared the Prime Minister seemed more focused on rebalancing and redistributing wealth, with a plethora of new and higher taxes for the wealthy, than securing access to the EU market for what was would be left of the UK. The EU itself now seemed a fragile union. The euro had followed sterling and the remaining 27 members seemed more intent in building fences and boundaries to keep the tide of migrants away, than dealing with the very real issue of losing the UK as a potential trading friend and ally.
Closer to home life had more questions than answers. The autumn had seen serious shrinkage in the insurance and gaming sectors, and tourist numbers were down. Although in theory, the UK and therefore Gibraltar had two years to negotiate its exit from the EU and therefore in the meantime, retained its EU rights, many companies had got nervous and despite many pleas for calm, from the Government, they had panicked and started to relocate to Malta. The property market had suffered the immediate consequences of the exodus, with substantial reductions in value. Developers had mothballed the numerous developments that had been announced last year and banks had all but stopped lending. Uncertainty in Europe and the UK had Gibraltar, at least temporarily, paralysed. To make matters worse the difficulties at the frontier had added to the anxiety.
The new re-elected PP coalition Government wasted no time after their 26th June election to distract their electorate with yet another propaganda onslaught on Gibraltar using their favourite weapon, the frontier. They had good reasons for distracting them. Their main left wing opposition Podemos seemed to be behind, or supporting most of the passionate, sometimes violent demonstrations in the regional capitals. If the UK was a country moving towards the left and right, Spain was already there. The Catalans, supported by Podemos, made their intentions for independence known daily and whilst the Basques seemed somewhat quiet in relative terms, it was only a question of time.
Thankfully despite regular threats from the Spanish Foreign Minister, the frontier remained open, at least for the time being, although 2-4 hour queues seemed quite normal now. Would it remain open after the two year negotiation period? What appeared inconceivable 12 months ago, was now a real possibility. It really came down to what the Prime Minister negotiated with the EU and specifically with his counterpart in Madrid. However if his early treatment of the Falkland Islands and his proposals for co-governance there, were anything to go by, it seemed that Mr Corbyn would certainly not sacrifice mainland British interest, in defence of Gibraltar’s. He seemed very inclined to revisit the Blair, Straw, Hain Co-Sovereignty proposals, and this was eagerly welcomed by the Spanish on a “transitional basis”. There would be no imposition but rather yet another “democratic election” implicit though, that a no vote would have consequences. There was no reason to believe that despite what was at stake, Gibraltar would be any more inclined to accept what had been so roundly rejected in 2002 by the electorate. The majority in Gibraltar understood that this would be a slippery slope to Spanish sovereignty and thankfully appeared willing to endure the risk of a closure of the frontier, with the dire, at least short term consequences that could bring.
Life was close to making a full circle, I was born into the chaos that was delivered by the frontier closure in 1969 and now as I approached my 50’s it seemed that we were destined to face this again. It saddened me, more for my children and the inevitable brain drain that we as a community would face. It also angered me that after the incredible social and economic advances we had made since my childhood, through our collective endeavour, we seemed to be going backwards and fast, for reasons beyond our control. Higher taxes, less service and austerity, at least in the short term were inevitable, whilst we re-invented ourselves, again! It was too early to tell exactly where the cuts would come, what was certain was, that the things we had taken for granted months earlier, were now at risk. Island economies can succeed. Ever the optimist I believed we would, given time, but there would be considerable pain through the transition and I am not sure everyone had really understood this, before deciding to vote or before casting their vote on the 23rd June 2016. Like many, I simply assumed it would go our way.
I wondered if we could have done more. Despite efforts from the Government and Opposition and the fact that a majority had voted in Gibraltar for continued EU membership, only just over 14,000 of our 24,000 electorate had voted on the day. Worse still, almost 3000 had, for inexplicable reasons voted for the “out” campaign. Had we not realised how this would pan out? Had the apathy that hot June weather brings influenced the turn out, did we feel that our votes would not make a difference with such a large UK electorate. Strange but, not unlike the 2000 US election, our 24,000 votes if cast sensibly would have changed, not just our fate, but the fate of a substantial part of the European and global landscape. If we could only wind back the clock to spring of 2016, what a difference that extra effort to get out and vote for the “in” campaign would, or could have made. Alas the die was cast…
“Dad, dad”, the noise got lounder. I sat up with a startle. “What is it William?” “You have overslept (he said), we need to move if we are going to make the coach to Puerto Santa Maria, and my rugby game starts at 11am”. “Puerto?” I responded, still in a daze, “Yes Puerto?” (He said) “What time is it? What day?” “9.00am Saturday, come on Dad its Saturday the 10th April, and I have a match, and there is no frontier queue yet.” He protested.
“Give me 10 minutes, I will tell you a story on the way, scary, weird, but a little too real to ignore, thankfully we are not too late.”