Joseph Ernest Pilcher, 64, is the son of Richard and Alice Pilcher and has a younger brother, Clifford. His father, universally known as Pepe, was a senior member of the TGWU and contested the Gibraltar City Council elections in the late 1950s. His father ensured that there was far more talk about local politics than in most Gibraltarian homes. He was anti Spanish following the Franco shenanigans after the Queen’s visit in 1954.
Joe was a pupil at St. Joseph’s First school, Bishop Fitzgerald Middle School and passed the 11+ into the Grammar school. He remembers with considerable affection the tall Brother Murphy who was strict but helpful and instilled in him the necessity to help others, less fortunate than himself. Brother Murphy also had no hesitation in calling a spade a spade which was also to become the centrepiece of Joe’s attitude in both politics and business. Whilst this can be effective at certain times, it can also lose friends and supporters, in particular in politics.
Joe revealed that when he was a school boy, there was a divide between those who lived in the south and those who live in the north. The majority of boys at the Grammar School lived in the north which included the town area. For some unknown reason, not many boys from the south passed the 11+ and instead went to St. Jago’s school and so, as a Grammarian, he became more than a friend to these boys many a time acting as their leader.
O and A levels were passed but at that time, there were few scholarships available to go to university. Unless the pupil was in the top six of his year, then there was no chance of further education.
A job was obtained at the City Council as an assistant administration officer in the electricity department. Promotion was not by ability or drive but by how long the civil servant had been employed. The stultifying atmosphere in the department was such that Joe was unable to work there. His main task was to read meter books and nine meter books covering nine areas on the Rock had to be dealt with every month. This took him to two days to complete which meant that he had absolutely nothing to do on the remaining days of the month. Upon registering a complaint that more work was needed, he was told to relax, read the local papers and go for walks. This led to depression.
In less than a year, he resigned and was employed by Johnny Risso as a Restsso driver. Up to this point, he had shown no interest in becoming involved in local politics and union matters. He was not really the average driver and delivery man. But interest in socialism started at Restsso. A move to the MOD as a driver did not improve matters as he was overqualified for the job but although a TGWU member, he was still not involved in active trade unionism.
In 1976, he was elected the drivers’ shop steward. This was the point at which his life changed when he met, whilst on union duties, Joe Bossano, the TGWU branch officer. After long conversations, Pilcher realised that his thoughts on socialism and trade unionism were along the same lines as Joe’s. Things were going well in the garage and he was promoted to Superintendent and appointed the TGWU non-industrial convenor for the whole of the MOD.
In 1976, Joe Bossano formed a new party, the Gibraltar Democratic Movement (GDM) and, as four members of the GDM were elected, became the Leader of the Opposition. The other three members became uncomfortable about Bossano’s radical policies and left the party. This led to Bossano passing to Maurice Xiberras the position of Leader of the Opposition. Joe Bossano formed the Gibraltar Socialist and Labour Party (GSLP) in 1978. Pilcher was one of the founder members and became the first Chairman.
In the 1980 election, the GSLP fielded six candidates. Pilcher was asked to stand but declined as he was not politically ready and had a young family. Bossano came second in the election but none of the other GSLP candidates were elected. He became an independent member of the opposition.
Between 1980 and 1984, at Joe Bossano’s instigation, Pilcher became more active in politics and represented the GSLP in debates and media interviews outside of the House of Assembly. This involved a great deal of work outside of his job.
In the 1984 election, the GSLP presented a slate of eight and in the early hours of the morning were on course to win. The late ballot boxes moved the count towards the AACR who eventually won the election. Bossano came second in the individual count. The prime political issue was the commercialization of the dockyard which the GSLP fiercely opposed. Pilcher became deputy leader of the GSLP and was a member of the Gibraltar Council. He represented Joe whenever he was away from the Rock. Pilcher was also the shadow minister for matters concerning Gibraltar Ship Repair and Tourism.
In the 1988 elections, all eight GSLP candidates headed the poll. Joe Pilcher was nominated as Minister responsible for Gibraltar Ship Repair and Tourism. He came second in the individual poll and was therefore nominated as Deputy Chief Minister which post he held until he left politics in 1996.
In 1981, a decision by the Minister of Defence, John Nott, to cut back the Royal Navy surface fleet meant that the dockyard was no longer financially viable. This was one of the main issues in local politics with the GSLP fiercely opposing the closure of the dockyard. In 1985, the MOD passed the dockyard into the hands of the A&P group ( known locally as Appledore). The GSLP ferociously opposed this decision as it was always critical of the way the yard was being managed. When the GSLP got into Government in 1988, Joe’s role was to cancel A&P’s contract which he did during the first few months of Government setting up Gibraltar Shiprepair Limited which took over the running of the yard. The Government closed down the facility but not before it had minimised the effects on employment by creating many joint venture companies which primarily dealt with subcontracting services.
In the early 90s, the dockyard was handed to the Norwegian company, Kvaerner, who ran it until 1996. The dockyard then closed for approximately 18 months. In 1997, Cammell Laird took over the operations but in 2001, the Cammell Laird Group ran into financial difficulties and the dockyard was closed once again. The local senior management, with the backing of the Gibraltar Government, was successful in a buyout. The company continued to trade as Cammell Laird Gibraltar until 7 December 2009 when it was renamed Gibdock.
Joe Pilcher sowed the seeds which resulted in much of the joint venture philosophy which the GSLP and successive governments have today with many successful joint venture companies operating within Gibraltar. In fact, one such successful joint venture company is the Gibraltar Joinery and Building Services (GJBS) which can be seen operating all over the Rock.
Gibraltar Ship Repair took up considerable ministerial time but he was also responsible for tourism.
In the 1992 elections, because of the closure of GSL and because of his penchant to call a spade a spade, he became unpopular with the electorate which resulted in him coming last of the eight successful GSLP candidates with 7737 votes. Joe had moved from second to eighth in the four years between the elections. The Chief Minister insisted that he remained Deputy Chief Minister and he became the Minister for Tourism and the Environment being the first Environment Minister in Gibraltar. During this term, Joe Pilcher took over more and more of the internal workings of government whilst the Chief Minister dealt with the increasing workload of external matters which meant considerable time outside Gibraltar fighting for and presenting Gibraltar’s case. Joe stressed that Bossano still had time to discuss every aspect of local government although by the time that he left politics in 1996, he had dealt with almost every government ministry either directly or otherwise except Health. As the Chief Minister was in New York at the time of the huge anti-cigarette and fast boat demonstration, it fell to Pilcher to accept the petition at No 6 Convent Place.
The 8th May 1995 marked the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War and the Prime Minister, John Major, invited many heads of state to London to celebrate this monumental event. The Queen invited them to lunch at Buckingham Palace as the centrepiece of the celebrations. There were also a number of white and black tie events. The Chief Minister of Gibraltar had to decline his invitation because he never wears white or black ties. Joe Pilcher was sent instead. This was the social highlight of his political career as Gibraltar was treated as any other country within the Allies and its representative, Joe Pilcher and his wife, were given the VIP treatment which any Head of State gets. After a lunch at Buckingham Palace, there was a parade in Hyde Park to which all the guests were taken by bus. Fate decided that Joe sat next to Princess Diana whilst his wife was next to Prince Charles. When they got out of the bus, they were confronted by banks of photographers waiting to photograph the Royal couple.
During the eight years of GSLP Government as Deputy Chief Minister, he was the centrepiece of the creation of many new legislations and working systems although he lists his main achievements as the creation of the Upper Rock nature reserve and the charging mechanism which provides a substantial income to the government. Also, much against the wishes of some of his ministerial colleagues, the pedestrianisation of Main Street which albeit was finished after his term and officially inaugurated by the GSD Government in their first two months. With regret in his eyes, he says that he was never ever invited to the official inauguration even though it was purely of his making. Another important moment was, with the help of Dr John Cortes chairman of the Gibraltar Ornithological & Natural History Society, now Minister in the new GSLP Government, the creation of the Marine nature reserve, the start of the liner terminal, preliminary planning for a new airport and the creation of many joint venture companies.
The Government dealt with the acute housing shortage, the reclamation, the start of the finance sector, attracting more commercial activity such as the gaming companies. The commercial success of Gibraltar today was started during this eight year period.
Joe decided not to stand in the 1996 elections because he realised that he was not popular with the electorate. He also felt his sell-by date had been reached and he was young enough to start a new career in business. However, the GSLP lost the elections and he helped the GSLP for a year and this included running the party newspaper ‘The People’. By the end of the twelve months, he did not consider himself to be an active member of the GSLP although he has always been available to give advice when asked. By 1998 he had no official role with the GSLP.
Joe went into business by opening a company which traded as Medrock consultants as he knew he could provide valuable advice to clients who wanted to know about the machinery of local government. This was successful and he was able to start up different businesses. One was Cinebank which was an automated video system supplying dvds and videos. This ran from 1998 until it was closed down in 2004 when the internet began to supply films and tv programmes at virtually no cost. Another profitable company deals with Revlon cosmetics which was acquired in the course of buying a warehouse and was acquired by pure luck
Pilcher is now 64 and has no intention of retiring until ill health forces him to stop work. Today, he works every day of the week except for Wednesday which is a day for himself. The weekend is spent with his family.
All profits from the enterprises were invested into property and today he holds a property portfolio. All the various strands now come under the umbrella of Mandelson Holdings. This has nothing to with Lord Mandleson and was an off the shelf company. Medrock now deals with administration.
Joe says, “I think that Gibraltar is what it is today due to the eight years of GSLP government. If you look back in history, although there have been many crises such as the Brussels Agreement, Gibraltar has always come out the winner due to the versatility of its people and in partnership with the British Government support. The future of Gibraltar post Brexit is unknown but the now Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, is exploring every avenue and making contingency plans looking at the USA and the Commonwealth. Gibraltar is a unique nation state and this will continue for as long as its people want it to and always in partnership with the British Government”.