NEW YEAR, NEW DIRECTION – Marlene Hassan Nahon – Testing the waters for political change

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Gibraltar’s two pillars of political power are being rocked by an independent force that is aiming to shake the community with a ‘new movement’. As tensions flared in parliament, a link in the opposition’s chain broke away to take a backbench view on developments, but something was brewing. The idea now is to send out the feelers and gauge the appetite for a new party that will seek to demonstrate a new way of conducting politics on the Rock.

Marlene Hassan Nahon

Marlene Hassan Nahon, an Independent MP and the spearhead of this movement, doesn’t have average buttoned-up lawyers possessing eloquent linguistic expertise on her list of candidates. She’s not excluding them completely, but she does believe Gibraltar has enough of them in politics. She instead finds herself most comfortable around the average citizen who ‘isn’t in one of the big three law firms and wants their voice heard’. Marlene believes that her new movement will attract young people between their late twenties and early thirties because they are the ones with the most drive and are further invested in their future, “These people want to have a say in which direction Gibraltar is steering. There are many who feel disenfranchised with our political environment and I want to spark a movement of like-minded people who want to see something else in today’s local political scene. The reality is that many people do not feel represented by the two parties on show. Anyone is invited to step up and give their views, to express an interest in alternative thinking and to stand up for what they believe in,” she said to me last month after ducking out from the rain and nestling into one of the less conspicuous corners of Sacarello’s to grab a coffee. We were here to discuss her decision to shake Gibraltar’s political framework, and she was eager to discuss the issues on her mind, but I wanted to take her back to her politically charged childhood. After all, growing up in the household of her father, the late Sir Joshua Hassan, or ‘Salvador’ – saviour due to his iconic status as a pioneer of Gibraltarian politics and human rights, must have had some influence over her.

Marlene appreciated quality time with her father

Formative years

The journey back in time would make us see things first through the innocent eyes of a five-year-old girl who was buoyed by the buzz in the house when strangers dressed in black were roaming around using walkie-talkies. At that point, she had no idea of the stirring pandemonium outside as dozens of members of the taxi association and their families threatened to burn their house down due to her father issuing ten new mini-cab licences that would inevitably increase competition.

“I remember very clearly when the taxi association went on strike inside the synagogue. My father had majorly stepped up security and I was taken away because there were protesters outside our house. There were all sorts of threats and I was terrified,” she said pausing to visualise the traumatic event. “When I heard someone’s shrill voice screaming ‘Te vamo quemar la casa’ – we will burn your house down – I ran over to the comforting embrace of my father’s arms. He would just tell me to go to sleep and not to worry and eventually that’s what I did. He was very gentle and calm.”

Sir Joshua’s stance on Gibraltar’s sovereignty was unmovable

But she claims that despite being surrounded by these sorts of scenes, politics were always a little on the side-lines at home. Her father was a family man and never made a big deal out of his achievements. To Marlene, the man who championed Gibraltar’s case at the United Nations in the 60s was just her dad whose return she would always look forward to for an opportunity to sit on his lap while he gently caressed her hair as he read his book.

University life

When the decision as to which university degree to take on came along, Marlene chose to buck the trend and study history of art and architecture at the University of Manchester after toying with the idea of law, “I wanted to do something that I enjoyed, but in reality I needed to break free and live independently. You go from one extreme to the other. In my experience, it was always the mature students who fared better. Gibraltar, generally speaking, does not encourage students to take a year out before enrolling in university. Kids spend 14 years in the school system non-stop and then go straight to university. If we encouraged A-level students to take a year out, they will go to ‘uni’ with more developed minds.”

Two days before her graduation, Marlene’s father passed away and she flew back to Gibraltar immediately to mourn him with her family and the local community at large. After a difficult period, she decided to return to the UK and work in London. A series of colourful jobs ensued before landing a quirky opportunity at an auction house and she broke a smile as she recalled a particular show that featured Beatles memorabilia, “You’d get all these wacky celebrities coming down and spending huge sums of money on these things. It was very exciting work to be honest.” But it was a year later when she was offered a job to work for an American private bank called Riggs, formally the largest bank in the U.S. capital, to serve in the South American and African divisions, “I would use my Spanish practically all day and deal with ambassadors and high commissioners from these continents. Some of them were very high-profile diplomats from South American countries whose names you would have heard about in the newspapers. I felt very comfortable in this environment. It was fascinating to see the amount of money and arms that were moved around between countries. I knew a lot about this stuff, but it is very sensitive information. That’s why I cannot tell you much,” she said about the bank that suffered a number of scandals, including housing accounts for two of the 9/11 hijackers. In the end, the FBI and 9/11 Commission stated that the money was not intentionally being routed to fund terrorists. However, safeguards to prevent this were deemed as surprisingly lax. “Maybe my shock is someone else’s reality, but I saw a lot of money being moved around and what it was used for. It was an eye-opener to see which countries worked together or against one another. Let’s just leave it there. All I can say is that during my time with this bank, everything was done diligently and above board.”

Opposing minds

Marlene was an elected member of the GSD opposition party and was always inclined to be a sympathiser due to it emanating from her father’s party. But she said that dad always told her not to be anyone’s cheerleader and, unless she was in the front-line, she should keep her views to herself because ‘people change, and so do parties’, “It was very practical advice. While Peter Caruana was leader I did not think there was much of a place for me. The man had it covered. I was just picking up nappies and making baby food all those years, but I was always keeping an eye on developments. Politics is like a bad habit when you get used to it. There are many admirers of the AACR Hassan ideology within the GSD, so I felt like it was my natural political home. I ended up leaving because I felt very much alienated by the leadership and its advisers, but I still maintain that the GSD was a success story for Gibraltar and I hold it in very high regard. I just feel that the party has veered from what the electorate expects from it.”

Marlene and Chief Minister Fabian Picardo were both messengers at Hassans law firm at one point in their lives and used to hang out socially. But she said she felt worried about the way the GSLP were managing Gibraltar with the incursions that were taking place during the laying of the artificial reef in 2013 that sparked a furious reaction from Spain and eight-hour-long queues at the frontier, “I didn’t feel that they were being as diplomatic as I would have liked and I didn’t grow up in an environment where rabble rousing was the way to do things. I appreciate that the fishermen were raking the seabed illegally, but I would have gone the direction of dialogue until the end. That is how my father did politics and that’s how I plan to do so also. I felt very insecure and, when Minister Charles Bruzon passed away, there was an opening for a candidate, so I felt it was time for me to step into parliament.”

Party Politics

Marlene believes that personal acrimony is taking place between local politicians, both inside and outside of parliament that is not conducive to proactive and positive politics. No longer needing to ‘toe a party line’, she hopes she can bring about a different air of constructiveness that is no longer ‘blinded by a party mantra’, “I find it all quite tiresome and toxic. I am glad that I can be free in my conscious and not worry about political baggage that requires defending against. The only thing we should be doing is searching for solutions. What’s the point of going back and reminding and cussing in what seems like a ‘patio vecino -neighbour-’ fight? It is disrespectful to the people of Gibraltar.” Marlene feels it is ironic that a ‘mini tragedy’ needs to occur before everyone pulls together, rapidly brushing any differences under the carpet to focus on the big picture, “Why must we wait for a black day to come together when life is so short and we are very privileged in Gibraltar?  It is a waste of time.”

Big changes

The movement will push on health issues in the main, but is looking for specialists in various fields in its bid to give politics that human touch. Marlene is of the opinion that there are a number of NGOs who do a great job within their means, but that is not enough. In parliament last year, she spoke about implementing a structured, multi-agency approach to mental health care, similar to the Care Programme Approach used in the UK. The proposal identifies the need to set up a direct crisis line for patients and families and structure a school-based mental health support programme, “There have been a number of suicide cases on the Rock. This is basic stuff. For those who feel downtrodden, who should they call if they need help. Right now, they are lost. By having a small team manning the phones, we can begin identifying those who are in need of help.”

In terms of the recent debate on the regulation of marijuana in Gibraltar, Marlene is in favour of the use of herbal marijuana in Gibraltar for medical purposes, but stops short of fully blown recreational use of the drug for fear that the community might be unable to cope, “When you see supporting evidence that proves that the use of medical marijuana can make a difference to cancer patients, I say of course, there is proof, so why not? It is much more about the stigma surrounding the drug. I wouldn’t open the floodgates for recreational use in Gibraltar. When you impose legislation, you have to be sensitive as to where society is at that point and how receptive it may be to such a change in legislation. You don’t want the wrong people to take advantage of the situation.”

Post-Brexit era

Although willing to discuss many issues, she did not wish to discuss any potential outcomes of Brexit and how Gibraltar should prepare herself in an onslaught of uncertainty, “I am not going to pretend that I have all the answers. Today’s government has a very difficult job on its hands. We don’t even know what the expectations are from the UK. I cannot give a specific opinion when the UK doesn’t have one. Gibraltar will be affected by the domino effect, stemming from the decision made over there. Of course, we have to fight our corner and I will support Gibraltar’s government as well as any diplomatic efforts to take Gibraltar forward. We must do the best we can with the package that we fight for in a post-Brexit world. We have lived through a lot of dark times on the Rock. Spain likes to be belligerent, so what’s new? We just have to stand strong and fight our corner like we’ve always done. It is a time to be united and not divided.”