OUR SALVADOR – Man of the People

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July 1st marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Sir Joshua Hassan. Last week, I was shown footage from 1997 of the service in the House of Assembly (now styled as the Gibraltar Parliament) the day after his death, followed by the journey of the funeral cortege from the synagogue in Irish Town, through Main Street and Casemates Square to the North Front Jewish cemetery.

It seemed like the entire population of Gibraltar, and every community within it, had presented itself to say their last goodbye to a man who gave his life to, as he would address in his speeches, ‘nosotros, el pueblo de Gibraltar…’ (‘We, the people of Gibraltar’). He received unflinching applause for his delivery of that phrase in his political life, but no applause can struck a more emotional chord than the ovation of gratitude to Sir Joshua Hassan’s whole life while the cortege left Casemates Square – a unified ‘thank you’ for his unwavering commitment to Gibraltar and her people. No one could be left with any hesitation that we had someone special in Sir Joshua.

The father of the Gibraltarians led the political movement that secured democratic emancipation on the Rock. The Association for the Advancement of Civil Rights, abbreviated as the AACR, undoubtedly achieved its self-evident aims. Sir Joshua, known as Salvador to his many friends, gave at least the better part of 50 years of his life to frontline politics.

Joshua with young Fleur (left) and Marlene (right)

Indeed, the AACR name was suggested by Sir Joshua. The foundation of the party has to be credited in large part to the partnership between Sir Joshua, the bright leftist lawyer (Leita Cazes, girlfriend to Hassan for a period in his early 20s, called her boyfriend ‘mi novio el rojillo’ – ‘my boyfriend, the little red’), and Albert Risso, the trade unionist and first AACR president. Hassan wrote in his memoirs, ‘I did not want the AACR to be started as a party created by just another lawyer who was getting into politics’. He clearly saw the value of a party representing the wider Gibraltarian public, not just in terms of policy but actually constituted of a range of people in the community recognising the need for change and their capacity to fight for it.

Risso’s faith in him was undeniably informed by Hassan’s ability to be the brains behind the movement, but also by his personal and social attributes. My grandfather, Aurelio Montegriffo, was a minister in Hassan’s AACR team for almost three decades. Their electoral success and political partnership was nearly as indefatigable as their friendship. But even in times of great political challenges, Hassan remained on the telephone directory, often kept an open-door policy at home, and invariably had time to listen to everyone who stopped him in town. The man must have had an insurmountable degree of patience and care for the members of the community, and it would not be surprising if he saw it as his duty for most of his adult life, having served so long as Mayor and then Chief Minister.

The political apple does not fall far from the proverbial tree. Sir Joshua’s daughters Fleur and Marlene have retained their father’s vocation in Israel and Gibraltar respectively. While they are both facing different times and distinct challenges, the genuine caring vibe that Hassan is often described as having projected has definitely been passed on. As the sisters continue to carve their own destinies in the midst of an uncertain political world (albeit some six thousand kilometres apart), one wonders how Sir Joshua’s leadership might have influenced a post-Brexit Gibraltar, or at least, looking back and thinking of what sort of lessons can be taken in from his time at this juncture in Gibraltar’s politics.

Elizabeth Nash’s obituary in the Independent published on the day of Hassan’s death features an extract from an interview with him two years prior capturing his humility: “What, I asked Hassan finally, did he think was the destiny of Gibraltar? ‘I am not a prophet,’ he said, ‘only an expired politician. So we shall have to wait and see.’” Despite this, we can still hazard a few educated guesses as to what he might have thought had he been alive today. The man who led Gibraltar at a time when Spain was occupied by the brutal Franco regime, which was intent on strangling not just the Rock but also its own people, can surely pass on a lesson or two on defiant leadership.

For starters, and this is perhaps the most ‘obvious’ point, Sir Joshua would likely have continued to oppose the integrationist position, perceived by many to effectively undermine the long struggle for civilian democracy and autonomous governance for Gibraltar, by Gibraltar, and in Gibraltar. Integration as a principle appears in contradiction with the forward march of self-determination and political freedom that we hold as unassailable, as well as at odds with Hassan’s twin slogan, “With Britain but not under Britain. The Right to our Land”.

That slogan might give us a clue concerning a Salvador attitude to something like the Brexit negotiations. One imagines that Hassan would be indignant at the prospect of the Brexit negotiations having a minimal regard for Gibraltar. With Britain, or with whatever the make-up of the UK government by the time negotiations are in full flow, means a productive partnership and not one where the Gibraltarian interest is unaccounted for. Getting the Gibraltarian interest across is not as easy as it sounds, especially when it involves getting it across to a government that is arguably sidelining its own devolved administrations. A huge benefit that Gibraltar enjoyed under Hassan’s leadership was that his name was so well-respected in the British corridors of power, so much so that he was capable of getting Gibraltar back on the agenda with supreme verve.

With the high stakes of the EU departure deal for the UK and all the discussion that comes with it around the single market, customs union and the Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland border, it is paramount that Gibraltar does not get lost in the shuffle and, before May called the snap election, we briefly saw that public interest in Gibraltar over in the UK was substantial enough for the Rock to return to national debate for a number of weeks. In these times of zealous political lobbying on Gibraltar’s behalf in London and Brussels, it is Gibraltar’s strength in unity that plays so well into our hands and this was no less the case than with Hassan’s leadership during the 1967 sovereignty referendum, the 50th anniversary of which is being celebrated this year. The AACR movement under Hassan was able to capture Gibraltar’s imagination like never before and it remains to be seen as to whether we will ever see such a long-lasting capturing of the national imagination again.

From fortress to democracy (also the title of the political biography written by Sir William Jackson and Francis Cantos just a few years before Hassan’s death), from radical socialist lawyer to elder statesman, Salvador left his utterly indelible mark on the Rock and her people forever. 20 years on from his passing, we look back with great admiration to the father of modern Gibraltar.

words | Mark Montegriffo