50 YEARS LATER – The day we denied Franco


At this juncture, it is hard to deny that the most crucial political challenge is Brexit. The UK narrowly voted in favour of leaving the EU, while Gibraltar almost unanimously voted to remain – such is the misfortune of the underdog. Indeed, the link with the United Kingdom was vital in getting us access to the European Union originally and, as happened during the evacuation and the closed border years, Gibraltar has had to struggle or thrive under situations virtually beyond its control. Despite this, at each juncture, Gibraltar has found a way to stand up for itself like the David of international relations, even when the support from the UK has been occasionally limp. The truest example of Gibraltarian solidarity and unity came 50 years ago with the Gibraltar Sovereignty Referendum on the 10th of September 1967. It is hailed as a central event in our narrative and emblematic of our identity as a British Gibraltarian people – and for good reason too.

For the first time since the Second World War, the 1960s brought a wave of volatility in global politics. The UK economy, and other western Keynesian economies, had ‘never had it so good’ in the words of Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. The succeeding Labour government saw a majority in Westminster and oversaw a swathe of liberal social reform under Home Secretary Roy Jenkins and Prime Minister Harold Wilson, just about catching up with the ‘swinging sixties’. Abroad, however, the decade was a period of marked controversy; and no war was more controversial than Vietnam. From the Bay of Pigs invasion to the start of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the Six Day War in Israel, the high levels of conflict were in contradiction to the relative stability of the North American and European economies. With the UK governments of the time pressured on an inexorable number of challenges away from home, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for General Franco, Spain’s fascist dictator, to push for what would have been among his proudest and callous achievements – Spanish colonisation of Gibraltar.

Lucy Montegriffo voting in the Referendum

The dictator saw Gibraltar as a ripe fruit that hung low enough to pick but not too high that it would be worth a war over. Franco’s foreign affairs minister Fernando Castiella managed to garner support on the international stage for Spain’s view that Gibraltar was a British fortress on Spanish soil. As is the case at present, there was a certain suspicion towards London that Gibraltar’s desires would be subordinated in order to maintain friendly Anglo-Spanish relations. Gibraltar’s population has forever been too small to have any effect on a UK government’s utilitarian calculations and was seen Britain’s allies as an unnecessary remnant of the old Empire. In fact, there was a growing sentiment in the UK that refusing to talk to Spain on sovereignty would be counter-productive, making damaging Britain’s case internationally. But that suspicion from the Gibraltarian people did not nearly match up to the opposition on the Rock against a Spanish dictatorship, three decades into its fascist regime.

Gibraltarians voting in the Referendum at Glacis Road Med Rowing Club polling station

Gibraltar’s coalition government was led by the AACR and contained a mix of the party’s mainstays such as Joshua Hassan, Albert Risso and Aurelio Montegriffo, along with independents such as Peter Isola and Sol Seruya. With Sir Joshua Hassan as Chief Minister, they saw Gibraltar’s security through a twin-track policy: developing a larger degree of economic self-sufficiency, and pressuring the British government when proposals were offered to Spain. Hassan and Isola had to deal with the likes of Castiella before at the UN level to great effect but the resistance had to be extended. With frontier restrictions imposed, Gibraltar nearly faced a precursor to the closed border years. In order to get the Spaniards to the table, Prime Minister Wilson agreed to re-open negotiations without excluding sovereignty discussions, which proved to be a hasty call in getting a fascist government into talks without reservations. Madrid saw this as an act of weakness but failed to capitalise on what they thought was a winning position. Because they thought they were on track, they felt they had no reason to reciprocate the gesture of goodwill from the British; and the British underestimated Gibraltarian people’s determination to rise above Spain’s coercion.

Gibraltarians voting in the Referendum at Town Range polling station

The United Nations speeches by Hassan and Isola to the Fourth Committee of 1966 drew the battle lines leading up to the referendum. Hassan, who was granted 15 minutes by the chairman, highlighted Spain’s economic coercion and xenophobic media campaign which was hardly in keeping with the Spanish claim that Gibraltarians would enjoy a far better future under Franco. He revisited Gibraltar’s three options in the United Nations Charter: integration with a sovereign state, independence, or free association with a sovereign state. Integration appeared at odds with Gibraltar’s developing identity and its democratic and constitutional advancement. Independence was not much of an option because of Gibraltar’s size, incomplete economic self-sufficiency and an unreliable neighbour, to put it mildly. He submitted to the Committee that Gibraltar’s choice was free association with Britain, which was projected a year later through the sovereignty referendum.

Referendum fever in 1967 when Gibraltarians showed their sentiments to keep the Rock British
The day that Spain closed the frontier on the 8th June 1969

After five rounds of Anglo-Spanish talks, it was made obvious to Britain that Spain’s final attempt at strangling the Rock was from the sky, inflicting further harm on Gibraltar’s economy with the air exclusion zone. With the talks being viewed in the UK as procrastination by Madrid officials, Judith Hart MP rose in the House of Commons in June 1967 to announce the government’s intention to hold a referendum for the people of Gibraltar to have say on which course would serve their interests best: to pass under Spanish sovereignty, or to voluntarily retain their link with Britain, with democratic local institutions and with Britain retaining its present responsibilities. On the 10th of September, Gibraltar was unequivocally clear with 12,182 votes for free association with Britain and merely 44 votes for Spanish sovereignty.

Last ferry from Algeciras on the 27th June 1969, shortly after the frontier closed

The referendum was a pivotal chapter in the making of a people and her collective identity. It was the day that the Rock denied Franco, as a democratic vote declined the advances of a dictator. The political mobilisation in those circumstances and the significance of democratic defiance trumping fascist fanaticism ought to be a source of pride for generations of Gibraltarians to come. Because there have been occasions where we had to unite, mobilise and fight when our backs were shoved against the wall. Being Gibraltar and everything that comes with it, we will likely find ourselves in similar situations again. At that juncture, the only thing left is courage and will. The 1967 referendum is among the events one can point to that should not fail to inspire that very courage and will when the requirement re-emerges.

words | Mark Montegriffo    photos | Chris Montegriffo Snr


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