Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Notes from Gibraltar

I write this column for the Oswestry and Borders Chronicle as sitting out on my balcony overlooking the Bay of Gibraltar. The Spanish port of Algeciras is to my right. The Mountains of North Morocco are to my left. The Straits of Gibraltar, opening onto the Atlantic (next stop the US) are in front of me. 100,000 seagoing vessels of various sorts pass through this way every year, a high proportion taking on fuel and stores at Gibraltar, or undergoing various sorts of repair and maintenance. 

Algeciras and Gibraltar are hugely important to Spain and Britain respectively - for very different reasons. Algeciras is one of the world’s busiest commercial ports and of great importance to the Spanish economy. Gibraltar is crucial to the defence of Britain, and through this defence capability, crucially important to maintaining peace in the world. 

I am in Gibraltar for 3 days as a guest on the Gibraltarian Government, who want us to understand the importance of the Port of Gibraltar to the world. Yesterday we spent three hours aboard HMS Diamond, one of Britain's six Type 45 anti-missile destroyers, which each cost a billion pounds and are deployed all over the world in support of the British interest. They are seriously impressive bit of military kit. 

The timing of our visit coincides with the celebration of National Day, held annually on September 10th. This year is special because it's the 25th such National Day. The tradition was started by the great socialist Chief Minister, Joe Bassano, whom I feel I know quite well now. I have been to help celebrate Gibraltar's National Day before, and know it to be a wonderful occasion - a glorious celebration of the spirit of Gibraltar. It's also a statement of an enduring love for Britain. My first visit to Gib was in July 1969. There was a General Election taking place, won by the Intergration with Britain Party. Too years before there had been a referendum to decide whether Gibraltar should stay British or return to Spanish control. Spain had long claimed 'ownership' of Gibraltar. 12,138 votes for Britain and 44 voted for Spain. That settled the issue. And that is how it’s going to stay.

A key part of the Gibraltarian economy is based on financial services and online betting. So unsurprisingly, Gibraltarians were concerned about the possible impact of the United Kingdom's decision to leave the European Union. 96% voted Remain. So I did not expect to hear the speech of the inspirational Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo over lunch, which was stunningly positive about Brexit. He said, bluntly, that they had "got it wrong". In the last year, GDP increased by an astonishing 9%. Average salaries rose to £90,000. Unemployment fell to just 74 people. Truly remarkable figures. The key to Gibraltar's economic future is its close links with Britain. 90% of exports are to Britain, and our two Governments are working together positively on Brexit. All the opposite of what was feared. No wonder National Day celebrations have been more joyous than ever this last week.

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