Backbenchers: Why?

Restraint. That’s one of the things chief minister Fabian Picardo has requested from teachers in their ongoing pay dispute with the government. Their claim dates back to last June but they still haven’t had a formal response. A deadline of Thursday 9 May set by their union, the NASUWT, came and went with neither an acceptance of the demands nor a counter offer. In a letter to the NASUWT president that same evening Mr Picardo essentially said he needed more time to consider the matter.

Yet earlier that day there was time for a meeting of the parliamentary reform select committee that the chief minister chairs. It hadn’t met for over four and a half years and it was only after the Gibraltar Chronicle had revealed it that anyone had any inkling it was about to meet again. According to one of its members the meeting lasted only 45 minutes.

The Gibraltar Parliament

Long enough, nevertheless, to conclude discussions on the “expansion of the Gibraltar Parliament” and come up with a radical recommendation: an increase in the number of MPs from 17 to 25 through the creation of eight “backbenchers”, five on the government’s side and three on the opposition’s. The intention is to pass the necessary legislation in time for the next election. The GSLP/Liberals and the GSD must have had a pretty good idea this would be the outcome, as almost simultaneously with the publication of the committee’s recommendation they issued press statements welcoming the initiative.

Marlene Hassan Nahon

Only independent MP Marlene Hassan Nahon did not. Herself a committee member, she decried a lack of consultation and warned that backbenchers would not have “a quantitative or qualitative impact on the level of democracy in Gibraltar”. She’s not alone in thinking it’s a bad idea.

Commission on Democratic & Political Reform

In 2013 the Commission on Democratic and Political Reform stated that: “there should not be an increase in the number of elected members, since 17 Members in a place of our size are quite enough”. It said the additional expenditure was “unwarranted”, notwithstanding that what was being mooted was just two backbenchers.

How much eight backbenchers would cost the taxpayer is an, as yet, unanswered question. (£200,000 a year Ms Hassan Nahon reckons). There are others. Would they be entitled to a pension as “frontbench” MPs are? On polling day would people vote separately for frontbench and backbench candidates or would who becomes what be determined by how many votes each candidate gets? Would backbenchers have full voting rights in parliament?

A more fundamental question still is why have backbenchers in the first place? Unlike their UK counterparts, they would have no constituents to represent. Neither would they have ministries to run nor shadow portfolios to look after. What then would be their purpose?

The Commons in session during prime minister’s questions

The chief minister says that with backbenchers our parliament would more closely resemble the House of Commons: there’d be more ordinary MPs than members of the Executive. This, he suggests, would improve democracy because it makes it easier for the government to be outvoted. But, given the tribal nature of our politics, how realistic is it that even one backbencher on the government side would rebel? Not very I’d say, and three of them would have to in order to defeat the government.

Democracy could be enhanced, in my view, if at least some of the backbenchers were independents, able to speak their minds, unfettered by a party whip. But it’s clear that the path isn’t going to be made any easier for independent candidates to get elected.  As Mr Picardo says: “people will understand that they need to continue to block vote in order to have a government of the party political nature they wish to see, with the backbenchers being additional representatives of that party”. Plus ça change.

Let’s hope the real motivation here isn’t, as has been suggested, to reward party stalwarts who’ve never made it onto an electoral slate. Against a backdrop of the teachers’ pay claim and concerns expressed by the Action on Poverty group, the last thing Gibraltar needs is eight political sinecures.

Could Penny or Rory be the next PM?

There must be more to Penny Mordaunt than meets the eye. When she visited Gibraltar in 2015 as minister for the armed forces she stonewalled me as she arrived for a meeting at Number Six Convent Place, only to emerge minutes later – presumably under advice – and grant me the interview I was initially denied. Ms Mordaunt has now been given the top job at the MoD, becoming the first woman to be appointed defence secretary. It shouldn’t do her hopes of one day becoming prime minister any harm.

For my money though, her successor as international development secretary is a better bet. Rory Smith impressed me when he came to the Rock five years ago as part of the Foreign Affairs Committee that heard evidence from Fabian Picardo, and he’s being touted by some as the next Tory leader. The former prisons minister speaks 11 languages and is a straight talker: when asked on the first day in his new job whether he’d throw his hat in the ring once Theresa May has left office he simply said “yes” – the first cabinet minister to do so.

Mr Stewart served in the Black Watch, and is a bestselling author. Before becoming an MP in 2010 he was a Harvard professor and an adviser to Barack Obama. A bit of an action man, he carried out a 6,000-mile walk across Iran, Nepal, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he set up a charity, and delivered his first son himself. Brad Pitt once bought the rights to his life story.

The Sunday Times described him as “a political exception: a round peg in a round hole” who “even knows what he is talking about. And that, in politics these days, really is a surprise”. Praise indeed from the UK’s newspaper of record. The 46-year-old may be regarded as something of an outsider to replace Mrs May, but I reckon his time will come. If the Conservative Party survives its present crisis, that is.

RONNIE’S CRUCIBLE PIG’S EAR

One thing that university life engendered in me that has nothing to do with academia is my love of snooker. I don’t think it exists any more but when I was an undergraduate, my students’ union building boasted a fabulous snooker room where we’d spend many an hour – possibly too many – hoping to put together a decent break as we took an *ahem* hard-earned break from our studies. If I remember rightly, just 50p bought us an hour under the lights at the green baize table; those were the days!

It was during my first year, in 1977, that the World Snooker Championship moved to its present venue, the Crucible, in Sheffield. Watching the tournament on television I was soon hooked. Mind you, it took some dedication watching a sport in which colour plays such an important part on a black-and-white TV set as I had to. Only the white and black balls were clearly distinguishable, all the others were a washed-out grey.

In fact, some years earlier the BBC2 Pot Black programme that did so much to popularise snooker was devised precisely to exploit colour television technology. Not everyone owned a colour TV set though and this had to be borne in mind by commentators, who usually did an admirable job. Every now and then, however, they slipped up. As when the “voice of snooker”, Ted Lowe, not-so-helpfully told viewers that: “for those of you watching in black and white, the pink is next to the green”.

Of course, television coverage has come on by leaps and bounds since the seventies and for the past fortnight I’ve been transfixed, following the fortunes of my favourite players in this year’s World Championship.

Stuart Bingham lifts the Gibraltar Open trophy

I was rooting for Stuart Bingham who unfortunately lost in the second round. Bingham, who took the title in 2015, was also the gracious winner of this year’s Gibraltar Open. After lifting the trophy and pocketing the £25,000 top prize he said he loved coming to the Rock and looked forward to returning next year, possibly making a family holiday of the trip.

Contrast his attitude with that of world number one Ronnie O’Sullivan who quipped that he would “rather sleep in a pig sty” than play here. I, for one, was pleased to see him get his comeuppance in Sheffield: O’Sullivan was knocked out in the first round by an amateur, the first time that’s happened in the competition’s 92-year history.

The jury system revisited

My heartiest congratulations to the Director of Public Prosecutions, Christian Rocca, who was recently appointed Queen’s Counsel (and to Nigel Feetham who was similarly honoured). In preparation for an earlier column I wrote regarding aspects of the jury system in Gibraltar Mr Rocca very graciously gave me access to the dissertation he submitted as a law student at the University of Essex. It made very interesting reading.

One of his key proposals for reform was that jury service be made compulsory for women. Yes, surprising as it may seem to younger readers, as recently as 1993, when Mr Rocca completed his thesis, only men featured on the jury list; women had to volunteer if they wanted to be included. Indeed, as Mr Rocca noted: “up until 1960, women were not even recognised as potential jurors”. Thankfully this “anomaly” was eventually put right and both women and men are now called upon to serve.

However, another concern highlighted by Mr Rocca remains as valid today as when the jury system was first adopted in Gibraltar in 1830: in a small jurisdiction, where everyone knows everybody else, how impartial can a jury truly be?  Hardly at all, according to one time Governor Sir Archibald Hunter. Back in 1913, Mr Rocca reminds us, Sir Archibald had the temerity to suggest that the jury system be abolished, describing local juries as “partisan and notoriously unjust in favour of their own”. His words provoked quite a storm and he was “summoned back to the UK, never to return”.

Yet three-quarters of a century later the incumbent Attorney General, Ken Harris QC, said much the same thing. He reportedly told this newspaper in December 1991 that because of Gibraltar’s small size, “It is very difficult to be, and remain, completely impartial, whatever counsel or the trial judge may say…I am concerned that a number of verdicts in recent years have, in my opinion, been completely contrary to the evidence”.

Meanwhile, in his 1985 paper “Problems of jury trials in small jurisdictions”, Sir John Spry, an ex-President of the Gibraltar Court of Appeal, asserted that “In some islands, a local person charged with an offence against a foreigner is almost certain to be acquitted, while a foreigner accused of an offence against a local is equally likely to be convicted.”

Regrettably, statistics seem to back the view that Gibraltar juries are much likelier to convict foreigners than locals. An analysis by the now Registrar of the Supreme Court, Liam Yeats, of the verdicts in criminal cases between 1983 and 2013 shows that only a quarter (25%) of non-local defendants were acquitted, whereas three-fifths (60.5%) of locals were.

This issue alone seems to me a pretty good reason to reconsider whether we should persist with our jury system. But there’s the further argument that in Gibraltar we may be exposing jurors to unreasonable levels of stress. An indication of this came in the murder trial I referenced in last month’s column, in which the jury returning a guilty verdict asked for a counselling or support service to be established to help them, and future jury members.

If the jury system, because of jurors’ tendency to acquit locals and convict non-locals, is “failing to perform properly and impartially” as Christian Rocca asserts in his dissertation, and on top of that jury members’ health may be damaged by trauma, shouldn’t we at least have a rethink?

The Pools and the Post

What a great initiative: as its contribution to the commemorations of the 50thanniversary of the closure of the frontier, the National Archives has digitised its collection of the Gibraltar Evening Post and placed it online for everyone to enjoy. There are ten months’ worth, from the first edition on Monday 3 March 1969 through to the end of that tumultuous year.

As I browse, so many memories!

Childhood ones of course as I was barely 11 years old when Franco cruelly cut us off from the wider world, far too young to understand how momentous the events of 1969 were. Not just the frontier. We also got a new, modern Constitution and saw Sir Joshua Hassan toppled for the first and only time as Gibraltar’s political supremo. Although he obtained 1,500 votes more in that year’s general election than his Integration With Britain Party rival, Major ‘Bob’ Peliza, he was unable to form a government and had to settle – briefly – for the role of leader of the opposition.

Naturally I was only vaguely aware of all of this. Instead, what I do remember well from reading the Evening Post as a boy are the everyday things. They may be banned today but eye-catching, page-dominating cigarette advertisements were all the rage 50 years ago and must have tempted more than a few to sample the vile weed.

Long-gone eateries also did their best to seduce. Take this example from a newly-opened Lotus House in Main Street: “Her desire is that you should be satisfied for her only wish is to satiate your Chinese appetite”. Meanwhile Le Coq d’Or at 4 Cornwall’s Parade offered, “Fresh large prawns served to suit your individual taste”. And you could get a four-course meal at the Casino Royale Restaurant for 25 shillings: £1.25 in today’s money.

What brought back the most vivid memories of all, though, was the Post’s coverage of everything to do with the Football Pools. Younger readers may not even be familiar with the term but back in the 1960s people dreamt of getting rich by “doing the pools”. Sure, the government lottery already existed but the first prize was just £3,000: a tidy sum but hardly a fortune. On the other hand, for a modest stake the pools held out the tantalising prospect of winning hundreds of thousands of pounds.

There were numerous ways of playing, but if you wanted a chance of hitting the jackpot you had to correctly forecast eight score-draws from (usually) the English and Scottish professional league matches. (During the close-season summer months Australian league fixtures would be used). Pools agents would drop off a coupon at your home at the beginning of the week and collect it a few days later, together with your stake, after you’d filled it in with an ‘X’ for every match you selected. You then waited expectantly for Saturday evening to listen to the football results on the radio (no live matches on TV then), jotting them down on your coupon as you did so. Unlike nowadays, when games are stretched out sometimes from Friday to Monday, all matches were held on Saturdays with the same kick-off time.

Now in those pre-FM days, radio broadcasts were plagued with crackle resulting in many a score being missed by punters. And that’s where the Evening Post came in. The Saturday edition was eagerly awaited, as it would publish a pools coupon replica with all the results neatly filled in. My dad would methodically check his own completed results against the newspaper’s hoping, I expect, that those he hadn’t heard properly had ended in a score draw, edging him closer to that coveted “first dividend”. Needless to say it never happened.

The Post’s pools-related coverage wasn’t limited to Saturdays either. Midweek it published the next match-day fixtures, suggesting its own tips, and announced the dividend forecast from the previous Saturday’s results. Ads by the major pools companies – Littlewoods and Vernons, Zetters and Copes – added to the mystique, with intricate explanations of their “plans” and “perms”. It was all fascinating stuff for a young adolescent getting his first glimpses of the adult world, and I have the Gibraltar Evening Post to thank for it.

Are jurors well served?

Jury service in Gibraltar, as in many other countries, is a civic duty and an obligation. With very few exceptions (mainly people with serious mental health problems or significant criminal records), anyone aged between 18 and 65 may be asked to serve and if you don’t show up when summoned you commit an offence punishable by a fine. You may ask to be excused, but you’d best have a compelling reason.

If selected for the jury you’re forbidden from discussing the case with anyone except fellow jury members even after the trial is over, not even with your family. If you do, or if you discuss or post comments about the trial on social media, you’re in “contempt of court” and may face prosecution yourself.

Yes, serving on a jury is a serious business.

But are jurors themselves well served?

What happened at the end of a murder trial this month may suggest they’re not. After delivering its guilty verdict, the jury of seven women and five men produced a note that was read out in court in which they requested the creation of a support group or counselling service. The experience of the week-long trial, they said, had been traumatic.

They probably weren’t aware of it, but their sentiments chimed with the findings of a report that warned, precisely, that the nature of the evidence seen and heard by juries in the course of a trial can lead to trauma. The research, by psychologists at the University of Leicester, concluded that jury service can be a significant source of anxiety and for a vulnerable minority can engender moderate to severe clinical levels of stress. In the longer term it could, the report claimed, even lead to symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Among the most frequently reported sources of stress were having to decide on a verdict; fear of making a mistake; reaching a majority verdict rather than a unanimous one (in murder cases the verdict must be unanimous) and being in a minority position among jury members. Listening to disturbing evidence and being sequestered for the duration of the trial were also high on the list.

To quote the report, jurors:

“Will be exposed to testimony from visibly distressed victims, which will frequently be graphic and shocking. They will be expected to handle exhibits and examine explicit and gruesome photographs. When they retire to the jury room, they will have to rehearse such evidence and weigh up its significance for the guilt of the accused before reaching a verdict. They may find themselves in a minority on the jury, trying to change the minds of others while resisting pressures to conform to the majority view. All these processes have the potential to lead to significant distress, both in the short and longer term”.

 That’s in the UK. In a small jurisdiction like Gibraltar, where it’s much more likely that jury members will personally know the accused, the victim and/or their families, the potential levels of stress must surely be higher still. But jurors are expected to just get on with it. They don’t even have the benefit, as their UK counterparts do, of being shown a film explaining their duties before the trial starts, a measure that many see as insufficient anyway. What’s more, despite improvements to the infrastructure arrangements for juries, potential jurors waiting to be called still have to hang around in the Supreme Court precincts, mingling with defendants and witnesses.

Nearly a decade ago, following a public consultation, the GSD government introduced reforms to the jury system. These included abolishing many of the automatic exemptions from jury service that had hitherto existed (meaning that lawyers, MPs and teachers among others could now be asked to serve) and providing for lay assessors to sit alongside judges, or for judges to sit alone, in complex financial crime cases. The very question of whether trial by jury should be abolished was posed.

But while the 2008 consultation paper asked the public whether it thought there was any intimidation of jurors and what type of measures would best address this problem, it was silent on the potentially harmful effects to health that serving on a jury might have. Maybe the cry for help by the “12 good men (and women) and true” who decided the outcome of Gibraltar’s most recent murder trial will have the desired effect.

And the Oscar doesn’t go to …

Ahead of the Oscars ceremony last month Keira Kneightley asked a pertinent question: “how do you really judge any of it?” Interviewed in The Times, the twice-nominated actress suggested that unless all the players play exactly the same role in exactly the same film, and each director makes exactly the same script, it’s impossible to decide. All you can say, she concluded, is that you like one film better than the other.

While Ms Kneightley was referring mainly to the acting and directing awards the same surely applies to other categories. Take the most prestigious award of all, Best Picture. How, for instance, do you choose between an all-action superhero flick, a tear-jerking drama and a musical biography (viz. this year: Black Panther, Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody)?

As it all comes down to personal taste, these are some of my favourite films that never won the Oscar:

“2001: A Space Odyssey”. Despite regularly being voted the best science fiction film of all time by critics and audiences and its description in Wikipedia as one of the greatest and most influential films ever made, Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece wasn’t even nominated.  Kubrick himself got a nod in the Best Director category, but the sole statuette “2001” took home was for Special Visual Effects.

 

“Taxi Driver”. As part of his preparation for the starring role in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 psychological thriller, Robert De Niro lost 35 pounds, obtained a taxi driver’s licence, and when on break would pick up a taxi and drive around New York. The film introduced the world to a 12-year-old Jodie Foster and gave us “You Talkin’ to Me?”, one of cinema’s most quotable quotes. It topped a Time Out poll of the 100 greatest movies set in New York City and was selected for preservation in the US’s National Film Registry in 1994, twelve years before that year’s best picture winner, “Rocky”.

“The Shining”. OK so Kubrick is my favourite director and this is the second of his films featured here, but can anyone reasonably argue that this classic 1980 horror film, set in the Overlook Hotel, wasn’t unforgivably overlooked by the Academy? It wasn’t nominated for a single award, not even for Jack Nicholson’s spellbinding performance as Jack Torrance, the unhinged author who accepts a temporary position as the off-season caretaker of the aforementioned establishment. To add insult to injury Kubrick and Shelley Duvall, who plays Torrance’s scared-witless wife, were nominated for the mock Razzie Awards that recognise the worst in film. And they didn’t even win that.

Forrest Gump was 1994’s worthy winner but my choice would have been director Quentin Tarantino’s follow up to the also critically acclaimed Reservoir Dogs: Pulp Fiction. The review-aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes describes it as “outrageously violent, time twisting, and in love with language … widely considered the most influential American movie of the 1990s”. It received seven nominations but only took the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Other classic films to miss out on the top award include Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz, The Graduate, Apocalypse Now and Raging Bull.

Here’s a few films that are less well known: Don’t Look Now, Paths of Glory, Synecdoche New York, Donnie Darko, Zodiac. What do they all have in common? They’re great – and they didn’t get a single Academy Award nomination between them.

As for this year’s awards, I was pleased to see the unfancied Green Book take Best Picture, but disappointed that seven-times nominee Glenn Close is still waiting for a first Best Actress statuette despite her movingly impeccable performance as an unacknowledged author in “The Wife”.

Another Benidorm?

Nearly a year ago in this column I was fretting about the latest project to go before the Development and Planning Commission. How silly of me. The proposed multi-purpose building at Devil’s Tongue was to have a mere 15 floors. Positively dwarfed by what’s planned at Hassan Centenary Terraces. “Standing tall on the east side of Gibraltar”, boasts the website. Not half.

The six towers that between them will contain 665 flats will be of up to 35 storeys and rise to 110 metres. That’s more than double the height of the Tower Blocks in Glacis. I know we need affordable housing: the high level of interest from prospective purchasers proves it. But must they be packed in like sardines?

Three of Gibraltar’s most highly regarded NGOs are so worried that they took the unusual step of issuing a joint statement to outline their concerns. The Ornithological and Natural History Society, the Heritage Trust and the Environmental Safety Group complained that: “such tall buildings will create a precedent for the remaining, major plot awaiting development on the east side, creating a kind of Benidorm effect”. “The impact on beach users”, they added, “has not been assessed adequately”. And “the scale of these buildings, so close to the north face of the Rock and to the beach, will have a negative visual impact on our iconic landscape”.

What’s interesting is that these three organisations are all represented on the DPC. Given their strong objections, logic dictates that they would have voted against the scheme had they had an opportunity to do so. But as they point out: “Government projects are still not subjected to a vote. Thus, this project is presented (to the DPC) for comment, but not permission”.

Only when the new Town Planning Act is adopted will the government require the Commission’s approval before carrying out any development. The Act was passed and published in the Gazette last August, fully six months ago, but has still not come into effect. When will it? I asked. “When all necessary administrative and technical requirements are in place”, came the reply from Number Six Convent Place.

Which could be tomorrow, next year or never.

Let’s see how many more Hassan Centenary Terraces are sanctioned before government projects are finally reined in.

 

FONNAFLY FAUX PAS FIXED

Credit to Fonnafly, the Norwegian company due to start helicopter tours around Gibraltar in May. When I wrote this article for the Gibraltar Chronicle I berated them for describing  the Rock on their website as “a crown colony since 1830”. Happily this has been rectified and Gibraltar is now correctly referred to as a British Overseas Territory. Well done chaps!

 

 

 

Joining the Club

I declare an interest: I’ve just joined the board of trustees of Clubhouse Gibraltar. My only interest, mind, and it’s shared I’m sure by the other trustees, staff and members, is that this selfless organisation continues to flourish, as it provides ever-growing support to members of our community with mental health issues. The next target is new premises.

After operating for a couple of years from Toc H, where the dampness was affecting people’s health, Clubhouse were allocated “temporary” premises in Wellington Front in September 2013. It was supposed to be for one year only, to free them from what CEO Emily Adamberry Olivero describes as the “terrible conditions” they were working under, but five years on they’re still there. Plans to accommodate them in Rosia Road never materialised despite the keys to the intended premises having been handed over by the government and the Clubhouse logo being prominently displayed at the site.

This time though, it seems the move is actually going to happen. At the end of 2016 Clubhouse were told their permanent home would be at 304a Main Street, where the Gladys Perez centre is now, a stone’s throw from the residence of their recently appointed patron, Governor of Gibraltar Ed Davis. The Development and Planning Commission approved the plans, and GJBS is poised to carry out the necessary works. As far as the charity is concerned, the sooner it happens the better: with 160 current members Clubhouse badly needs more space. While the government has said it will meet the construction costs, extra funds are needed for things like furniture and equipment and to expand the services offered. The new premises will have a working kitchen and cafeteria, for instance.

One local entrepreneur has already dug deep into his pockets. Jimmy Attias has handed Clubhouse a cheque for £30,000 – the largest single private donation the charity has ever received. (Mr Attias has also generously donated £30,000 to Gibsams). At the presentation he urged others to follow his lead; the business community will soon have an opportunity to do so. Clubhouse are organising a fund raising Gala Dinner at the Sunborn Hotel in June, and will be asking companies to support the event, which will include an auction and a guest speaker.

After agreeing to become a trustee I was given an initial briefing by Emily and her team. I was bowled over by their dedication, and everything they do. Did you know that besides preparing and training members to get a job through their work-ordered day programme, they also provide after-hours support for carers and people who want to talk about depression and anxiety? Organise outings both locally and across the border? Produce a monthly, members-only newsletter? Run mental health first aid courses? They even have a reach-out programme to visit people at home, in prison or in hospital.

In a testimonial video on their website the Governor describes Clubhouse Gibraltar as a “compelling and inspiring example of the inclusive and mutually-supporting Gibraltarian community that goes out of its way every day to look after people in need”. I wholeheartedly agree. It provides an invaluable service, worthy of everyone’s support.

Be a good little colony and co-operate

There we have it. Spain wants to put the clock back and get the world at large, or at least the European Union, to start calling Gibraltar a colony again.

It would be easy to dismiss as sour grapes Madrid’s latest move, which would see a proposed EU law on visa-free travel classify Gibraltar as “a colony of the British Crown”: an act of petulance by Pedro Sánchez after he failed to secure a clause in the Brexit withdrawal agreement that would have enabled him to veto the application of any future UK/EU trade agreement to Gibraltar.

But there’s probably more to it than that.

According to reports, the Spanish government would expect the “colony” epithet to be used in all EU legislation regarding the UK after Brexit. So what, you might say? Sticks and stones and all that. But our chief minister immediately identified a potential long-term danger: if people think of Gibraltar as a colony they’ll be more likely to concur with Spain that the Rock should be decolonised in accordance with the principle of territorial integrity rather than going down the route of respecting the right to self-determination of its inhabitants.

I find it ironic though not surprising that even as Spain continues to do all it can to further its sovereignty ambitions, Gibraltar is expected to act as a good neighbour and co-operate. Witness the withdrawal agreement’s Gibraltar protocol and its associated memoranda of understanding.

These documents would oblige our government, among other things, to reduce the retail price of tobacco products, which would be linked with the price of equivalent products in Spain, and adopt a tax system aimed at “preventing fraudulent activities”, not just in respect of tobacco but alcohol and petrol as well. Gibraltar would be required to “achieve full transparency in tax matters”, therefore implicitly acknowledging some degree of opacity. And a committee with Madrid central government representation would be appointed to assess the environmental impact of things like (surprise, surprise) land reclamation and bunkering. It would also discuss “fishing activities”.

As I was writing this column I stumbled upon a Financial Times article from last September. It suggested that whereas it was envisaged that the withdrawal agreement would contain protocols on Northern Ireland and Cyprus there were no plans for one on Gibraltar. That idea was mooted by the Spanish government and went “beyond the original plans of EU negotiators”.

Small wonder that Spain is now anxious that the protocol and memoranda should survive a withdrawal agreement rejection, with foreign minister Josep Borrell claiming that even if Britain leaves the EU without a deal, agreements over Gibraltar would remain in place. Fabian Picardo has rejected this view insisting that without a withdrawal agreement the MoUs are not legally effective, but in these uncertain times no one can say for certain what would happen. What’s more, if the EU agrees to reopen negotiations on the Irish backstop Madrid may well demand that it do likewise over Gibraltar.

I remain convinced that the best outcome for us is that MPs stick to their guns and reject Theresa May’s deal each time she submits it to a vote in the Commons. That way we may end up with a second referendum and a vote to remain in the EU, which would render the Gibraltar protocol and everything else academic.

Gibraltar 100 years hence

Were you surprised that the UK voted to leave the European Union in the Brexit referendum? You really shouldn’t have been: it was anticipated a whopping 130 years ago!

At least, that’s one possible interpretation of an entry for a competition in 1888 to imagine what England would be like a century into the future. As rediscovered by Victorian pop-culture historian Dr Bob Nicholson, a long-defunct magazine called Answers asked its readers to foretell “What England will be like a Hundred Years hence?”

One crystal-ball gazer submitted the following:

“England will by her very policy of national aggrandisement slowly sink into the condition of a second-rate power (somewhat like Sweden of the present day), and her fall will in the end be accelerated by those whom she has in former years befriended. In the year 1988 she will hold no weight in the Councils of Europe”.

 It didn’t win, and the prediction is out by some three decades, but the entry would surely have been among the front-runners if the magazine could only have known how eerily prescient it was.

Many of the ideas floated were fanciful and never came to pass. “Ships, houses, railway lines and carriages are made of … unbreakable, indestructible paper”, for instance. Or, a “Continuous railway from London to Pekin though Siberia”.

But others were surprisingly accurate.

“Electricity will take the place of gas and coal in dwellings”, wrote one. (Thomas Edison’s light bulb had been around less than ten years). While another predicted that “Armies shall meet in the air”. (They did in 1914 with the outbreak of the Great War).

My favourite was the suggestion that “invasion is made impossible by the intellectual, self-acting pyro-aqua vengeance bombs”. I’m not sure what the author was on, but laudanum (a mixture of alcohol and opium) was extremely popular in Victorian England.

I wonder: might our editor be inspired to emulate Answers magazine and invite Chronicle readers to share their vision of the Rock in 100 years’ time?

Here’s my advance entry:

Our political status is settled. Following the secession of Catalonia, the return of Ceuta and Melilla to Morocco and the creation of an independent Basque nation, Spain lost the appetite to continue to press its sovereignty claim and agreed to recognise Gibraltar’s decolonisation through the principle of self-determination. We’ve been removed from the list of non-self-governing territories of the United Nations but it means little in practice, since that ineffectual organisation collapsed soon afterwards.

In contrast with the UN the European Union is going from strength to strength, bolstered by the UK’s decision to stay in after all and its enlargement to 40 members. Gibraltar benefitted greatly from continuing EU membership. Our finance centre ranks among the top five in the world and income from tourism is at an all-time high, thanks in no small measure to the decision of leading cruise companies to choose Gibraltar as their home port for Mediterranean cruises.

A new era of rapprochement has seen the dismantling of the Gibraltar-La Línea frontier and relations with our nearest neighbour are vastly improved. Forty thousand Campo residents earn their living in Gibraltar and many local businesses have expanded across the border. Spanish is again being widely spoken by Gibraltarians, who increasingly shunned it during the years that Madrid’s claim to our land endured.

One blot on the horizon, or several to be more accurate, is the proliferation of cheap, 3D-printed high-rise buildings to create office space and accommodation for an ever-increasing workforce and resident population. But on the plus side the advent of the flying car has eliminated the Rock’s critical traffic, parking and congestion problem. Not to mention the need for cycle lanes.