The case for assisted dying

I have a suggestion for the government.

Having drawn up a Command Paper on abortion, why not also consider drafting one on assisted dying? It’s an emotive issue I know. Even the term is controversial: those in favour of it generally use this expression, while opponents consider it a euphemism and call it “assisted suicide” instead. I prefer the former.

We live in an age of social revolution. Twenty-five years ago homosexual activity was illegal in Gibraltar; today, gay couples can marry and adopt children. Abortion is still punishable in our community by life imprisonment yet as we all know a vigorous debate is ongoing as to whether it should be decriminalised.

Many will oppose assisted dying, as they may abortion, on religious grounds. But there are also cogent arguments against it that have nothing to do with religion.

One is that vulnerable people, especially the elderly and the disabled, could feel under pressure to end their lives in order to cease being a burden on relatives: the right to die becoming the duty to die.

Another is that legalising assisted dying leads to a slippery slope. In Belgium, euthanasia (defined in my Oxford Dictionary as “the painless killing of a patient suffering from an incurable and painful disease or in an irreversible coma”) was legalised in 2002. Just 24 people were euthanised that year but by 2016/17 the number had risen to more than 4,300. And whereas at the outset euthanasia was only available to adults, in 2014 the law was extended to terminally ill children of any age.

There’s also the sense that campaigners will always demand more. The Netherlands officially allows euthanasia only in cases of “hopeless and unbearable” suffering, but has reportedly sanctioned it for conditions such as tinnitus and loss of vision. Some years ago there was a citizens’ initiative for assisted dying to be legalised for anyone over 70 who feels “tired of life” and the debate still rumbles on.

But are these powerful arguments sufficient reason to deny someone who is in constant, unremitting pain, with no hope of recovering, the dignity of dying on their own terms?

As Lord Falconer, a former Lord Chancellor and ex chair of the Commission on Assisted Dying says in a recent newspaper article, “It is an inescapable fact that some people who are dying, with full mental and emotional capacity, no longer want to live. Who no longer want to exist for a few more days or weeks or months facing nothing but medical procedures. Who have said their goodbyes. Who hate the increasing indignity of their last illness. Who want to be in control”.

Meanwhile Dr Ellen Wiebe, a GP in Canada with 40 years’ experience who’s provided about 150 assisted deaths since the legislation authorising it was passed in 2016, says when she tells patients they’re eligible, most of them are relieved and grateful. She believes assisted death can be an insurance policy against a bad death and gives people comfort when facing the end of life.

Why should someone have to go to Dignitas in Switzerland to end their days? It’s elitist for a start: not everyone can afford it. And however kind and sympathetic the clinicians may be, the fact is the patient will die among strangers in a foreign country, far away from their friends and family. They may also die sooner than they have to, as they must be well enough to travel and give their formal consent.

Alternatively, patients who are unable for whatever reason to go abroad and instead seek the help of a compassionate doctor or relative will be troubled by the knowledge that whoever helps them will risk prosecution. In the UK the maximum sentence for helping a dying person end their own life is 14 years in jail. Appropriate legislation would remove the need for such drastic measures and provide peace of mind for all concerned.

Across the western world support for assisted dying is growing. An Ipsos/MORI poll for The Economist found that of 15 countries surveyed only two (Poland and Russia) were against it for terminally ill adults. In the UK a survey of 733 doctors indicated that 55% agreed or strongly agreed with it, while 43% were against. Assisted dying is now allowed in eight US States and 69% of Americans in a 2016 Gallup poll said they were in favour when the patient has an incurable disease.

Isn’t it time we in Gibraltar also spoke up about this, just as we’re doing with abortion? The Pro Choice lobby says that only a woman can decide whether to continue with a pregnancy, as the decision involves her body alone. If that’s so, doesn’t the same logic apply to someone who’s terminally ill or in intolerable pain?

What was the hurry?

According to the latest Aviation Consumer Survey by the UK Civil Aviation Authority, satisfaction with flying among passengers in the UK has fallen in the last two years. Although the figure is still high the survey, published in August, indicates that the proportion of consumers who were satisfied with the overall travel experience in their last flight fell from 90% in Spring 2016 to 83% this Spring. I was interested, but not surprised, to read that passengers were particularly unhappy with how airports and airlines respond to disruption and delay.

Neither was it a shock to learn that passengers are typically less satisfied with the in-flight experience than other aspects of flying. It’s not that long ago the admittedly higher price of an airline ticket would buy you a hot meal and complimentary drinks. Now you have to pay for a bottle of water and hope they haven’t run out of the five-quid ‘turkey feast’ sandwiches. As I said in a previous post my holiday, which used to start when I boarded the plane, now doesn’t until I’ve arrived at my destination.

Which brings me to my latest trip.

A couple of weeks ago my son and I were at Gibraltar International Airport to take a British Airways flight to Heathrow. We’d got there in good time and were about to tuck in to a snack when a public address announcement informed us we should prepare to board. We found this odd, as it was fully an hour before the scheduled departure time of 3.20pm. We stashed our sandwiches into our hand luggage and dutifully complied, as did our fellow passengers.

Boarding went without a hitch, and soon everyone was strapped in, ready for take off. The pilot said he was hoping to get clearance so we could depart early. Again, I thought this strange: can a flight leave ahead of schedule just like that? Aren’t there ‘slots’ that have to be respected?

Sure enough the minutes went by, and there on the tarmac we remained. Not even a glass of water was offered. Eventually at around twenty past three, when we should have been taking off, the pilot again in that irritatingly insouciant tone of theirs.

Regrettably we wouldn’t be able to leave for another 45 minutes or so. It wasn’t his fault, it was down to air traffic control in France. Now, I know that French air traffic controller strikes are responsible for 33% of all delays in Europe (according to a recent French senate report), but I don’t think there was a strike. At least I found no evidence of one when I Googled it in my hotel that evening. It’s not the first time I’ve heard this excuse, and it’s starting to wear a little thin.

A lady beside me was upset because she had been about to feed her baby in the departure lounge when the call to board came. She was now stuck on the plane, unable to tend to her impeccably behaved, but hungry, daughter. The mum asked for a complaint form, so did I. Back came the reply that it wasn’t BA’s fault, we should complain to the airport. No form was provided. Another passenger was indignant because two friends had decided to travel with him at the last minute but couldn’t get a ticket as the gate had closed ahead of time.

Isn’t it high time airline passengers were treated with respect, rather than the contempt that seems to have become the norm? As we waited I saw from our window a military transport aircraft take off. As soon as it did, we were taxiing for take off. Was that the real reason for the delay? Did the MoD flight disrupt ours or was it truly down to French air traffic controllers? I guess we’ll never know.

Should Ranked Choice Voting be used in Gibraltar elections?

It’s an old chestnut I know, but is our current voting system the best for Gibraltar?

The Commission on Democratic and Political Reform that reported in January 2013 concluded that the present block vote system has, “despite its deficiencies, served Gibraltar well over the years since its inception and should be retained”. But it noted that there was only a slight majority in favour of it among those who responded to the consultation paper, and the Commission itself did not have a unanimous position: in a minority report, Robert Vasquez QC suggested there were many ways in which the existing system “can and should be improved” and he advocated the adoption of a “Parallel System” combining proportional representation with the first-past-the-post system that’s used in the UK.

I was prompted to write on this subject after reading about the primaries to choose the Democratic Party’s candidate for mayor in Maine. For the first time, this north-easternmost US state conducted the election using what the Americans call ranked choice voting, or RCV. Elsewhere it’s better known as STV, the single transferrable vote, and is used in countries like Australia, Ireland and Malta. The system allows electors to rank as many, or as few, candidates as they like in order of preference. In contrast, at general elections in Gibraltar we can only vote for a maximum of ten candidates, even though there are seventeen seats in parliament, and there’s no mechanism to reflect that we prefer one candidate to another.

With RCV, candidates do best when they attract a solid core of first-choice support but also garner plenty of second, and even third choice votes. That’s because once a candidate reaches the threshold required to be elected, any surplus votes go to voters’ second choices, and so on until the total number of seats have been allocated.

Research shows that RCV boosts voter turnout. A study of 79 elections in 26 American cities found that it was associated with a 10% increase in turnout compared with non-RCV primary elections. In a Gibraltar context, it could increase the chances of independent candidates getting elected.

Furthermore, advocates say the system also helps reduce partisanship and negative campaigning, as candidates must try to appeal not just to their traditional supporters but to a wider cross section of the electorate.

This should resonate strongly on the Rock where so many of us, me included, are turned off by the divisive nature of our politics. In the Maine election two of the outsiders figured they might improve their prospects by campaigning for second-place votes. Accordingly, both asked their supporters to also vote for the other.

I’m not holding my breath waiting for Fabian Picardo and Keith Azopardi to do likewise, even though they started off as political stablemates. But anything that might encourage our elected representatives to, if nothing else, be civil to each other is surely worth considering.

The Economist newspaper summed it up well: “RCV may be unable to force liberals and conservatives to like each other, but it could at least blunt the electoral effects of hyperpartisanship”.

Oh for the humble parking meter!

There can be few greater pleasures in life than getting the better of those imposing ticket-dispensing machines at the pay-and-display car parks managed by Gibraltar Car Parks Limited. There they stand, like the monoliths in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ with buttons on, and just as inscrutable. “Go on”, they seem to be saying, “ I dare you!”

My first close encounter with them was at the airport and I was in a hurry. In front of me, a tourist was trying to pay with little success. Eventually he asked someone for help; they both stared blankly at the contraption. They poked at this, prodded at that, and – gave up. The poor chap left, fuming and ticketless, muttering something in a language I was glad I didn’t understand.

At last, my turn.

I strode up confidently and soon wished I hadn’t been so smug. There I was, confronted with a front panel as complicated as the flight deck on the Discovery One from the aforementioned sci-fi flick. Where to start? My eyes were drawn towards the intimidating, 44-button, centre section.

It took me a while to suss out that you have to press the hard-to-spot white ‘start’ button to get things going. A screen lights up and instructs you to enter your vehicle’s registration number. You have to be quick, otherwise the system cuts out and you have to start all over again. (Spare a thought here for the visitor in a hire car who doesn’t know the number plate and has to go and check, in the meantime losing his place in the queue). Once you’ve overcome this hurdle you use the blue ‘plus’ and ‘minus’ buttons to key in for how long you need to be parked.

And that’s when the fun starts.

At the Ragged Staff car park on another day I tried paying in cash. Three hours, three quid. Simple. Except that my second pound coin was gulped down without registering on the screen. In the good old straightforward days if a slot machine rejected a coin it spewed it out. Not anymore apparently. It stayed in, and the only way to retrieve it was by cancelling the whole operation and starting from the beginning, re-entering the registration number. Why, pray, are so many coins rejected? Now I’m wise to the problem I carry an assortment of local and UK coins, new and old, to maximise my chances of success. But you can’t expect everyone to do this. Again, consider the hapless visitor.

Contactless payment with my debit card didn’t work either. It kept my three pounds, that I never bothered to claim back, but didn’t issue the requisite ticket. Only when I used the card in the conventional manner, manually keying in the number, was I successful, and even then authorisation took ages; I ended up being fifteen minutes late for an appointment.

I never imagined I would be nostalgic about such things, but whatever happened to the trusty old parking meter?

Unenlightened?

Look up at the Moorish Castle these days and you’ll see a huge Gibraltar flag hanging from it. At night the Tower is also lit up in red and white. Naturally it’s to mark our national celebrations that culminate on National Day. I wonder what Tariq ibn Ziyad would make of it: Gibraltar’s most venerable monument used as a glitzy screen?

From a chess piece to a backgammon board, it’s had it all. It’s also been illuminated in all the colours of the rainbow – quite literally on one occasion. Blue is for Childline, Diabetes and Prostate Cancer Awareness. Green denotes either World Down Syndrome Day or National Cerebral Palsy Day. Yellow signifies Mental Health Week, while red promotes Cardiac Arrest Awareness.

Purple, meanwhile, is for Pancreatic Cancer, Scouts’ and Guides’ Thinking Day and the Relay for Life. If it’s pink it’s Lunar Walk Day and cyan (greenish-blue) stands for Deaf Awareness.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with any of this, but I would make just two observations. Do something too often and it loses its impact. In the past if the Castle was lit up it was special and everyone would take a look. Nowadays, it’s met with a shrug of the shoulder.

Secondly it’s hard to keep track of what the different colours represent without experiencing Awareness Fatigue.

Autism Awareness

“If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium” is a 1969 romantic comedy that pokes fun at the whirlwind nature of European tour schedules. Paraphrasing, we may ponder that “If It’s Orange, It Must Be National Obesity Week” … or something. And yes, before someone points it out I know orange already marks Multiple Sclerosis Day.

As for the rainbow illumination, that was in memory of the victims of a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida two years ago. The diversity flag was also flown at half-mast from Number Six Convent Place.

And here’s where I start to feel uncomfortable with gestures of this kind. Following terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015 that left at least 130 dead, the French tricolour was projected onto the Tower of Homage and the chief minister and his staff observed a solemn two-minutes silence.

Four months later there was a repeat with the black, yellow and red of Belgium after 32 civilians were killed in a wave of suicide bombings in Brussels. Letters of condolence were sent to the French president and the Belgian prime minister.

But less than a fortnight before the Paris atrocities, 224 passengers and crew died when a faction of Islamic State shot down an airliner that had just taken off from the tourist resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Why didn’t Gibraltar then stand shoulder to shoulder with Egypt and display the colours of its flag?

The attacks in the French capital (as those in Belgium) were contemptible, but no fewer than six terror incidents in 2015 were even deadlier.

Three of them occurred in Nigeria. The worst, in January, claimed up to two thousand lives. Yet I don’t remember seeing the colours of that country officially displayed. Nor  those of Yemen, Kenya, Syria, Iraq or Turkey, all nations that lost many lives that year as a consequence of terrorism.

That’s the problem with this kind of well-meaning act. Where do you draw the line? And what happens when publicly expressing sympathy is politically awkward? When 14 civilians died in two attacks in Catalonia last summer, the red and yellow of Spain was conspicuous by its absence. Instead, the Moorish Castle’s illuminations were switched off altogether.

Come to think of it, that’s a much more respectful way to mourn the dead. Save the bright lights, if we must have them, for when we have a reason to celebrate.

Quite Clueless

 Much has already been said and written about the government’s ultra-quick U-turn in blocking night-time access to its beaches webcam site, after a camera at Eastern Beach captured presumed smugglers at work on its first night.

“The beaches website is offline in the evenings exclusively as a result of issues relating to data protection which have been brought to the government’s attention by its legal advisers”, Number Six Convent Place told GBC.

Which left me scratching my head. After all, six of the ten ministers who sit around the Cabinet table are lawyers, among them two QCs: didn’t this potential danger (New) dawn on any of them before the system went live?

Airport talks taking off?

Something tells me that whatever behind the scenes discussions over Gibraltar Airport are taking place with the new Spanish socialist government, they must be going well. Otherwise I’m sure chief minister Fabian Picardo would not have announced, unprompted, that the runway will have to be extended in the next 10-15 years in order to accommodate the next generation of Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 passenger aircraft. He said so on GBC’s Direct Democracy programme, adding that the matter needs to be put on the agenda quite soon.

For Spain the airport is built on Spanish soil. It argues that the isthmus was not ceded under the Treaty of Utrecht and that it was therefore usurped by the British. This sensitivity explains why the final text of the 1984 Brussels Agreement referred to “issues of sovereignty”, in the plural. Spanish governments of every stripe have historically opposed any expansion of Gibraltar’s land mass, as Felipe González’s PSOE did in relation to the land reclamation project of the first GSLP administration in the late 1980s.

Against this background, it’s inconceivable that the chief minister would have publicly flagged the need for a longer runway unless he knew there would not be an instant adverse reaction from Madrid. Mr Picardo confirmed on Direct Democracy that discreet talks about the airport are already taking place, hinting that ministers will get involved if sufficient progress is made by officials to pave the way for the start of formal negotiations.

They should all get on with it. Pedro Sánchez has, at most, two years left in La Moncloa before a general election is due. That’s if his fragile minority government doesn’t fall first. Current opinion polls suggest the outcome of the next election will be close, with a return to office of the Populares a real possibility. (Led, if he has his way, by Gibraltar’s old foe, ex foreign minister José Manuel García-Margallo, one of seven leadership candidates). If that happens expect a hard line once again from the party that dismantled the Tripartite Forum for Dialogue, tore up the 2006 Córdoba Agreements including one on the airport, and created an almighty palaver over the mere sinking of a few concrete blocks near the runway to create an artificial reef.

The centre-right Ciudadanos party are also in the running, and their declared hardline policy on “tax havens” doesn’t augur well for us in the event that Albert Rivera becomes the next prime minister.

For the sake of everyone who wants the use of our airport to be maximised for the benefit of both Gibraltar and the Campo, I hope the foundations for a terminal on the Spanish side of the frontier are physically – not just metaphorically – laid before the next Spanish government is elected. Then maybe, just maybe, it will actually be built.

New music for Oldies

How do people of a certain age discover new music?

It’s easy enough when you’re young. Your friends, classmates and work colleagues will tell you all about the groups and artists they like and vice versa. But it becomes harder as you grow older. You tend to socialise less and stay at home more. And you find, at least I did, that most conventional radio stations play music that appeals to listeners half your age at most.

You can of course read the music magazines. I subscribe to Classic Rock, and it’s been instrumental (groan!) in bringing to my attention some of my favourite current bands like Anathema and Band of Skulls. But these publications aren’t cheap and inevitably much of their content will be irrelevant to you as it’ll be about performers you’re not especially fond of. Then there’s the Internet, but where to start?

Well, let me give you a tip that won’t cost you anything.

Most of you will have heard of the music-streaming service Spotify. Its Premium plan costs £9.99 a month, less than the cost of a CD, and gives you unlimited access to more than 30 million tracks that you can even download to your computer or device. It’s well worth the outlay in my opinion.

But if you aren’t fussed about downloading and are prepared to put up with ads and lower quality audio (160Kbps compared with Premium’s 320Kbps) you can use Spotify free, gratis and for nothing. Spotify learns from your listening habits. It suggests music it thinks you may enjoy based on your choices so far, and even puts together daily mixes similar to the genius playlists you get on iTunes. There’s also Discover Weekly in which the site offers you a “mixtape of fresh music” every Monday with “new discoveries and deep cuts chosen just for you”.

These playlists can be a bit hit-and-miss, but here’s a trick I learned that increases the chances you’ll like the recommended music. Play an album by a favourite artist, or just the last track, but don’t stop or pause it when it reaches the end. If you allow play to continue, Spotify enters “album radio” mode. While essentially this is also a playlist in my experience it will more accurately reflect your taste by combining songs by that artist and, crucially, others similar to it. You can even refine the “radio” by giving individual tracks the thumbs up or down. Now, that truly is music to an old codger’s ears.

And so it begins

The wait is finally over. The most eagerly anticipated global sports event, the quadrennial football fest that is the World Cup, is underway. As a pensioner now, it’ll be the first time I can watch every match without having to take annual leave, and I fully intend to: there’s 64 of them, so family beware!

MISSING HEAVYWEIGHTS

Before discussing the potential winners, a moment’s silence for two notable absentees. The Dutch reached the final in 1974, 1978 and 2010, and finished third four years ago, but they’ve not qualified this time around. Their famous orange shirts, so dashingly sported by Johan Cruyff’s golden generation, will be sorely missed.

So will those of gli azzurri. For the first time in 60 years Italy, one of the giants of world football, have failed to make the cut. For a nation that’s won the trophy four times and appeared in two other finals it’s the greatest humiliation since 1966 when Sandro Mazzola, Gianni Rivera and company were beaten by North Korea and returned home in disgrace. Reports that coach Gian Piero Ventura, sacked after Italy’s loss to Sweden in the playoffs last November, is in hiding from the mob are apparently unfounded!

THE ALSO-RANS

So, to those who have made it to Russia. In a previous column I reluctantly discarded England. They have a young, inexperienced team that will hopefully stand them in good stead for the future, but the quarter finals is the best they can reasonably aspire to in my opinion. The hosts, meanwhile, have a poor side and are currently 70th in the FIFA rankings, the lowest of all 32 participating teams. After yesterday’s 5-0 thrashing of Saudi Arabia they may well get out of their group, but that’s as far as I reckon they’ll go.

With all due respect to them, I also rule out the representatives of the Asian Football Confederation: Australia, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia (especially after yesterday’s result) and Iran. None is better than 200-1 with the bookies, and they know a thing or two. Debutants Panama and Iceland are already celebrating; any goals or points they get will be a bonus.

No African nation has ever won the World Cup and I don’t expect that to change this year. I hope our neighbours Morocco do well, although they have their work cut out in a group that includes Spain and Portugal. Keep an eye out for Senegal though. They’re in an evenly matched group and could progress at the expense of Poland or Colombia.

As usual the main contenders will be from Europe and South America. Eight countries from these two federations have shared all 20 World Cups between them. Can anyone break their hegemony and inscribe their name on the trophy on July 15th?

THE OUTSIDERS

Belgium seem the best bet. They have an outstanding squad and two of the world’s finest outfield players in Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne. Goalie Thibaut Courtois and striker Romelu Lukaku aren’t too shabby either.

Croatia, with Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, have possibly the best central midfield duo of the competition. And you discount reigning European champions Portugal, complete with five-time Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldo, at your peril.

In the end though experience and squad depth are crucial, and that’s why it’s difficult to see beyond five teams for the title, all of them previous champions.

THE GENUINE CONTENDERS

After their disastrous 2014 campaign when they were thrashed 5-1 by Netherlands and also lost to Chile, Spain have rebuilt and are in with a chance. They beat Italy 3-0 on their way to qualification and have not lost a match in nearly two years. Recent results include a 6-1 hammering of Argentina in March. The physical condition of midfield maestro Andrés Iniesta could be crucial to Spain’s fortunes. Iniesta became a legend after scoring the only goal of the 2010 final, but he’s now 34 and will be playing his football next season in the less demanding Japanese league, after 16 years at Barcelona. Will he stay fit enough to help his team-mates through to the latter stages? Another doubt surrounds the sacking of coach Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the tournament: will it unsettle or motivate the team?

With the mentioned 6-1 reverse against Spain and a lacklustre qualifying campaign, twice-winners Argentina don’t look at their best. They also have the oldest squad in the tournament. But in Leo Messi they possess one of the best players ever to grace a football field, worthy of being mentioned alongside legends like Di Stéfano, Pelé and Maradona. Messi turns 31 during the competition, which means this is probably his last chance to lift the coveted gold trophy. With a strong supporting cast that includes Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín and Ángel Di María who’s to say he won’t succeed?

France are notoriously inconsistent, and there are doubts about the effectiveness of coach Didier Deschamps. But he’s blessed with a staggeringly good squad. On their day, France can beat anyone. Real Madrid’s Raphaël Varane and Barcelona’s Samuel Umtiti form a redoubtable centre-back pairing. In midfield there’s Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté while a front line led by Antoine Griezmann should guarantee plenty of goals. Watch out too for rising stars Thomas Lemar and Kylian Mbappé.

THE FAVOURITES

That leaves just Brazil and Germany, the two most successful sides in World Cup history with five and four wins apiece respectively. Not surprisingly, they’re first and second favourites.

Germany, previously West Germany, have actually been in more finals: eight to Brazil’s seven. They’re the reigning world champions of course and, despite the retirement of key players like Bastian Schweinsteiger and Philipp Lahm, they remain a formidable proposition. They sailed through qualification, winning all ten matches and conceding only four goals. The squad has bags of experience: Manuel Neuer (if he’s fit) in goal, one of the world’s best centre backs in Jérôme Boateng, and midfielders Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira. It’s in attack where there may be a slight concern. Thomas Müller isn’t an out-and-out striker and Mario Gomez isn’t the best centre forward Die Mannschaft have ever had. On the other hand 22-year-old Timo Werner, with seven goals in twelve international matches, could be one of the stars of the tournament.

Finally, Brazil.

Four years ago they were in crisis. As hosts they struggled past Chile and Colombia in the knockout stages, before being mauled by Germany in the semi finals. They lost 7-1, the worst defeat in Brazil’s history, and were also thumped 3-0 by Netherlands in the third-place play off match. The omens weren’t good at the start of the campaign for this World Cup either; a third of the way through, they were outside the qualification places. But a change of manager had the desired effect. Dunga was dumped and his replacement, Tite, restored much of the attacking flair the yellow jerseys are famous for. They eventually topped the South American section, ten points clear of second-placed Uruguay.

MY TIP

Brazil have won all their World Cup warm up games against Russia as well as Germany, Croatia and Austria. Their swagger is back, and they’re my tip for the tournament. Wouldn’t it be great if they met Germany in the final?

A New Dawn in Spain?

Gibraltar breathed a collective sigh of relief this month when Mariano Rajoy’s Partido Popular government was toppled in the most dramatic of fashions. After seven years at the helm, the “Teflon” prime minister, survivor of Spain’s economic crisis and corruption scandal after corruption scandal, became the first since the restoration of democracy to be ousted through a motion of no confidence. To make defeat even more unpalatable, the knife was wielded by Pedro Sanchez, leader of the socialist PSOE party, whom Mr Rajoy had comfortably beaten in the quickfire elections of 2015 and 2016.

It’s no mean feat. Under the Spanish constitution, simply mustering the required number of votes to get rid of the incumbent premier is not enough: the motion must also specify who would replace him. Mr Sanchez isn’t even an MP (he gave up his seat in October 2016 after the PSOE decided to abstain in Mr Rajoy’s investiture enabling the PP leader to form a minority government) so persuading seven other parties to support his candidacy can’t have been easy.

What happens next isn’t clear. With only 84 seats in the 350-seat parliament the socialists are extremely vulnerable. Whether Pedro Sanchez can get MPs who were united in their distaste for Mr Rajoy and the PP to now back the PSOE’s policies remains to be seen. Some pundits foresee an early general election. Whenever the election takes place, the possibility exists that the Populares will get back in. We in Gibraltar will also be nervous about what a new and therefore inexperienced Spanish administration may bring, especially in the context of Brexit.

But before worrying about any of that let’s savour the moment; it’s been a tough seven years after all. Foreign minister Margallo’s infamous “Gibraltar español” quip immediately set the tone and there was no let up. Long frontier queues in the sweltering summer heat, unfounded accusations of money laundering and opaqueness, incursions by sea and air and, unforgivably, the abandonment of the Trilateral Forum for Dialogue and the hard-won 2006 Córdoba Agreements.

There’s no doubt that, historically, relations with our nearest neighbours have been better when the PSOE has been in power. Spain may have been obliged to reopen the border in the 1980s if it wanted to be admitted as a member of the European Economic Community but, whatever the circumstances, it was a socialist, Felipe González, who finally ended the 16-year blockade.

The mentioned Trilateral Forum, which for the first time recognised Gibraltar’s own separate voice in talks, would never even have been contemplated by the PP. And without ever renouncing Spain’s objective of recovering the Rock, socialist foreign ministers, in particular Fernando Morán and Miguel Ángel Moratinos, came to earn the respect of the Gibraltarians. Chief minister Fabian Picardo even shared a platform with Mr Moratinos at a 2015 lecture in San Roque during which the ex Spanish foreign minister called for a return to dialogue.

Mr Picardo evidently sees the opportunity of an unexpected thaw in relations. In his prompt message of congratulations to Pedro Sanchez he spoke of Gibraltar’s desire to bring “dialogue, understanding and cooperation to the issues that arise between our people”. And he expressed the wish that the ideology of the new Spanish government and how it engages with Number Six Convent Place “may change”.

Early signs are good. The PSOE’s international relations secretary has said he expects a “flexible” approach from his government over Gibraltar and that the socialists are committed to a deal that prevents the border becoming an obstacle after Brexit.

A new dawn? We’ll have to wait and see.

World Cup Willies

I fear for England.

Not because of Brexit: there’s time enough to worry about that. No, the danger I see is much closer at hand and potentially just as damaging for the national psyche. I am of course referring to the World Cup, international football’s flagship competition, which gets underway in Russia on 14 June.

England’s 1966 mascot

At eight years old I was too young to appreciate England’s only triumph, in 1966 on home soil. I read somewhere that the final was the first programme in colour on British television but I don’t recall the matches being shown live at all on TV in Gibraltar. I had to wait until the feature film “Goal!” came to the cinema before seeing any of the action.

I was thrilled, but it’s been pretty much downhill all the way for us fans since then.

As holders in 1970 England lost 1-0 in the group stage to the brilliant Brazilians, the eventual winners. Nevertheless I have fond memories of that match: Gordon Banks’s famous fingertips save from Pelé’s downward header for one and the iconic images of Pelé and Bobby Moore smiling as they exchanged shirts at the end of the game. Besides, England still went through to the quarter-finals as group runners-up.

It was in that encounter against West Germany that I experienced my first proverbial “sick as a parrot” feeling in football. Alf Ramsey’s side was 2-0 up with twenty minutes to go when he made possibly the worst decision of his illustrious managerial career. With one eye prematurely on the semis, he took off the talismanic Bobby Charlton and immediately handed the Germans the initiative. They took full advantage, going on to win 3-2 after extra time.

The hangover from that defeat lasted 12 years as England failed to qualify for either of the next two Finals. I was glued to the radio for commentary on the must-win clash with Poland at Wembley on 17 October 1973.

Grzegorz Lato, top scorer with 7 goals

A combination of bad luck – the home side had 36 shots on goal and hit the woodwork twice – and ‘keeper Jan Tomaszewski’s heroics enabled the Poles to come away with a draw and the English were eliminated. Mind you Poland ended up being one of the revelations of the 1974 World Cup. They finished third, beating Argentina, Italy and Brazil along the way and striker Grzegorz Lato won the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer.

Italy was the nemesis in 1978 qualification; England missed out on goal difference and also failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup in the USA. Gary Lineker did win the Golden Boot in 1986 but the only other modest success came in 1990. Guided by Bobby Robson England reached the semi-finals, where they lost to West Germany (again) in a penalty shoot-out.

From 1998 onwards no England team has gone further than the last eight. In Brazil 2014 the Three Lions were more like pussycats; they lost to Italy and Uruguay and managed only a goalless draw against Costa Rica to finish bottom of Group D.

This time around the nation will demand more. Wins against Tunisia and tournament first-timers Panama would ensure qualification for the knockout stage before the showdown with top seeds Belgium on 28 June, but that’s easier said than done. Tunisia are just one place below England in the FIFA rankings and if you’re thinking Panama will be a soft touch, cast your mind back to the European Championships two years ago and the humiliating defeat and elimination by lowly Iceland.

I can at least offer one crumb of comfort.

However England fares it will have done better than four-time winners Italy and three-time finalists Holland. Both will be absent from Russia 2018.