By Gavin St Pier
I’VE never been to Gibraltar but I’ve long admired the fact that for a territory considerably smaller than the Channel Islands, and with a population a third of the size of Jersey’s, it punches well above its weight, with a profile and reputation in the UK that often appears to exceed our own.
The latest example of this was its representation at Her Majesty’s state funeral this week. Gibraltar was represented by its Governor and Chief Minister. Jersey by its Bailiff (as acting Lieutenant-Governor) and Guernsey by its Lieutenant-Governor and his wife. The soft political power that comes with the opportunity to be – and to be seen to be – in the same place as larger jurisdictions’ political leaders, such as the Foreign Secretary’s reception after the funeral, should not be underestimated. A few words of greeting diplomatically exchanged while waiting in a line carry disproportionate weight.
Given that our relationship with the Crown predates Gibraltar’s by some seven centuries, how has tiny Gibraltar ended up in a different league and what can we learn from it? Some of it may be accounted for by force of personality. Gibraltar’s current Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, has not only been in the post ten years – providing a stability in political leadership that the Channel Islands cannot offer – but he is also (as have been some of his predecessors) a forceful and charismatic individual. That is a diplomatic way of saying he’s not afraid to use pointy elbows to advance his territory’s causes.
Gibraltar as a colony, now overseas territory, has a different relationship with the UK government. The Channel Islands’ (and Isle of Man’s) primary contact is through the Ministry of Justice, the overseas territories’ is with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. While the Ministry of Justice is headed by a Secretary of State – currently Brandon Lewis – carrying one of the ancient offices of state, the Lord Chancellor, that role has vastly diminished in recent years and the ministry and its leadership are politically outranked by the Foreign Secretary and the Foreign Office. In short, the overseas territories’ UK political contacts have a bit more heft within the UK government than our own.
The presence of the Royal Navy to control the strategically important Straits of Gibraltar – ever since the isthmus was ceded to Great Britain in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 – has probably strengthened the perception of the territory’s significance in the British national consciousness.
The Channel Islands, of course, historically had a similar, vital strategic military role as a bulwark against the French across many centuries, which only really ceased with the advent of the Entente Cordiale, when two erstwhile adversaries became firm allies (even if the new UK Prime Minister thinks the jury is out on whether President Macron is friend or foe). Our significance in British history is simply not as well known or recognised in modern-day Britain.
Credit where it is due. Both main Channel Islands have excellent teams of officials dealing with both external affairs and communications. But, I assume, given – in both absolute terms and relative to their size and our own – that their team of officials dealing with these matters is small, Gibraltar must be extraordinarily effective at its PR and self-promotion. They rapidly respond to those events that call for a response. Significantly, this is also done with consistent and disciplined style, tone and voice from the Chief Minister’s office. The Channel Islands have multiple voices and channels: the Chief Minister, the External Relations Minister and often – issue dependent – the Bailiff’s Office may chime in too, all then duplicated by the other island.
And this touches on another significant difference between our jurisdictions. The development of the systems of government in the Channel Islands since the Second World War, with the transfer of executive decision-making from the Royal Courts headed by the Bailiff to democratically elected assemblies, has been a gradual one. During this evolution, no doubt recognising personalities and personal sensitivities over the decades, the historic pre-eminence of the Royal Court has remained.
We saw this again recently during the procession in Guernsey for the official proclamations of the new King, with the Royal Court and advocates preceding elected officials. No elected politicians have ever either felt emboldened enough or considered it important enough to challenge this.
Meanwhile, in contrast, in Gibraltar the Chief Minister has an official car and driver. Such a public expense to signal the importance of the office of Chief Minister may carry disproportionate weight with visiting dignitaries to justify such a bauble, whether or not it is truly needed in a territory far smaller than our own.
In another contrast with the Channel Islands, Gibraltar also has a tradition of party politics, with the leader of the largest party taking the top political job.
The barriers to having a singular, pre-eminent, authoritative political leader representing Guernsey or Jersey are many and significant. While there are frequent calls for strong political leadership, when the crunch comes, the communities will actually take some persuading that such leadership is a good thing for the islands, with the reaction more likely to be that some political upstart has got too big for their boots. The unelected – like the monarchy itself – will continue to be more popular and subject to less scrutiny than the elected. That’s why there is unlikely to be any political representation of the islands at the King’s coronation when it comes, even if the Gibraltarian Chief Minister is present. And, while it may seem like a small thing, that’s why Gibraltar will continue to punch above its weight – and ours.
Gavin St Pier is a Guernsey politician. He previously served as the President of the island’s Policy and Resources Committee.