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GIBRALTAR – A small crowd gathered at one of the only terrestrial borders that British territory shares with the EU. The frontier was closed by General Franco in 1969 and re-opened as part of Spain’s bid to join the European Community in 1985. Last night, the British authorities didn’t even close it for the twenty-minutes required to give a ceremonial nod towards the UK’s withdrawal from the same.
The strain of bagpipes playing Beehoven’s An die Freude seemed a fitting metaphor for the UK’s involvement in the EU as the blue flag was lowered for the last time. The pidgin attempts at ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘God save the Queen’ were no less poignant as the Commonwealth flag rose to take its place. English is not a first language for many Gibraltarians and this jubilant crowd, I assumed, must have been nearly the entirety of the territory’s 4% Brexit vote base. The scene was also a microcosm of Brexit’s reactionary escalation which knows no bigotry of race, language nor culture.
A consortium of journalists and civil servants had gathered around a brass band and were pointing their cameras at the flags while suited officials gave their press releases. Russia Today elected to set up their cameras where they could reach the public, while several angry voices started complaining that the ceremony was being held facing the press and away from the crowd.
This modus operandi is significant when you consider that it was RT which gave the Brexit movement most of their early coverage while the BBC et al were still desperately ignoring Nigel Farage and UKIP. Indeed, while working in UKIP’s Brussels offices seven years ago, Russian seemed to be becoming the second language of our press team. So it was out of gratitude that I now scoured the crowd for a proper salt-of-the-earth Gibraltarian to talk to their team.
“I voted to stay,” said Maria, a retired taxi driver. “When I was young, the border was open and my neighbours were Spanish. It was my first language. But we have to support Britain now because they have always backed us.” Surprised by her patriotic humility, I asked whether she considered herself British or Gibraltarian.
“I was born here. And my parents and grandparents. My mother was evacuated to Jamaica and my grandmother to London but my father stayed through the war because he was a man and old enough. He was also a taxi driver.” Maria was diplomatic in the way a taxi driver has to be with a dozen strangers a day. Surely – I tested – she feared the border being closed again? But it was precisely this snub which had planted the germ of her loyalty to Britain.
“I lived here when the border was closed and we survived. We got everything we needed. The hospitals were staffed by Spaniards, so we brought Moroccans and Portuguese over instead.” Excellent! The safe credentials of a remainer and not a drop of xenophobic bigotry. Here was exactly the sort of person who, according to sophisticated liberal remourners, shouldn’t even exist.
One of the demi-brogued patricians loudly detailed the police to dispatch members of the public who were getting too near the cameras, prompting several women in the crowd to shout – in thick Spanish accents – about how they as Brits would not be pushed around. Another resident chimed in, telling me that the Gibraltar government had recommended that citizens not attend the flag ceremony (crowds being a safety hazard).
I asked Maria if she would speak to the Russians.
“Oh certainly! Gosh – I’ve never wanted to speak to a camera before, but I do now!” She put out her cigarette and bounded over.
On the other side of the street, the officious burgher was shaking hands with the news teams and the floodlights were being switched off. The crowd started to shoulder their flags and gradually dispersed – some across the isthmus of the territory, others across the border into Spain. And viewers at home – that dangerous, silent, majority who made it all happen – will have but one citizen’s voice to speak from the rock.
I hope she let rip.