Gibraltar: Apple of Discord

As Gibraltar conducts a referendum on its future, Martin Murphy shows the degree to which its status was determined by rivalries between the 18th-century Great Powers.

Recently declassified documents have revealed that thirty years ago the Foreign Office was debating various proposals aimed at ending the long-standing dispute with Spain over the status of Gibraltar. One of the ideas mooted was to cede sovereignty to Spain in exchange for a 999-year lease, another was to lease the territory temporarily to a third party, the Sovereign Order of Malta, as a first step towards its eventual reversion to Spain. On this last proposal an old Foreign Office hand wrote drily: ‘I would rather entrust Gibraltar to the Young Liberals’. However bizarre some of these ideas may have been, the debate itself should not cause much surprise. The arguments advanced in the twentieth century in favour of a ‘deal’ were already familiar in the eighteenth century. In both cases political calculations ran aground on the rock of public opinion.

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