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The Rock doesn't feel so solid any more

Gibraltarians fear a repeat of Hong Kong. Elizabeth Nash reports
Gibraltarians have for decades been paranoid that the Brits might walk out on them. Like a nervous sweetheart, they seek constant reassurance from Whitehall that they are loved and will not be abandoned. As Hong Kong's handover to China approaches, Gibraltarians insist, perhaps on a rising note of panic, that they are totally different, a special case.

The observations are those of a senior British accountant, formerly based in Madrid, now in Gibraltar. He still sports crisp Jermyn Street stripes in this informal society, but he has adapted to its peculiarities in other ways.

He drives to work, not in a power limo, but on a scooter, nipping across the border from his home on the Spanish costa. "The border," he goes on, "is a barometer of relations between Britain and Spain." At the moment it is at a low point, troubled by political storms as tempestuous as the unseasonal winds and rain that lash the Rock.

"Of all Britain's colonies," he reflects, "this is the only one that if it were decolonised must revert to someone else. Under the treaty of Utrecht, it must revert to Spain. But Gibraltarians, though they think in Spanish and speak Spanish at home, never want to be Spanish."

If Gibraltar stresses the differences, Madrid seizes on comparisons with Hong Kong. "It's difficult to explain how it occurs in Hong Kong and not in Gibraltar," the Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, said recently. "Spain maintains its claim of sovereignty over Gibraltar. We have ample reason for it and we expect time and common sense to establish a solution."

We are in no hurry, Spain's officials say. It probably won't happen in our lifetime, they concede. But, perhaps in 30 or 50 years, Gibraltar must eventually come to us.

Few in Gibraltar share this view. A third of Gibraltar's 30,000 inhabitants demonstrated against Madrid on 13 May, brandishing their British passports, issued in Gibraltar, that are rejected by Madrid as invalid. Even pedestrians or scooter riders, usually waved through by Spanish border guards, were held up for hours in the jittery aftermath.

When Peter Caruana, a dapper conservative barrister, was elected Gibraltar's Chief Minister a year ago, Madrid was encouraged to think - perhaps by the Foreign Office - that he would be more conciliatory than the intransigent labourite Joe Bossano whom he ousted.

Mr Caruana represents the Rock's business community and wants dialogue with Spain, but to Madrid's annoyance, makes no concession over sovereignty. "Spain ceded the whole of Gibraltar to Britain in perpetuity and absolutely," he insisted recently. "Unlike Hong Kong, Britain is under no legal requirement to hand Gibraltar back. Britain made a solemn assurance never to transfer Gibraltar to Spain and that promise has been repeated to us by every British government since 1969."

Mr Caruana does, however, want to update Gibraltar's status: "It's time to modernise our constitutional relationship with Britain. From being a colony or dependent territory, we would like to become a crown dependency, like Guernsey and the Isle of Man. We have no desire to break our links with the crown. We believe this patch of territory is our homeland, not a possession to give away against our wishes. For us, sovereignty is everything."

A small wooden door bearing a polished brass plate opens on to the Royal Gibraltar Yacht Club, founded in 1829 by British naval officers. It has the reputation of being a bit snooty, admits Patrick Sacarello, whose Italian forebears set up the Rock's coffee import business in the early 1800s. He is standing on the harbourside, watching with a twinge of nostalgia as the Nina, a pretty racer, is readied for the season. "I owned it for 20 years," he says, "sold it last year. Took it out all those years the frontier was closed. The sea was our only escape. It is our countryside."

He wouldn't be keen on striking out "Royal" then, should the Rock ever go Spanish? He shoots me a look, then shows me with pride the badge from the Ark Royal hung in the leathery bar, in what he says is the world's finest collection of ship's badges. "We used to have The Hood that sank the Bismarck in the Second World War, but someone nicked it."

Tommy Finlayson, pushing 60, spent 18 years teaching history in Stoke on Trent. He is the official archivist and has written several books about Gibraltar's history, one entitled The Fortress came First. Gibraltar, he says, unlike most colonies, was first and foremost a military garrison. Ordinary Gibraltarians, "the civilian population", had no rights until the 1920s, not even those granted to other colonies.

"They weren't bitter," he says. "They accepted it, remaining deeply loyal to the British crown. But now we're a bit of an embarrassment. Mind you, Britain has stood by us in difficult times, when it might have been easier not to."

What, I ask, is a Gibraltarian? He smiles. "It's a Latin, Mediterranean creature with strong links to Andalusia, over which is superimposed the British system of administration, justice and education."

John Dyer, 46, a master plumber, is one. His father a Scot, a boxing champion, his mother a Spaniard from La Linea, across the border. He tells me he plumbed the Rock's main hotels, the swimming pool and the laundry. "Complex jobs; youngsters today don't have the skills." We are leaning on the bar of the Cannon pub, talking in Spanish. "I like Spain, love the people, but I want to keep my British passport for ever, from Gibraltar, because that's my identity. I don't want to be dumped like those poor sods in Hong Kong."