Obituary: Sir Joshua Hassan

Elizabeth Nash
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:17

Sir Joshua Hassan, Gibraltar's first Chief Minister, dominated the life of the Rock throughout a political career that spanned 40 years. With his encouragement, Gibraltarians, who for nearly three centuries had passively fulfilled their role as loyal servants of the British garrison, developed a proud sense of identity and a desire for emancipation that continues to cause headaches both in Whitehall and in Madrid.

He was the first Gibraltarian leader to assert that only the inhabitants of the Rock had the right to decide their future. He was, in that sense, in the mould of a number of leaders throughout the British Empire who contributed to tbe process of post-war decolonisation. One of the last steps in that process took place in Hong Kong on the day he died.

Young Joshua Hassan was spurred to political action by the painful experience in the Second World War when thousands of non-combatant Gibraltarians, women, children and old men - most of the Rock's population - were shipped off to be billeted around the world, to Madeira, Northern Ireland, Jamaica and London.

Hassan, who volunteered as a gunner in the Gibraltar Defence Force, shared the suspicion of many that Britain was quietly planning not to bring the evacuees home, a decision that that would have condemned thousands of families to misery and destroyed the community.

Hassan, trained as a lawyer in the Middle Temple and called to the Bar in 1939, launched the Association for the Advancement of Civil Rights in 1942 to campaign for the evacuees' return. Many Gibraltarians of a certain age recount with pain the uncertainty of a childhood spent far from home, without their fathers, an experience reflected in a myriad exotic regional accents that spice Gibraltarians' spoken English.

The campaign's success spawned a wider movement that combined aspirations for emancipation with a passionate desire to remain British. This paradoxical combination encapsulates the political will of most Gibraltarians today, and is explained by the fact that the Rock's desire for a voice of its own, apart from Britain, is matched only by its fierce refusal to be ceded to Spain, in accordance with the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht.

Twice in the 1960s, Hassan - regarded as a radical if not a revolutionary - led petitioners from the Rock to testify in New York before the United Nations Committee on Decolonisation, insisting that the vast majority of his compatriots wanted to remain British. In 1967 he put his principle to the test with a referendum on the colony's future. The public's verdict was overwhelming - 12,138 votes in favour of remaining with Britain, and only 44 votes against.

"With Britain but not under Britain. The Right to our Land" were the twin slogans that inspired Hassan as head of the city and legislative councils for most of the years between 1945 and 1969. The bodies merged into the House of Assembly in the constitution of 1969, his crowning achievement.

At the core of the constitution, which continues to govern the Rock, is Britain's pledge that it would "never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against their freely and democratically expressed wishes". This pledge, as today's Chief Minister, Peter Caruana, said recently, "has been repeated to us by every successive British government", and forms the core of policy towards Spain's persistent claims to sovereignty.

In response to this gesture of defiance, Spain's dictator Francisco Franco sealed off the border. Links between Spain and Gibraltar remained cut until 1985, more than nine years after Franco's death, when Madrid was negotiating its entry into the European Community.

After five years as chief minister, Hassan lost the post in the 1969 general election - his only electoral defeat - when his party failed by one seat to win a majority. But he was voted back in 1972 and remained for the next 15 years. The manner of his departure from office cast something of a shadow over his long career. It followed the breakdown in 1987 of the 1983 airport agreement with Madrid. In 1987, Gibraltar was excluded from a Europe-wide attempt to liberalise air travel - the price for preventing the collapse of the initiative - and its airport was closed for flights to anywhere except Britain. This was a terrible blow to Gibraltar, and prompted mass protests in which Hassan was accused of betrayal. He retired from politics soon afterwards, citing personal reasons, aged 71 and past his prime.

Joshua Hassan was always an open and accessible man, greeting people on the street of his little colony, and claiming to know the names of most of them, and never forgetting the working-class unions who launched him into power. His weakness, critics say, was to allow his deep loyalty to Britain to translate into an over-conciliatory attitude to the Foreign Office.

"Working so closely with FCO ministers and officials, he ended up believing in everything they tried to sell him. The establishment swallowed him up," is the verdict of his political opponent for more than 15 years, the intransigent old warhorse Joe Bossano.

Bossano, who succeeded as chief minister until his own defeat last year, remembered his old adversary yesterday "with great personal affection". He recalled: "He had this great ability when I was leader of the opposition to take me aside and try to win me over. I fell for it every time."

Elizabeth Nash

In 1983 Sir Joshua Hassan interviewed me for a Gibraltar government job, writes Kenneth Bain. "Just as well you have come in the morning," he said. "That's when I am Chief Minister. In the afternoon, I go back to my law practice [J.A. Hassan & Partners, of which he was head of chambers] to earn some money." In one of those discreet British colonial indulgences, politicians on the Rock were initially deemed to be part-time - and were paid accordingly.

Twelve years later in 1995, it was my turn to interview him. With passion, he described himself as "100 per cent Sephardic Jew. Hassan is normally an Arab first name; but, in the Jewish tradition, it is a surname. In my case, there is no possible confusion. With first names like Joshua and Abraham, nobody could think I am anything but a Jew. My family has a history of nearly 300 years in Gibraltar. They arrived from Morocco in 1728; and some came earlier from Minorca."

"It was my policy to develop good working relations with both Britain and Spain," he told me. "That does not mean that there was any give-away. But we have to live with the Spaniards. They are our neighbours. I doubt whether Gibraltar would be viable as an independent state against the wishes of 40 million Spaniards. Our future is bound up with both Britain and Spain. The British connection is vital. The Spanish connection is desirable: the reality of the geography is inescapable.

"My objective was to try to convince the Spanish to accept the British Gibraltarian and to lead them away from an attitude towards us that is now 300 years old. On the other hand, the treaty of Utrecht is Britain's title to Gibraltar. So Britain has to respect and adhere to its obligations under it. The day that they cease to do so, the Spanish would have every right to walk in our door."

What, I asked Hassan finally, did he think was the destiny of Gibraltar?

"I am not a prophet," he said. "Only an expired politician. So we shall have to wait and see."

Joshua Abraham Hassan, lawyer and politician: born Gibraltar 21 August 1915; called to the Bar, Middle Temple 1939; HM Deputy Coroner, Gibraltar 1941-64; Mayor of Gibraltar 1945-50, 1953-69; member, Executive Council, Gibraltar 1950-64, Chief Member, Legislative Council 1950-64; LVO 1954; CBE 1957, GBE 1988; QC (Gibraltar) 1961; Kt 1963; Chief Minister of Gibraltar 1964-69, 1972-87; Leader of the Opposition, Gibraltar House of Assembly 1969-72; KCMG 1986; Chairman, Gibraltar Bar Council 1992-95; married 1945 Daniela Salazar (two daughters; marriage dissolved 1969), 1969 Marcelle Bensimon (two daughters); died Gibraltar 1 July 1997.

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