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The left should learn to love Gibraltar – it’s a multicultural haven

The possibility of armed conflict with Spain over Gibraltar seems so utterly absurd it’s laughable. Could something so extraordinarily retrograde and so apparently pointless ever happen? This isn’t even like the Falklands – there aren’t any lucrative oil fields and fisheries to secure.

It’s worth pointing out that Michael Howard isn’t a government minister anymore and that Theresa May has tried to cool the rhetoric. In any case, the millions of potential hostages (British expats) living in southern Spain make armed conflict pretty much unthinkable.

Yet Gibraltar is still worth taking seriously. Commentators on the left have dismissed this bizarre controversy as a pathetic bout of imperialist nostalgia and self-delusion. While this may seem like an obvious conclusion, the situation is far more interesting than it might seem at first. In fact, Gibraltar’s 2.6 sq miles reveal some of the deepest political ironies of our times, and much about the ways in which the imperial legacy is generally misunderstood in this country.

What, after all, could be more ironic than the fact that the faction of British politics that claims the most pride in our imperial legacy has endangered the survival of our most iconic surviving post-imperial relic? This is of a piece with the irony that the strongest supporters of the union between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have, through their unquenchable desire for Brexit, undermined its continued existence. But then the right’s professed support for our imperial leftovers has always concealed a much deeper irony, just as the left’s indifference to them is peculiar.

A rock and a hard place: Gibraltar and Britain’s relationship explained

Simply put, the pro-Brexit, pro-empire, pro-union right should hate Gibraltar. And the cosmopolitan liberal left should love it. Gibraltar highlights one of the paradoxes of empires. They may be founded on national pride and chauvinism, but they inevitably create cosmopolitan cities as nodes in an empire’s global trading and military networks.

Britain might have wrestled the rock and the peninsula on which it stands from Spain in 1704 by its strength as a rising imperial power, but it took immigrants to turn it into something more than a military outpost. Today’s Gibraltarians claim descent from across the Mediterranean – Genoese, Catalans, Sephardi Jews from north Africa, Maltese and others, as well as settlers from Britain and the Spanish mainland. It has retained and added to that diversity; a visit to the duty-free shops in the centre of town reveal the concentration of Hindu entrepreneurs; go to the end of the peninsula and the Mosque of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques looks across to north Africa from Europa Point. The local patois, called Llanito, is a unique blend of Spanish and English, with bits of Genoese and other dialects thrown in.

Whatever the legal validity or otherwise of the Spanish claim on Gibraltar, Spain has shown little if any sign of understanding or respecting Gibraltar’s unique diversity. Then again, neither has the British right ever really acknowledged the diverse multiculturalism of the territory.

The problem is that, with the British left indifferent or in some cases hostile to Gibraltar, the Gibraltarians have had little option but to present themselves as a kind of little Britain. A recent British docu-soap about Gibraltar called Britain in the Sun depicted the territory as a repository of patriotic British eccentrics with tans. The synagogues, temples and mosques were ignored, the everyday bilingualism barely recognised.

All that pandering to the fantasies of imperialist nostalgist Britons hasn’t helped Gibraltar. In recent decades, a cross-border culture has grown up that requires easy access to its larger neighbour (and even this doesn’t fully restrain Spain’s occasional periods of recalcitrance in slowing down entry and exist). Not surprisingly, Gibraltarians overwhelmingly voted remain.

While remainers have highlighted the Gibraltar issue as a way of pointing out the flaws in Brexit, for the most part this doesn’t stem from any real understanding or love of the place. Gibraltar hasn’t helped the British liberal left embrace it by its dependence on offshore finance and duty-free goods. Then again, it’s not as if those who decry tax avoidance have ever done the hard work to engage with the territory – or other post-imperial tax havens – to find a better way of sustaining themselves in the world.

Cultural historian Paul Gilroy has described the contemporary British condition as one of “post-colonial melancholia”, in which the loss of empire has never been truly faced, other than in fantastic terms. Gibraltar is a case study in how the empire and its leftovers seem only to be grasped – on the British right and left – as a set of stereotypical images, rather than something that affected, and continues to affect, real people in real places.

Gibraltar is discovering once again, as it did under General Franco, what happens when even the people who claim to love you see you as little more than a symbol. Caught between a right that prioritised Brexit over their future, and a left that doesn’t care, who would be a Gibraltarian today?