This is our last blog before our departure to the Falkland Islands and we thought it might be helpful to recall some past referendums relating to other UK overseas territories and what we might learn from them.
The most notable, we would suggest, was the 1967 referendum in Gibraltar. On 10th September, the residents of Gibraltar were given a series of options about their future – either a transition towards Spanish sovereignty with Gibraltarians retaining their UK citizenship and enjoying a special status within Spain or to remain a British overseas territory (as it would now be termed) with greater autonomy.
The foundation stone for the 1967 referendum in Gibraltar lay in the passing of UN Resolution 2070 (1965) which called on the British and Spanish governments to consider future options including (i) the annulment of the Treaty of Utrecht (which established UK sovereignty of Gibraltar in 1713), (ii) a review of the continued existence of the UK military base and (iii) an examination of how Gibraltar might be treated as a special area within Spain with specific protections for Gibraltarians special cultural and political interests.
On the actual day of the referendum, 99.6% of eligible voters registered their desire to retain British sovereignty (some 12,138 votes) and only 44 people voted in favour of a Spanish sovereignty option. The result was not in doubt as there was little appetite to consider a political future shaped by the authoritarian regime of General Franco. Economically, there was little incentive to change in favour of a poorer neighbour, which was still embroiled in a bitter conflict with Basque separatists.
After the result, a new constitution was adopted in 1969 and the date itself (10th September) became known as Gibraltar National Day. Joint sovereignty was proposed in a second referendum, held in 2002. The proposal was rebuffed with a massive majority of Gibraltarians reasserting their desire to remain a British overseas territory. As the preamble of the 1969 Constitution noted:
Whereas Gibraltar is part of Her Majesty’s dominions and Her Majesty’s Government have given assurances to the people of Gibraltar that Gibraltar will remain part of Her Majesty’s dominions unless and until an Act of Parliament otherwise provides, and furthermore that Her Majesty’s Government will 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.
Looking back, the 1967 Constitution was absolutely critical in the history of Gibraltar. A convincing case can be made that it helped to mobilise public opinion and enhance the legitimacy of elected representatives in Gibraltar to campaign on behalf of the residents. Its has also ensured that the UK government, in particular, could not alter the constitutional relationship against the ‘freely and democratically elected wishes’ of the residents of Gibraltar.
Perhaps this helps to explain why the current Argentine government is so keen to dismiss the Falkland Islands referendum—they will certainly have noted what the 1967 and later the 2002 referendum did for the people of Gibraltar! As the Gibraltar Chief Minister Peter Caruana noted in 2002, ‘Any political process or dialogue leading up to our making a free and democratic choice must not, because of the way it is structured and conducted, itself amount to a denial of our political rights as a people to decide our own future.’