1967 Gibraltar Referendum

The 1967 Gibraltar Referendum took place against a background of hostility from Franco’s Spain, both at the United Nations and on the ground. Restrictions at the land frontier continued to mount. Spain had just imposed an airspace ban.

The turnout and the results sent an unequivocal message. The atmosphere, the enthusiasm and the spontaneous demonstrations of British pride in the weeks prior to the 10th September would leave no doubt as to the outcome: the result of the Referendum really was the people’s choice.

The Background

During the early twentieth century, relations between Gibraltar and Spain were generally civil and civilised. There were interactions at a political level between the Governor of Gibraltar and his counterpart on the Spanish side. It was common for invitations to be exchanged for social and official functions which were organised by either side. The rise to power of General Franco following the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939) was to change all that.

In 1950 Spain took exception to the establishment of the Legislative Council in Gibraltar. Four years later, even greater exception was taken at the visit to Gibraltar of Her Majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh as part of their tour of the Commonwealth. Franco had discovered a useful whipping boy that could be used as a convenient distraction from problems at home.

In reply to the Royal Visit, Spain closed its consulate in Gibraltar. No new work permits would be issued to Spanish nationals seeking employment on the Rock. British passport holders were restricted to one border crossing a day and access to Gibraltar was limited only to Spaniards with work permits.

The United Nations

In 1946, eight countries, including the United Kingdom, undertook to submit information to the United Nation on the 74 non-self-governing territories that they controlled. The Second World War accelerated the speed with which territories were being decolonised. In 1960, the UK administered 41 or the 50 remaining non-self-governing territories. The UN had ended its diplomatic boycott of Spain in 1951 and five years later it joined the organisation. The information submitted by the administering powers on the territories that they controlled were the subject of the annual debate.

In September 1963, the UN Committee tasked with decolonisation (also known as the Committee of 24) decided to examine the situation of Gibraltar. Spain was allowed to state its case and petitioners for Gibraltar, Chief Minister Joshua Hassan and Opposition Leader Mr Peter Isola, defended the right of the people of Gibraltar to determine their own future, as did the United Kingdom representative. The debate in New York resumed in September 1964 when once again Hassan and Isola appeared before the Committee. The Committee called on the UK and Spain to find a negotiated solution to the matter bearing in mind the interests of the population of the territory.

The consensus was arrived at by a numerically unbeatable block vote of countries that had an exe to grind against the UK. However, it encouraged Spain to take a tougher line against Gibraltar. Vehicles waiting to cross the border were held up for up up ten hours before being cleared. The aim of the restrictions was to physically wear down the people of Gibraltar so that they agreed to Spanish sovereignty. |This had to opposite effect. Indeed, attitudes in the United Kingdom itself were also hardened.

Spain decreed that only Spanish nationals were in future to have workers’ passes through the border and refused to recognise passports issued by the “Government of Gibraltar”. This meant that some 600 Gibraltarians who lived in Spain had to return home.

In 1966, the Spanish Government downgraded the frontier at La Linea, which effectively meant that no goods or vehicles would be allowed to cross the border. Gibraltar, and its sovereignty, became focal points of attention as relations between UK and Spain deteriorated.

In March 1967, Spain announced an air ban around Gibraltar, prohibiting the overflying of Spanish airspace with the aim of eliminating all flights in and out of Gibraltar’s small airport. Despite Britain’s attempt to secure its removal, the ban remained in force.

The British response came in the Commons on 14th June 1967 when Judith Hart, Minister of State at the Commonwealth Office, announced that a referendum would be held in Gibraltar at which the Gibraltarians would decide their own future.

Even today, Spain, the UK’s NATO ally, prohibits British military aircraft from overflying Spanish soil if their point of origin or their destination is Gibraltar.

The Announcement

14h June 1967: Statement by Judith Hart MP, Minister of State at the Commonwealth Office

“With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on Gibraltar.

The House will recall that on 20th December, 1966, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a Resolution, No. 2231 (XXI), calling upon Britain and Spain to continue their negotiations about Gibraltar, taking into account the interests of the people of Gibraltar and asking Britain, in consultation with Spain, to expedite this Resolution. So also did Britain, with the statement, by our Permanent Representative at the United Nations, that Britain could never agree that decolonisation would mean the incorporation of Gibraltar into Spain against the wishes of its people, and also that nothing could prejudice the question of the type of decolonisation which would best fit the circumstances of Gibraltar.

We have been considering our policy towards Gibraltar in the light of this Resolution. In doing so we must have regard to the relevant provisions of the Charter of the United Nations, in particular Article 73 which expresses the principle that the interests of the inhabitants of a non-self-governing territory are paramount. We must also have regard to our obligations under the Treaty of Utrecht.

As the House knows, we duly arranged to hold talks with the Spanish Government in pursuance of the U.N. Resolution. The first meeting between delegations of the two countries was to have taken place in London in April. We greatly deplored the action of the Spanish Government in announcing on the eve of the talks, new restrictions plainly aimed against the economy of Gibraltar. Such action was in clear conflict with terms of the General Assembly’s Resolution, which regretted the occurrence of acts which had prejudiced the progress of the previous Anglo-Spanish negotiations. The talks were postponed, as the House knows, in order to enable us to consider the new situation. As Hon. Members know, we raised the matter in the International Civil Aviation Organisation and have also attempted to resolve the problem in bilateral talks with the Spanish Government.

We are taking steps to bring the matter before the Council of I.C.A.O. once more, this time as a dispute under Article 84 of the Chicago Convention. I should prefer not to go further at this stage into the international aspect of the problem, which is primarily a matter for my Right Hon. Friend, the Foreign Secretary. 

But we should not be deterred by this dispute or by the difficulties which Spain has made over the holding of talks from pursuing the objectives of the United Nation’s Resolution.

I must repeat Her Majesty’s Government’s firm belief that decolonisation cannot consist in the transfer of one population, however small, to the rule of another country, without regard to their own opinions and interests. We therefore think that the next step in pursuance of the United Nations Resolution should be to give the people of Gibraltar an opportunity to express their views, by a formal and deliberate act, on what would best serve their interests.

1967 gibraltar referendum posters

We have accordingly decided that a Referendum should be held in Gibraltar in which the people of Gibraltar should be invited to say which of the following alternative courses would best serve their interests:

A. To pass under Spanish sovereignty in accordance with the terms proposed by the Spanish Government to Her Majesty’s Government on 18th May, 1966; or

B. Voluntarily to retain their link with Britain, with democratic local institutions and with Britain retaining its present responsibilities. If the majority of the people of Gibraltar vote in favour of the first alternative, we will be ready to enter into negotiations with the Spanish Government accordingly.

If the majority of the people of Gibraltar vote in favour of the second alternative, we will regard this choice as constituting, in the circumstances of Gibraltar, a free and voluntary relationship of the people of Gibraltar with Britain. We will thereafter discuss with representatives of the people of Gibraltar appropriate constitutional changes which may be desired.

If the majority vote for the second alternative, provision will also be made for the people of Gibraltar to retain the right at any future time to express by a free and democratic choice the desire to modify their status by joining with Spain, in which event we would be ready to approach the Spanish Government accordingly.

We attach great importance to the Referendum being held in conditions of complete impartiality. We want the people of Gibraltar to be able to think calmly where their interests lie and to express their choice free from pressures of any kind. We are bringing our intention to the notice of the Secretary-General of the United Nations and we should very much welcome the presence of any observer he might wish to send to Gibraltar during the Referendum proceedings.

We are ready to welcome an observer from  Spain, too, and to give the Spanish Government facilities to explain their own proposals to the people of Gibraltar if they so wish. We also have in mind to invite observers from one or tow other Commonwealth countries”. 

The Choice

It was the first time in their history that the people of Gibraltar were made the arbiters of their own destiny.

The British announcement was tantamount to an acknowledgment that their sovereignty over Gibraltar was rooted not in the clauses of a 250 year old treaty, but on the living wishes of the 22,000 people whose ancestors had inhabited the Rock since 1704.

The choice put before the Gibraltarians was clear enough:

(a) To pass under Spanish sovereignty in accordance with the terms proposed by the Spanish Government to Her Majesty’s Government on 18 May 1966;
(b) Voluntarily retain their link with Britain, with democratic local institutions and with Britain retaining its present responsibilities.

Judith Hart further declared that if the Gibraltarians voted for the first option, Britain would start talks with Spain accordingly, whereas if they chose the latter, then Britain would consider the vote a voluntary relationship of the Gibraltarians with London, and wold discuss with the local leaders any appropriate constitutional changes which they desired.

Facilities would be made available to Madrid to explain their 1966 proposals to the people of Gibraltar if they so wished.

Regardless of the wording of the Referendum, the choice for the Gibraltarians was clear-cut: Spain or Britain.

Although the Spanish government declined to send representatives to explain their point of view, Castiella’s proposals of May 1966 were given wide publicity b the Spanish media. Spanish television could be easily picked up in Gibraltar, as well as at least five Spanish radio stations. 

A wide variety of Spanish newspapers were also on sale on the Rock, inclding the La Linea paper ‘Area’, the Falangist daily ‘Arriba’, the right-wing ‘ABC’ and the Catholic ‘Ya’. The Spanish proposals and point of view therefore received wide publicity.

On 22nd August the British representative before the Committee of 24 in New Year announced Britain’s intention to hold the referendum on 10th September, and invited it to send observers to the colony. Britain further requested that any new resolution on Gibraltar should be postponed until the wishes of the inhabitants of the territory were known.

The British intervention was to avail, and on 1st September 1967, the Committee declared that the Referendum violated UN resolutions on Gibraltar, it declined to send observes to the Rock and called for a resumption of talks with Spain. 

The resolution was carried by a numerically unbeatable block vote of fifteen African, Latin American, Arab and Communist countries. That is, almost a two-thirds majority of the Committee. Against such odds there was never any realistic hope of a different outcome.

Faced with this adverse international line-up, the Gibraltarians made their wishes known to the world on 10th September 1967. There never was any doubt as to the result. In the weeks before the Referendum, whole streets had spontaneously been painted red, which and blue, with Union Jacks flying from the windows and balconies of most dwellings.  

The Result

On the 10th September 1967, the Gibraltarians went to the polls. On a turnout of 95.8%, 12, 237 cast their vote, of which 12,138 voted for Britain and only 44 for Spain, with 55 spoiled ballot papers. The result was a vindication of Britain’s arguments before the UN that Gibraltar was a colony that did not want to be decolonised, least of all to be integrated into Spain.

A team of Commonwealth observers which had supervised the proceedings, headed by New Zealand’s Ambassador to France, declared that they found, ‘that there were adequate opportunities for the use of public communication media for expounding different points of view on the referendum’.

More importantly, they reported that ‘there were adequate facilities for the people in Gibraltar to freely express their views on the Referendum and that these facilities were in fact used’. It was their unanimous view ‘that the actual conduct of the Referendum fully confirmed with the requirements for the free expression of choice through the medium of the secret ballot’.

The Referendum Administrator praised the people of Gibraltar ‘for the responsible way in which they conducted themselves during a period when emotions inevitably ran high’.

The Gibraltarians had spoken with devastating clarity. There could now exist little doubt as to where the inhabitants of the Rock believed their interest lay. But the Referendum also aggravated the tension with Spain, and this was reflected in Britain’s decision a week later to send out military reinforceents to man Gibraltar’s garrison.

The result also widened the rift with the United Nations, and on 19th December the General Assembly declared by 73 votes to 19, with 27 abstentions, that the Referendum violated the UN’s previous resolutions on the matter. It went on to endorse the view expressed by the Committee of 24 that Gibraltar had to be decolonised in accordance with Resolution 1514(XV), where a consideration had been the territorial integrity of Spain. For the Gibraltarians this vote was a great let-down.

Once they had left no doubt as to their wishes, the expectation had been that the UN would take note of such a resounding pro-British vote, but this was not to be. Their faith in the international organisations was shattered by the General Assembly resolution, for many Gibraltarians Britain became all they had left, and this feeling gave added strength to the integrationist movement as all looked forward in anticipation to 1968 and the constitutional advances that had been promised if the vote went in Britain’s favour. 

“The will of the people has been shown in a democratic free manner, in an orderly way worth of the most civilised and best conducted community in the world.”

Sir Joshua Hassan, 10th September 1967

The Immediate Impact

The 1967 Referendum was a defining moment in Gibraltar’s history: for the first time the people had definitively and unequivocally decided their own future. In the years and decades that followed they would decisively take that future into their own hands as they asserted the recognition of their right to self-determination. 

The Constitutional talks between Gibraltar and London in 1968 and the promulgation of a new Constitution in 1969 were a direct consequence of the Referendum. This came about from the pledge that the UK had made in the ballot of further political and constitutional changes if the vote went in their favour. 

Therefore the document reflected the wish of the Gibraltarins to retain their important links with the United Kingdom whilst strengthening local democratic institutions at the same time. The preamble to the 1969 Constitution is possibly one of the most significant documents regarding Gibraltar’s sovereignty.

It declared that: “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 sovereignty to another state against their freely and democratically expressed wishes.”

This was a political commitment. However, in practice it meant that the sovereignty of Gibraltar was now firmly in the hands of the people of Gibraltar. This principle had been made clear when the people had exercised that choice on 10th September 1967 and it was now set out for the future in the preamble to the new Constitution as well. 

The Government of Spain however, considered the Constitution to be a violation of both the Treaty of Utrecht and the UN Resolutions of the 1960s on the decolonisation of Gibraltar. On 7th July 1969 the gates at the land frontier with Spain slammed shut. Ferry communications were ended after that and telephone links between Gibraltar and Spain were cut by Madrid.

Franco’s prediction that Gibraltar would fall like a ripe fruit did not materialise. Instead the economic sanctions against the Rock’s economy only served to strengthen the resolve of the Gibraltarians to resist Spain every inch of the way. They did so with the full backing of the United Kingdom, which embarked on a policy of “support and sustain” of Gibraltar’s economy while the restrictions were in place.

In the years that followed, Spanish hostility posed a real and tangible threat to Gibraltar’s ay of life, yet paradoxically it helped to solidify an emergent Gibraltarian sense of identity. Throughout the ‘last siege’, Gibraltarians became steadfast against any kind of deal with Spain yet remained wary of the politicians and the international institutions that had refused to recognise the legitimacy of their collective will, so resoundingly expressed in 1967.

Nationhood is often explained as an ‘imagined community’ of people within a geographical space. In Gibraltar, it does not require much imagination; our collective intimacy is hard to avoid. In 1967 it was the public impact of the turnout and the overwhelming result that, perhaps for the first time, publicly signalled ‘community’ in a tangible way.

The demographic, economic, administrative and political history of Gibraltar accounts for this gradual construction of a distinctive ‘Gibraltarian identity’. Gibraltarians attribute a strong importance to the preservation and celebration of their shared heritage. This is never more visible than on the one day each year that the people of the Rock take to the streets, proudly shrouded in red and white. 

Our National Day, celebrated each year on 10th September, commemorates and replicates the overwhelming collective spirit of the 1967 Referendum. 

What began as a popular movement for self-determination is also an extremely powerful annual reminder of the first opportunity that Gibraltarians had to express their collective national will in 1967.

Text & images: 50 Years – Gibraltar 1967 Referendum booklet & Gibraltar National Archives