It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for selecting me to have this debate on the possibility of the Crown awarding Gibraltar a George Cross to demonstrate that gallant naval port’s loyalty to Britain. The George Cross was created on 31 January 1941 by Her Majesty’s father, George VI. It has been awarded twice to a group of people, first to Malta in 1942 for its resistance following significant bombing by the Germans during the second world war, and more recently to the Royal Ulster Constabulary in 1999. I pay tribute to the armed forces that served in Northern Ireland during recent times. In both cases, the Crown recognised that those groups of people had shown real loyalty to the United Kingdom.
I am firmly behind the George Cross for Gibraltar campaign, which is organised by one of my constituents, Kevin Kellway. Kevin has had an illustrious campaigning career. When I first met him, he was campaigning for the restoration of the art deco Tinside pool on Plymouth Hoe, which is one of the jewels in our city’s crown. Before I arrived in Plymouth, Kevin was one of the leading lights in the campaign for Gibraltar to become part of the south-west region within the European Parliament. He organised a 30,000-strong petition in the 1990s to keep the Rock British.
Gibraltar’s connection with Devonport, in my constituency, is legendary, because both have a naval dockyard and naval base. Three hundred years ago this year, Gibraltar was ceded in perpetuity by the Spanish to the British Crown at the treaty of Utrecht in 1713 following the Spanish war of succession. It is now a British dependent territory and has withstood more than four sieges over the past three centuries. Throughout that time, it has remained loyal to the Crown.
The Spanish war of succession arose over the succession to the Spanish Crown following the death of the childless Charles II of Spain in November 1700. The two candidates for the throne—who, needless to say, were not up for election—were the French Prince Philip of Anjou, grandson of Louis XIV of France, and the Habsburg Archduke Charles of Austria. Louis XIV, the Spaniards who were loyal to Philip V and the Electorate of Bavaria supported Philip of Anjou. England, the Netherlands, Austria, Portugal, Savoy and some of the German states supported Charles in a grand alliance, because they were concerned that the unification of the Spanish and French Crowns might result in France dominating not only Europe but the Americas. That was before the American war of independence.
I have written a George Cross citation, and I always thought that one of the criteria was that it had to be awarded for something that had happened post its foundation, so retrospective gallantry awards before the second world war would be difficult. I am in total favour, and a supporter of Gibraltar, but I wonder on what criteria a George Cross could be awarded since 1941-42.
Gibraltar has an extremely distinguished historic position and loyalty, and I will come on to that during my speech.
The fact that Gibraltar has withstood four sieges, and that it has withstood military and economic threat since it became British, is a good reason for the country to be given the George Cross.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his helpful intervention. I think that that is a fair point, and I will address it later in my speech.
Since the beginning of the war in 1701, the allies had been looking for a harbour in the Iberian peninsula from which to control the strait of Gibraltar and facilitate naval operations in the western Mediterranean. The key players in that campaign for Gibraltar were our own Royal Marines. I fear that I must declare an interest here. Not only is the British amphibious capability based in Devonport, and 3 Commando Brigade in Stonehouse—both in my constituency—but I am the vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for the armed forces, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray), with special responsibility for the Royal Marines. Therefore, I see my role as the champion and ambassador for the Royal Marines in Parliament.
My hon. Friend gives me the opportunity to say in public something that I have often thought in private, namely that he does an outstandingly good job of chairing the Royal Marines group in Parliament, and I am extremely grateful to him for it.
I thank my hon. Friend for that wonderful intervention. As hon. Members may know, Gibraltar is the battle honour of which the Royal Marines are most proud. Gibraltar appears on their berets, and they take a massive pride in that battle honour; indeed, it is the only one that they recognise. For me, that badge encapsulates the Royal Marines and their commando spirit.
Beneath the Rock of Gibraltar, the only landmark in the region, sits the densely populated city. It is home to more than 30,000 Gibraltarians, who in 1967 and 2002 rejected proposals for them to become part of Spain. It is a major economic motor in that part of southern Spain. In the 2002 referendum, 99% of Gibraltarians voted to remain British.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He quite rightly pays tribute to Gibraltar’s fantastic past glories, especially when it comes to military capability. He and I both have a great connection with Gibraltar through our south-west constituencies. It is worth mentioning that we are not talking just about the past, even though his campaign may be about the past. I want to put on the record how grateful we are that Gibraltar is of vital strategic value in the Mediterranean and for our forward operating base capabilities. Indeed, it recently played a role in Operation Ellamy.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I welcome him back to the House of Commons after the rather difficult time that he had over the summer. He makes a fair point, which I hope to deal with. Gibraltar played a significant role prior to the battle of Trafalgar and during the Crimean war. Its strategic value increased with the opening of the Suez canal, because it lay on the sea routes between Britain and the British empire east of Suez. If Britain had not had control of those straits, we would not have been able to bottle up the French fleet in the Mediterranean during the Napoleonic wars. That would have allowed the French to come out from Toulon and run all over the Atlantic.
Gibraltar also played a major role during the second world war. The decision by the Spanish dictator Franco to remain neutral during the war, and Spain’s reluctance to allow the German army on to Spanish soil, stopped Hitler gaining control of the strategic naval port. Gibraltar has not only provided a naval base and dockyard for our Royal Navy to operate from, but has ensured that we have a Mediterranean base where ships and submarines can be repaired when out on operations.
I believe that by giving Gibraltar the George Cross, Britain will send a clear message that we want to thank the Gibraltarians for their loyalty and that we abide by the commitment that the Gibraltarians have shown in referendums to remaining a British overseas territory. Consistently, Spain has campaigned for the British Government to hand over sovereignty of the Rock. The current dispute over the fishing reef is yet another example of how the Spanish Government do not get the message. For some reason they think that if they carry on pushing they will get a result. I hope that nothing could be further from the truth.
It has always been said that Gibraltar will cease to be British only when the monkeys leave the Rock. The last time I was there was on national day last year, when I met a delightful former Miss World, and I assure you, Mr Crausby, that the monkeys were present in abundance. They stole fruit from my bedroom in the Rock hotel. I fully realise that the Government must consider proposals of this kind case by case. However, giving Gibraltar the George Cross would support its fortitude, loyalty and determination, and would emphasise the nature of the honour—an emphasis established by George VI himself. Anyone who wants to join me, the Friends of Gibraltar and Gibraltar’s Equality Rights group in the campaign for the George Cross can access the petition on http://dorcasmedia.com/gibraltar-petition or on the George Cross for Gibraltar Facebook page. In so doing they will be sending a very clear message: hands off our Rock!
I am pleased to be serving under your guidance, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) on securing the debate and on his articulate remarks, including a brief history lesson about Gibraltar’s importance and the significance of its relationship with the United Kingdom. He rightly explained that we have a proud 300-year shared history.
We strongly welcome the wish of the people of Gibraltar to remain British. Our relationship can be pithily summed up by saying that Gibraltar’s history is our history. We must never forget that. My hon. Friend was right to highlight the significance of the fact that 99% of Gibraltarians voted for Gibraltar to remain an overseas territory of the United Kingdom. I want to state firmly that we shall continue to respect the wishes of Gibraltarians and to protect their right to determine their political future. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister reiterated that in his message to Gibraltar marking its national day on 10 September. I urge any hon. Members who have never attended Gibraltar national day to do so. It is a stark reminder of the importance of the relationship, and of how passionately Gibraltarians still feel about the UK and Gibraltar working closely together.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for setting out why he believes Gibraltar should be awarded the George Cross. The British Government value highly the loyalty and service that the people of Gibraltar have given to the Crown and the UK during 300 years of British sovereignty. Gibraltar has been and remains a strategically important location for British defence—a key point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti). Through a succession of conflicts, from the war of the Spanish succession to the present day, Gibraltar has provided a vital base for our armed forces and for the Royal Navy. It has made a strategically important contribution.
Two hundred and eight years ago, Gibraltar was crucial to our winning the battle of Trafalgar, which gave the Royal Navy superiority over the seas of the world for 100 years. It was incredibly important.
My hon. Friend makes a good historical point. Of course, he will be aware of Gibraltar’s pivotal strategic role not only in the Napoleonic wars but in the second world war—despite serious attempts by the axis powers to take it.
The Chairman of the Equality Rights group in Gibraltar, Mr Alvarez, whom I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport knows, is leading the “Thumbs Up for Gibraltar” campaign, which was launched in Gibraltar in mid-August. The commendable and worthwhile overall aim of the campaign is to generate awareness and support for Gibraltar among the British public.
My hon. Friend may know that I have also taken part, and had my photograph taken at the Royal Naval hospital in Stonehouse in my constituency, with my thumbs up. If the Minister would like to take the opportunity to do that at some stage, we should be delighted to have him on board.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will know that I am a dedicated and passionate advocate of Gibraltar and the other overseas territories. I work closely with the Gibraltar Government and other overseas territories Governments, to increase co-operation between those territories and the UK, and to bring about more inward investment from the UK and more capacity building from the UK Government, to help them to cope with life in the 21st century. That is all set out in “The Overseas Territories”, the White Paper published in June 2012. A key part of that was to do with increasing public awareness of the territories, and I wish the “Thumbs Up” campaign, in all its various guises, well in its efforts to do that.
I should mention that Gibraltar is an active and energetic participant in the joint ministerial council. The council convenes every year, and the leaders of the overseas territories come together in London to discuss important issues. I hope and believe that Gibraltar will continue to play an important role in that.
Mr Alvarez wrote to the Prime Minister in mid-August setting out why he believes it would be appropriate for Gibraltar to receive the George Cross; particular stress is placed on historical arguments and Gibraltar’s strategic role in the second world war. The campaign also points out Gibraltar’s steadfast response to more recent events, such as those of the Franco era, and its role as a base for military operations in conflicts in the Gulf and the Falklands. Those events cover a long period. I recognise the hardship that the people of Gibraltar have suffered in wartime. They have experienced some very difficult times as a result of political pressure from Spain. The closure of the border from 1969 until its full re-opening in 1985 caused prolonged distress to thousands of people by separating families and friends. This summer the people of Gibraltar have again demonstrated their resolve in a period of heightened tensions. The strength of their spirit was once again reflected in the celebrations in Gibraltar on national day this year.
Perhaps it would be helpful for me to say a little about gallantry awards.
Before my hon. Friend does that, may I reflect on the fact that the Royal Gibraltar Regiment has done the nation fantastic service, most recently in Afghanistan, where its commanding officer was awarded the military cross? I hope that elements of the regiment will, at 3.15 this afternoon, arrive at the north door of Westminster Hall to march in with the rest of 1st Mechanised Brigade. That will be an opportunity for us all to thank the entire brigade.
My hon. Friend is right to put on the record the significant contribution of the Royal Gibraltar Regiment. I was not aware that members of the Regiment were coming this afternoon, but I hope that as many hon. Members as possible will attend to pay their respects in view of the significant contribution that has been made.
Furthermore, the Governor-designate of Gibraltar, Lieutenant-General Sir James Dutton, who takes up his appointment this year, is the former Commandant-General Royal Marines. He maintains those strong links between the UK and Gibraltar, because the Royal Marines’ historical links date back a significant way—to 1704, I believe—which further cements and exemplifies the importance of the UK-Gibraltar relationship.
Gallantry awards are usually made in recognition of specific acts of bravery by individuals in saving or attempting to save life. The George Cross, as hon. Members know, is the highest of the awards for civilian gallantry. The hallmark of the award is deliberate self-sacrificial heroism with the imminent prospect of death. Before anyone else points it out, however, although the George Cross is intended for acts by individuals, it has been awarded on a collective basis on two occasions: to Malta in 1942, and to the Royal Ulster Constabulary in 1999.
This debate is not about Malta or the RUC, but it is relevant to point out the circumstances in which they were awarded the George Cross, because that will help to explain why such an award is so rare. Malta was awarded the honour for the heroism and devotion of her people in the face of extraordinary danger. The island experienced one of the heaviest, most sustained and concentrated aerial bombardments in history. Axis forces flew some 3,000 bombing raids over two years. From 1 January to 24 July 1942, there was only one 24-hour period in which no bombs fell on Malta. In March and April 1942, the island received twice the bomb tonnage dropped on London during the blitz. The population were forced to live in tunnels and caves, where they suffered malnutrition and scabies, and 1,600 civilian lives were lost—a huge and significant sacrifice.
The RUC was honoured for its service as a bulwark against, and the main target of, a sustained and brutal terrorist campaign. The force suffered heavily in protecting both sides of the community from danger. By the time of the award in 1999, 302 officers had been killed in the line of duty and thousands more had been injured, many seriously.
I have noted carefully the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport has made regarding Gibraltar, as well as the contents of the letter sent to the Prime Minister. I hope that hon. Members understand that what I can say today about the success or otherwise of such a nomination is limited, and I understand that no formal application has yet been made. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has replied to Mr Alvarez’s letter to the Prime Minister with details of the criteria for gallantry awards, including the George Cross, and with guidance on how to submit a nomination. As part of any such nomination, the “Thumbs Up” campaign, Mr Alvarez and the others who are interested should put forward all the historical and contemporary evidence that they consider to be relevant in support of their case. All such information will be received.
There is a George Cross nomination committee. The form will initially be sent to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which will discuss and consult throughout Government. Any conclusions and recommendations will then be sent to the Cabinet Office. Ultimately, the committee’s recommendations are referred to the Prime Minister, who forwards them to Her Majesty the Queen for final approval or otherwise.
Will the Minister give some kind of time scale for the committee coming to a conclusion and making a decision? He might prefer to write to me and set it out later.
It is difficult to set out a detailed time frame when no formal nomination has been received. To ensure against any misunderstanding, however, I am more than happy to write to my hon. Friend and place a copy of the letter in the House of Commons Library, so that all hon. Members can see the time scale for the process to reach a conclusion once a nomination has been received.
All reasonable cases for civilian gallantry awards are given serious and careful consideration by the George Cross committee. Its recommendations are referred to the Prime Minister. I urge my hon. Friend and other interested parties, who so passionately believe in their campaign, to expedite the application so that clarity can be given as soon as possible. Whatever the result of any deliberations and consultations, I hope that the huge positive significance of the UK relationship with Gibraltar—in terms of Gibraltarians being enthused by being an overseas territory of the UK and of the UK being enthused by the positive reaction of Gibraltar to the close ties—will continue in perpetuity. It will certainly continue, as long as this Government are in power, for as long as the Gibraltan people want to remain closely tied to and an overseas territory of the UK.