Insight talks exclusively to Sir Joe Bossano about his political career, his professional achievements and his views about the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.
Sir Joe has been a Member of Parliament for 48 years, but even before he was elected to Parliament in 1972 he had been actively involved in local politics since 1964. He was Chief Minister of Gibraltar from 1988 to 1996 and as the longest serving member of Parliament he is often referred to as the “Father of the House”, as is the practice in the House of Commons and other Commonwealth parliaments. He was appointed Minister for Economic Development, Telecommunications and the Gibraltar Savings Bank (GSB) by Chief Minister Fabian Picardo.
We ask Sir Joe if, looking back on his experiences, he thinks this pandemic is the biggest post-War challenge Gibraltar has faced. “In terms of the actual virus the Spanish flu of 1918 was much worse in the numbers of people it affected, but we have been able to handle the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic quite effectively,” Sir Joe says. “It will be the consequences of the mechanism that is required to stop the virus which is going to create a bigger problem for the global economy and for humanity than the virus itself.”
Sir Joe goes on to explain that the reason why Gibraltar has coped so incredibly well during this crisis is because of the controls at the land frontier. “From the very beginning when restrictions were put in place my view was that if 55% of your workforce goes home across the border how can we enforce what they do on the other side, and we would have had a very serious problem if Spain had not been stopping people moving across the frontier.”
In his view, one of the best things Gibraltar put in place as opposed to other countries was the legislation that Government brought in to restrict people over the age of 70 from leaving their homes unless it was for essential services. Sir Joe says: “It was a logical thing to do because if there is a particularly vulnerable group then it is essential to control the contact they have with those less at risk.”
With the focus on beating the coronavirus crisis, one of the big questions is how will the Johnson administration support Gibraltar as we near the December transition for Brexit? “I think over the last few years – since Cameron, then Theresa May and now Johnson – we have had a level of commitment to Gibraltar, and indeed to the Gibraltarians as a separate people,” Sir Joe replies. “When I started National Day there were people who were saying we shouldn’t have a National Day because it would upset Spain, and the Foreign Office was not very keen that we should call it National Day because that meant we were a nation and that would further upset Spain, and then there would be problems at the frontier.” Sir Joe states that to have a situation where the British Prime Minister addressed Gibraltar on National Day last year is a stamp of approval on which you cannot improve. “Boris Johnson even went a bit further by protecting our Calentita in the process,” he comments, going on to add that “I have been around a long time and I have never known support for Gibraltar on a political level as strong as it is now – even when the frontier was closed.” Having never missed a National Day rally since the first one, Sir Joe is doubtful that it will take place in the same way this year. “I hope I will be on the platform again, but if we still have a high number of cases of coronavirus here we can’t ask people to come to Casemates and maintain social distancing, so we might have to hold a virtual National Day!”
Asked what he considers to be the highlights of his political career and whether there was anything he wishes he could have done differently, Sir Joe clarifies that the most important thing he has done in the whole of his life in politics, even before he started participating as a candidate in an election, was to stop the talks with Spain on Gibraltar’s future. “That is the thing that made me enter politics in the first place and I started campaigning after the 1964 UN resolution.”
“I have always argued that the most important thing for us is the survival of our country because if there is no Gibraltar there are no people who are the Gibraltarians, and humans need a place to have an identity as a people, otherwise you are stateless, and the only way we could guarantee Gibraltar’s future was to make a success of our economy.”
Sir Joe explains that his main quest is and has always been to achieve the decolonisation of Gibraltar through the maximum level of self-government possible whilst keeping Gibraltar independent to Spain but linked to the UK. “Being in effect de facto running our own affairs, which we are – we are not an independent state but we are 99% of one.”
“The success of our economy and everything that I did including creating home ownership and giving scholarships so that all our kids would be able to go to university, all that was driven predominantly by the core value of protecting Gibraltar as a separate entity and to be politically and economically independent from Spain was the only way that we could ever have a safe future – and that is still as true today as it was when I started in 1964.”
As far as doing anything differently, Sir Joe says that there are things in terms of timing or in how he did certain things that with the benefit of hindsight he would have done in other ways. “It is not just politicians, nobody has a crystal ball, and everybody in life can look back and wish they had done something differently.”
After finishing his compulsory national service in the Gibraltar Regiment in 1958, a young Joe Bossano went to the UK to live with his uncle in West Ham from where he joined the Merchant Navy, signing up for four years. “I did a correspondence course with the College of the Sea which was a charity for uneducated seaman like me – and as a result of that I went to university and there I discovered a world of knowledge that was mind-blowing,” he exclaims, continuing “and I developed an insatiable appetite for knowledge which I keep to this day, and I think I would have settled for an academic career if I had not come back to Gibraltar.” In 1976 Joe Bossano founded the Gibraltar Democratic Movement (GDM) which then became the Gibraltar Socialist Labour Party (GSLP) in 1977.
Asked what advice he would offer to other Overseas Territories, for example Bermuda, who may be looking for inspiration to cope with the ‘new normal’ and the resulting economic turbulence of COVID-19, Sir Joe answers that the turbulence is worse than the pandemic. “Every country has found that the only way to do it is to stop functioning, and that if they don’t the virus may be lurking somewhere and will spring to life again,” he states. “But of course if we stop functioning the global economy will come to a grinding halt and most of the western world will be in recession, and it will be much bigger than the recession of 2008 and possibly as big as the depression of the 1930s.”
Although he thinks this will be a huge problem, Sir Joe went on to say that every cloud has a silver lining. “There will no longer be an argument as to whether global warming is man-made or not because when we are all locked up at home – the global warming slows down – so the rate of Co2 going into the atmosphere, the pollution and everything else has in fact started disappearing because we are not venturing out doors because of the fear of the virus.”
In last year’s Budget, Sir Joe coined a phrase describing the illness that we suffer which has been highlighted by the pandemic, one that has been created by western society. “The world’s environmental problem is not Co2 but “compulsive consumption disorder”, and it is this disorder that pushes us to consume what we don’t need that will result in a worldwide epidemic that is killing the planet.” He goes on to state that the epidemic is the nature of the problem that we all face – not just Bermuda, Gibraltar or any of the other Overseas Territories. “The real question is are we all going to try to get back to living the way we used to live and doing the things we used to do and therefore defeat the virus, but carry on with the other illness – the consumption illness.”
“The problem that Bermuda or any small place has is that we depend on external forces and getting our economies back on the growth path is not impossible, but it won’t be easy.”
As an advocate of the Integration with Britain Party (IWBP), and looking at how autonomy works in Gibraltar, we ask Sir Joe how he views the way devolution has turned out in Scotland and Wales. “The reality is that we need to understand that devolving power is always in the hands of a central power and that is evident in Spain where Madrid has taken power away from Catalonia.” He goes on to say that the delegation of power to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland is not the same as Gibraltar. “We have a situation under international law where the UK is required to transfer power to us because we are an Overseas Territory of the UK (the modern name for a colony), but the Charter of the United Nations and the UN resolutions require the UK to give to the people of the Overseas Territories as much self-government as they can handle – so the more you can handle the more you get back.”
In regard to Spain, Sir Joe does not think that they have mellowed at all over the years, but he does think that they cannot be mobilized now in the same way that they used to be. He says: “the pandemic or rather the consequences of the pandemic on public finances could make the liberal democratic model very shaky in the future, so you may see a regression in Spain, not particularly because it is Spain and us, but because it could be a consequence of people not being able to maintain their standard of living because of economic problems and therefore they could blame the Gibraltarians, so times could get more difficult with Spain.”
There is no doubt that Sir Joe, knighted by the Queen in the 2018 New Year’s Honours list, has dedicated his life to politics, something which has left little time for any hobbies. “My hobby is thinking,” he clarifies. “I spend 7 days a week in the office, not on the 1st May or Boxing Day, and at weekends (before coronavirus) I hold clinics.” He then goes on to confide that if he does find time to relax, what interests him most is reading about particle and quantum physics. This leads on to the question of whether he will ever stop, retire, and put his feet up. “I put my feet up every night when I go to bed and I put them down every morning when I get up – and that will continue to happen until the day comes that I put them up and can’t put them down anymore!”