I don’t think there is any British Governor around the world that could feel as at home as I do in Gibraltar.
Vice Admiral Sir David George Steel, KBE, DL was appointed Governor of Gibraltar, the Queen’s representative on the Rock, by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in June this year. Jo Ward talks to him about his life, career and his hopes for Gibraltar.
As a young boy David Steel was taken by his parents on holiday to France. “We went on a Townsend Thoresen ferry from Dover to Calais and I can remember walking up and down the passageways – I could only have been about six – feeling that I was the Captain, and from then on I always wanted to join the Navy,” he says.
Born in Walthamstow, Sir David jokes that he is ‘an Essex boy’. “My mother was a Cockney and my father a Geordie, so I am a mixed-up kid,” he remarks. “My father was an architect and when I was about two years old we moved to Cheshire when he got a job running a partnership in Manchester.”
Educated at independent Rossall School in Lancashire, on the Fylde coast just north of Blackpool, Sir David got a scholarship from the Navy at sixteen and then applied to join Dartmouth and Durham University at the same time. “Durham agreed to postpone my entry for a year so I went to Dartmouth, did my initial Naval Officer Training and then went on to read Law at Durham,” he tells me.
Sir David says that when her two sons were headed for university, he can remember his mother saying that she couldn’t bear the thought of them having a degree without having one herself, so she did an Open University degree in Humanities and Social Sciences. “I can’t remember whether she got her BA before I got mine, but I think we were pretty much on a par,” he states.
Asked why he chose law to study, Sir David says that he was firstly interested in it and that secondly he thought it was a very useful broad vocational degree. “In the Navy they take two officers a year to become Barristers and even at that very early formative stage I had decided that I wanted to be in the Navy branch because I enjoyed that part of the Navy and I recognised it was the branch from which they chose Barristers, so I was very fortunate and I gained my degree.” Four years later the Navy sent Sir David to the Inns of Court to become a Barrister, from where he qualified and was then called to the bar in 1988. “Throughout my naval career I was either a legal advisor to one admiral or another and then I was a Defence or Prosecution Counsel in Courts Martial, going on to became a Judge in Courts Martial towards the end of my career.”
Agreeing that he was lucky to be able to fulfil both his ambitions, Sir David comments that he has been blessed with his career. “The Navy was first and foremost always going to be my career and to be able to have the legal professional side as well was terrific,” he explains. “I continued that all the way up to when I was a four ring Captain and then I had to make a decision, do I continue down the legal route or throw my energy into the Navy and I decided to go down that route, which allowed me to go higher but it did mean that I slightly left the law behind.” Sir David goes on to mention that having a legal background has helped not just in that job, but in his job before he came to Gibraltar and will also be an asset whilst he is here.
Although he served in the Falklands War and in Kosovo, Sir David wishes that he had travelled rather more than did. “Because my branch and the legal professional I didn’t go to sea nearly as much as my warfare counterparts, whom I was advising back in the UK, out of my thirty-six years in the Navy I was attached to a ship for just shy of fifteen years, but I would have been much more at sea had I not read the law.”
Among his most notable achievements are being awarded a Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service in support of operations in Kosovo and Macedonia while serving in the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible in 1999. Sir David was also honoured for his “inspirational leadership” during the Government’s savings review of Naval Bases in 2007 and in response to the question about what he considers to be his greatest achievement, Sir David highlights his part in keeping Portsmouth open as an operational naval base.
“In 2005 I was appointed to be the Naval Base Commander Portsmouth in charge of seventeen thousand people, of which a good twelve thousand of those are civilians who work on the ships, the engineering, and in the infrastructure facilities,” he explains. “In 2007 the then government announced that the country could no longer afford three naval bases, Plymouth, Portsmouth and Faslane in Scotland, and that one was to close.” Sir David says that there was to be a review of those three naval bases but that the dice was already against Portsmouth because it didn’t cater for nuclear powered vessels and was much older than the other two bases. “With the amazing help of the Trade Unions and all the civilian population we mounted the case, not in a sort of rebellious way but we put the case for Portsmouth and for over two years we continued to put forward that case – looking at how we could bring the costs down and how we could promote what the naval base did.” Ultimately, the government agreed that Portsmouth couldn’t possibly be closed. “I had a very small part in keeping the Navy’s oldest naval base open but more particular to me was making sure that seventeen thousand people kept their jobs and so if I had one glimmer of success in my naval career – I think that was probably it,” he says modestly.
Interestingly, Sir David oversaw the first change in the Royal Naval uniform since 1890. “Now we are at the other end of the scale,” he laughs as he says this. “Uniform is as controversial as anything could possibly be in the Navy and over many years there have been different designs for the uniforms.” As Second Sea Lord, Sir David commissioned a study and brought in a new, more up-to-date uniform which was universally accepted. “If you watched ‘In Which we Serve’ the film set in WWII – the old uniform was the same uniform as then and every other navy in the world had moved on, so we introduced something that was comfortable to wear both in the Arctic and in the Middle East.”
Prior to his coming to Gibraltar, Sir David was Chief Executive of the Leeds Castle Foundation. “That was a fantastic job where I was in sole charge of a business with a £20 million turnover year and responsible for three hundred and fifty people,” he declares. “I found that absolutely fascinating – to come from the Navy where I was responsible for billions of pounds and forty thousand people, but if you overspent or under-spent it was neither here nor there, whereas at Leeds Castle every pound counted and I did feel that if I didn’t get the job right then one of those three hundred and fifty people would lose their job, so there was that huge responsibility of running a business where absolutely every day the money counted.”
Having already served Her Majesty the Queen as her Naval Aide-de-Camp, which entailed meeting and greeting the Monarch and acting as her right hand person when she used to visit the Navy, Sir David is once again serving Her Majesty in his role as Governor. Under the 2006 Constitution His Excellency, to give him his official title, has responsibility for defence, internal security and foreign affairs. From his point of view and in the short time that he has been here is the role of Governor of Gibraltar what he expected it to be, or is it too ceremonial with not enough decision making? “The job is much more complex than it looks,” he responds. “When I was asked to come to Gibraltar I was asked to be a modern Governor – and I really didn’t know what that meant, but in essence it means being both the Queen’s representative, and I think that is where my priorities lie – but the close ties between the Crown and Gibraltar fall upon the shoulders of the Governor to execute.”
Does this mean he will be involved in making decisions about things like the Spanish aggression over the territorial waters? “The incursions are a hugely sensitive matter and I recently expressed my frustration and my anger at this continued transgression of Spanish forces into British Gibraltar Territorial Waters,” he replies. “We need to find a way of solving that, but it is not going to be solved by gun boat diplomacy – it will be solved by diplomatic and political means and part of the discussions going on at the moment, all to do with the withdrawal from the European Union, are hopefully going to either clear that up totally or if we fail we have got to start all over again and try and resolve this.” Sir David remarks that incursions have been going on for three hundred years but that it is not the British way to send in the tanks.
“Every time they do something like this the Royal Navy is on the water making a silent protest, and in some cases not a silent protest, and if they fly the Spanish flag in British Gibraltar Territorial Waters, we will fly a bigger Union flag in the Territorial Waters – it is as simple as that.”
In these unprecedented times, with the withdrawal from the European Union and the Covid-19 issues, Sir David says that he has found himself very much more involved in helping the British and Gibraltarian Governments devise the plans and solutions to what could be an incredibly difficult problem. “Because I have not been able to go out and about as much as I would have liked, every day of the week has been taken up with helping the negotiations to deliver a result for Gibraltar – so I do feel I am involved in the decision making.”
Regarding the issue of Brexit, Sir David tells me that he could never have anticipated before he came here just how much effort the British Government is putting in to ensuring a good outcome for Gibraltar. “Whether one is for or against leaving the European Union, and I make no bones about it – I’m a European through and through but that doesn’t mean that I voted to stay or leave – but I do believe in the European family of nations,” he states. “I believe that Britain coming out of the European Union will flourish and on the back of that I think we will go through some difficult patches but Britain is the second largest trading nation in Europe, it is the sixth or seventh largest trading nation in the world and it is not going to stop on the 1st January 2021.”
“Trade is going to continue with Europe and the rest of the World and I believe that we will have some difficulty but that Britain will regain its strength by tying up with the rest of the World and included in that is Gibraltar,” he says. “Gibraltar is slightly different, in that it is landlocked with the European Union, so I honestly believe that any deal we do may have to have a unique part for Gibraltar, and I think there is a common realisation within Brussels and London that there might have to be a unique facility to make Gibraltar thrive, and I think that is where the work is ongoing.”
Patronage of Charities
One of the saddest things about taking on the role of Governor at this particular time is that Sir David has not been able to get out to the twenty or so charities of which he has already become Patron. “I was looking forward to bouncing into Gibraltar, Tigger-like, getting involved in everything going on and I can’t begin to tell you how frustrated I have been that I haven’t been able to go to the schools, to the charities, to participate in events, go to the theatre and to all the things that happen here, but once it gets back to normal then I will be very busy and I am looking forward to it.”
Impressions of Gibraltar
Apart from two quick visits to deliver a speech here, the last time Sir David came to Gibraltar was on a three day stop in 1983 in the frigate HMS Broadsword on his way to the Gulf on the Beira Patrol. “My recollection is walking around and thinking that it was a rather down-at-heel military town, and coming back now I am agog at how Gibraltar has transformed itself and there has been a massive change, but what astonished me most is how ambitious Gibraltar has become, how cosmopolitan, and with the development of the green sites everywhere it is cleaner, smarter, vibrant, ambitious, dynamic – it is all focused on the future, whereas in 1983 I think it was focused on the past.”
Home in the UK is a village outside Winchester, and coming to Gibraltar has meant that Sir David will be able to see more of his brother who lives along the coast in Fuengirola, but with such a busy life, does he have time to indulge in any hobbies or sporting activities? “What I have taken to in a big way is walking, I absolutely love it, and if I have the time in the evenings I will go and walk up the Med Steps and I am also now back to running, so I run up and down to Europa Point,” Sir David says. “I want to join a squash club and I would like, if I have the time, to join a Kayak Club and go kayaking around Gibraltar.”
“In the three months that I have been here the one thing I have learnt more than anything is that Gibraltar people have huge hearts and big smiles and I have been overwhelmed by the welcome that has been extended to me. I wrote in a report to London recently that I don’t think there is any British Governor around the world that could feel as at home as I do in Gibraltar.”