monkey on the ledge

Despite being a tiny rock on the south coast of the Iberian Peninsula, Gibraltar is at the heart of constant arguments between the UK and Spain. Today, I want to discuss why Gibraltar is British and whether it could (or should) return to Spain in the future!

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  • Iberian Peninsula (n) – the area of land that consists of Spain, Portugal, Andorra, Gibraltar, and part of France
    • The Iberian Peninsula is situated in the southwest of Europe
  • Territory (n) – land that is considered as belonging to or connected with a particular country
    • He was stranded in enemy territory
  • To cede (v) – to allow someone else to have or own something, especially unwillingly or because you are forced to do so
    • Hong Kong was ceded to Britain after the Opium War
  • To relinquish (v) – to give up something such as a responsibility or claim
    • He has relinquished his claim to the throne.
  • Sovereignty (n) – the power of a country to control its own government
    • Talks are being held about who should have sovereignty over the island.
  • self-determination (n) – the ability or power to make decisions for yourself, especially the power of a nation to decide how it will be governed  
    • Self-determination is an important idea in international law
  • Integral (adj) – necessary and important as a part of a whole                
    • He’s an integral part of the team and we can’t do without him

The Dispute over Gibraltar!

At the very south of the Iberian Peninsula, just below the Spanish city of La Linea and only a few kilometres away from the coast of Africa, lies a 5km long and 1km wide piece of land. It has no rivers or natural springs, no agriculture or farms, a population of around 30,000 people, and is home to the only population of wild monkeys in Europe.

This tiny rock is known to the world as Gibraltar. At first, Gibraltar may seem insignificant to most people. But Gibraltar is a uniquely important and controversial piece of territory.

Although bordering Spain, Gibraltar has actually been a British territory for hundreds of years. The citizens of “the Rock” are British citizens and largely English speaking. In fact, the people of Gibraltar have been described as more British and more patriotic than people from Britain.

However, not everything is simple. The status of Gibraltar is disputed by Spain and the Spanish government who claim the land as part of Spain. And Brexit (or Britain exiting the EU) has made things even more complicated, leaving the British Overseas Territory in an uncomfortable situation.

Today, I want to investigate the case of Gibraltar. Why is it not a part of Spain? And how did it become a British Overseas Territory? We’ll look at the political identity of Gibraltar, its history and how it became British, the current situation, and the future of “the Rock.”

Before I do this, I would like to quickly address the controversial nature of this topic. I’ve talked about territorial and land disputes before – about Taiwan and the Falkland Islands. And while most of the comments I received were amazing and interesting (I especially love reading comments from people who have their own opinions), I did receive a few horrible messages.

My aim with this episode is introduce the topic, look at the history, and discuss the possible future. But I will tell you about my opinion on the issue right now, so no one is confused. I am a strong supporter of the right to self-determination. I believe the rights of the people to decide their own fate is more important than countries arguing about land. So, I believe that the people living on Gibraltar (not the governments of the UK, Spain, or the EU) should be the only ones deciding their political future!

That’s enough of my opinions, let’s get into this episode!

What is Gibraltar? And where is it?

Let’s start with the location of Gibraltar.

Gibraltar is located on the southern edge of the Iberian Peninsula (the Iberian Peninsula is area containing most of Spain and Portugal). Gibraltar itself is also a peninsula (although a much much smaller one) meaning that is surrounded mostly by water and only connected to land by a relatively small border.

Gibraltar is connected to Spain by a narrow isthmus or narrow strip of land that connects to larger landmasses. It is famously known as “the Rock” due to its appearance as a large ridge jutting out the ocean.

It is directly south of the Spanish city of La Linea and surrounded by the Bay of Gibraltar and the Straight of Gibraltar. The Straight of Gibraltar is boundary between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea – where the distance between Europe and Africa is only a few kilometres! This makes it very valuable and tactically important. Around half of the world’s seaborn trade passes through the Straight of Gibraltar, giving the countries who control it a lot of power!

Is Gibraltar a country? No! Is it part of the UK? Kind of, but not exactly! Gibraltar is a British Overseas Territory. British Overseas Territories are the last remnants of the British Empire and consist of 14 territories with a historical link to Britain.

British Overseas Territories have their own governments (they are self-governing). This means that Gibraltar has its own government. They have a parliament and an elected Chief Minister! Britain, however, is responsible for the territory’s defence and international relations.

So, Gibraltar, like other Overseas Territories, is a peculiar and complicated political thing. It is both connected to the UK and able to make its own decisions and political choices. It is geographically far from the Britain but culturally and linguistically similar.

How did this unusual partnership or relationship begin? Why is Gibraltar part of the UK?

History of Gibraltar!

Evidence suggests that people have lived in and around Gibraltar for thousands of years. Evidence of Neanderthal and early human settlements has been found in “the Rock’s” caves.

The Ancient Greek’s considered Gibraltar to be one of the Pillars of Hercules, and it was known and visited by ancient Phoenician peoples.

In the Middle Ages, Gibraltar was briefly controlled by the Vandals and later became part of the Visigoth Kingdom until 711.

In 710, a Berber army invaded Spain from North Africa under the command of Tariq ibn Ziyad. This invasion eventually led to the Islamic conquest of the entire Iberian Peninsula. Gibraltar was named Jabal Tariq, or the Mount of Tariq, which eventually became the name Gibraltar!

The Muslim rulers controlled Gibraltar for centuries. An example of this can still be seen in Gibraltar with the remains of a Moorish castle.

The Christians finally took over the territory in the year 1462 and the Spanish Catholic Monarchs Isabel and Fernando secured Gibraltar as part of Spain!

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How did Gibraltar Become a British Overseas Territory?

So, Gibraltar has had a long history. But how did it leave the hands of the Spanish and become a British territory?

In 1700, the Spanish King Charles II died without a clear heir. A war broke out between different groups who wanted to take over the monarchy – this war today is known as the Spanish War of Succession.

In 1704, British and Dutch forces took control of Gibraltar on request of Charles of Austria, one of the active participants in the War of Succession. Britain and the Netherlands wanted to stop France from taking full control of Spain, and taking control of Gibraltar as well as defending Portugal were part of this plan.

The War of Succession concluded in 1713 with the Treaty of Utrecht which decided the grandson of the King of France would become the new Spanish King. The Treaty of Utrecht also ceded Gibraltar to Britain permanently.

Britain kept control of Gibraltar with relative ease over the next few centuries. One exception would by the siege of Gibraltar by France and Spain in the late 18th century – but the Rock resisted and remained a key part of Britain’s Empire.

The 19th century was the peak of Gibraltar’s influence. It became a vital port on the British trading route to India – allowing sailors and ships to stop over, rest, and store their goods. Ships would sail from Britain, through the Straight of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean Sea and on to the Suez Canal.

 In the 20th century, Gibraltar also played an important role in the Second World War. It became home to the British Royal Navy’s “Force H.” And Eisenhower used Gibraltar as a base to plan and control the American’s landings in North Africa in 1942.

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Gibraltar’s Current Situation

Gibraltar has been a British Territory for over 300 years at this point. And there is a famous legend that “while there are monkeys on Gibraltar it will remain British.”

Yet, Spain has not been happy about this situation. Since the regime of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, Spain has had an official policy for the reclamation of the territory. In other words, Spain’s government officially demands Britain return Gibraltar to Spain.

After WW2, the British Empire basically collapsed, and the majority of colonies became independent or were let go by Britain. Gibraltar seemed to be heading down a similar path, but there was a problem. The people of Gibraltar do not want to be part of Spain. Gibraltar does not want to be Spanish.

The Treaty of Utrecht gave Britain control of Gibraltar forever. However, it also included a rule that if Britain ever decided to relinquish control of Gibraltar, Spain would get first choice on whether to take Gibraltar back.  

In 1967 Gibraltar voted in a referendum. They could choose to either stay in close association with Britain or become Spanish – the result was almost unanimous to stay part of Britain’s territories. Spain was so angry with this result that they closed the border between Spain and Gibraltar until 1985.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Britain and Spain negotiated a new deal which would have resulted in joint sovereignty over Gibraltar (Gibraltar would have been both British and Spanish). Again, however, this was completely rejected by the people of Gibraltar in referendum. They didn’t want to be Spanish.

No political party in Gibraltar supports a union with Spain. In 2000, the Gibraltar Parliament issued a declaration that stated, “the people of Gibraltar will never compromise, give up or trade their sovereignty or their right to self-determination; that Gibraltar wants good, neighbourly, European relations with Spain; and that Gibraltar belongs to the people of Gibraltar and is neither Spain’s to claim nor Britain’s to give away.”

The UK now will no longer negotiate the status of Gibraltar unless the Gibraltar government is involved in the discussions. This infuriates Spain… as the Spanish are aware the Gibraltarians are unlikely to ever support a return to Spain.


British Position on Gibraltar

The British position of Gibraltar is that the territory has the right to self-determination. Self-determination is a key international principal that states that “peoples, based on respect for the principle of equal rights and fair equality of opportunity, have the right to freely choose their sovereignty.” In other words, people should be able to decide their future for themselves.

Therefore, Britain will no longer negotiate the issue of Gibraltar without Gibraltar being involved in the process. Britain also has ruled out Gibraltar becoming independent. This, again, is due to Spain. Spain would have to consent to Gibraltar becoming independent, which Britain doesn’t want to risk.

So, Britain’s position is that Gibraltar will stay as a British Overseas Territory if that is what the people of Gibraltar want.


Spanish Position on Gibraltar

Spain bases its claim to own Gibraltar on an idea called territorial integrity. Basically, Gibraltar is an integral part of Spanish territory (in history and tradition) and therefore should be controlled by Spain.

Spain sees Gibraltar as a British colony. From the perspective of Spain, Gibraltarians (the people of Gibraltar) are settlers from the United Kingdom and their right to self-determination doesn’t matter. They support this argument through the fact only about 100 Spanish inhabitants of Gibraltar remained when Britain took control of “the Rock” 300 years ago.

Spain, therefore, does not care about the ideas and interests of the people of Gibraltar. Spain believes that the matter can be settled directly by communication and negotiation between Spain and the UK.

This is clearly different from the British perspective that Gibraltar needs to be part of the discussions.


Gibraltar Position on Gibraltar

Gibraltar completely disagrees with the Spanish government’s position. They believe that the right to self-determination clearly applies to Gibraltar.

While Gibraltar has friendly relations with Spanish people and visitors, they are very suspicious and mistrustful of the Spanish government. There have been two referendums on the issue of Gibraltar’s sovereignty, both which rejected any role for Spain.

In 2022, the Chief Minister of Gibraltar Fabian Picardo said “Gibraltar will never be Spanish.” In fact, for people in Gibraltar the most important political issue is not the economy or social policies but ensuring that they will never be Spanish.



Hopefully I’ve done an adequate job at explaining the different positions of the UK, Spain, and Gibraltar. In a nutshell, Spain wants Gibraltar back from Britain. Gibraltar never wants to be Spanish. And the UK will only do what Gibraltar wants.

One issue that has complicated the issue of Gibraltar’s sovereignty is Brexit. The UK voted to leave the European Union in 2016, but almost 100% of Gibraltar’s residents voted to stay. Gibraltar was the only British Overseas Territory to be part of the EU, and when the UK left so did Gibraltar.

Spain has attempted to use Brexit as an opportunity to push for Spanish control over the territory.

There are some major issues causing problems for Gibraltar now they are not in the EU. The movement of people, goods, and air travel is currently being negotiated – Spain has a much higher unemployment rate than Gibraltar leading to many people in towns close to Gibraltar looking for work in the territory. And the territory’s finance industry and tax arrangements are an issue.

However, while the people of Gibraltar certainly want a smooth relationship with their neighbour Spain, right now it seems very unlikely that they will ever become Spanish again!


Final Thought

Why is Gibraltar British? The simple explanation is that Britain was given control of Gibraltar during the Spanish War of Succession. Now the territory is very British and English speaking and does not want to be Spanish.

As I said at the beginning of my episode, I am a big supporter of the right to self-determination. I think people should be able to decide for themselves who governs them and their land. I think people are more important than the countries arguing over land.

For me, the only people who should be deciding the future of Gibraltar are the people living there. The British government and, in particular, the Spanish government need respect the wishes of the people of Gibraltar.

What do you think? Does your country have any territorial disputes?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

8 thoughts on “203. Why is Gibraltar British? (English Vocabulary Lesson)”
  1. Hi Tom, thank you very much for your work. As a Spanish person, I have liked your episode about Gibraltar and mostly agree with your position, but I would like to make a point about one of the main Sanish arguments that has not been mentioned.

    Gibraltar is currently a tax haven whose thriving economy depends on economic flows from big international crime. For Spain, having such a location within its own territory complicates the fight against drug trafficking, illegal immigration and tax fraud, and this is an important part of the claim to the territory. From the point of view of the inhabitants of Gibraltar, returning Gibraltar to Spain would be a catastrophe from an economic point of view, because they would lose all the “banking tourism” they currently enjoy.

    In any case, Tom, congratulations on the work you do in trying to explain in a concise, clear and entertaining way all kinds of topics, without shying away from complex and controversial topics. Thank you!

  2. Dear Tom, Thanks for the new topic, every time, after enjoying your podcast, I can’t keep myself from coming up with some ideas…In the midst of listening to this episode, Hong Kong as a comparison to Gibraltar is popping up in my mind…Either of them is or was the overseas territory of Britian.

    1. Thanks Leo! There is an important difference between Hong Kong and Gibraltar. While (like Gibraltar) Hong Kong island was ceded to Britain permanently in the Treaty on Nanking (an unfair treaty), half of Hong Kong was leased for 99 years.

      So Britain legally had to give the New Territories back and negotiated with China to return all of Hong Kong.

      Gibraltar, however, is legally all a UK territory until the UK decides to relinquish the claim!

  3. Thanks for your work, it’s great to see how little by little I’m understanding a little more.
    Totally agree with you that it is the affected territory that has to decide.
    In Spain there are two more territories that part of its citizens would like to form their own nation.
    One of them is Catalonia, with its own language and culture.
    I would love for you to dedicate a podcast to this conflict, which on October 1, 2017, reached its peak, with the call for a referendum not approved by the central government and that ended with the police intervention, beating the population that was going to vote, and their politicians with prison sentences of 13 years and some in exile.

    1. I have an episode planned about Chagos! Not sure when it will be released, but it is a fascinating topic. I’m a big supporter of self-determination, and believe the Chagos islanders should be allowed to return home and choose the future of their own community. It is ridiculous that the British government and US military evicted an entire island.

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