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June 11, 2012

The Other British Isles

by engageabroad

Hon James Netto, Hon Isobel Ellul-Hammond MPs for Gibraltar, Hon Juan Watterson, MHK , Isle of Man

Where is the oldest parliament in the world? It ‘s in the same place where people can vote at sixteen. And although the Queen is the Head of State, it is not part of the United Kingdom. The answer is the Isle of Man, a territory of the British crown whose parliament dates from 979. Like a lot of people I have heard of the Isle of Man but knew little about it but I am getting a crash course at a meeting of parliamentarians from the British islands and the Mediterranean hosted by the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.

Also represented are Jersey and Guernsey  which despite being British are closer to France and were therefore occupied during the Second World War. I have lived in the UK a long time without visiting these places and now realise that I have missed something. It is very odd to hear people with British accents and a British education with the Queen as their Head of State speaking about the UK as a foreign land. Perhaps reminiscent of the Republic of Texas?

Gibraltar is better known than the Isle of Man but is just as exotic in its way -a British territory on Spain’s doorstep. The Spanish may regard it as an aberration but if the parliamentarian I met is representative of Gibraltarians, they remain resolutely British in identity.  Howeverm, they do not completely ignore the surrounding culture either. I am told that studying Spanish is a requirement to the age of sixteen. Apparently most people speak it well in day to day conversation but would find technical Spanish difficult.

The parliamentarian from Gibraltar who is called Isobel Ellul-Hammond tells me she is looking forward to meeting her counterpart from the Falkland Islands. After all, they are in very similar situations with Argentina claiming the Falklands – even though Britain prevailed in the war they fought over the islands in the 1980s. In the meantime,  she compares notes with the parliamentarian from the Isle of Man. Man has no political parties but Gibraltar does. In both places knowing people in government is not difficult and going into government is a logical step if you have been dealing with them.
Despite their British roots their parliaments are called different things. In Gibraltar it’s a Parliament while in the Isle of Man it ‘s the House of Keys or the original norse term Tynwald.

This conference is a region in a large association of parliamentarians of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth being an organisation composed of territories and former colonies of the UK. Over the years I have seen a number of British political meetings around the Commonwealth. For the most part they seemed to reflect more duty than enthusiasm but I detect genuine interest from both delegates and our Scottish hosts. As I listen, I understand why. Being a parliamentarian from a small island or perhaps even a place like Scotland where the parliament is relatively new, can be a solitary undertaking. It’s important to have colleagues with whom to compare notes and relax. Isobel tells me that everyone in Gibraltar knows their parliamentarians by sight so they have only to step out into the street to be accosted by their constituents! That’s pressure.

So they are here to compare notes and discuss international affairs and listen to panel discussions
( like the one I am on for social media). In the meantime, I am getting quite an education in the complexity of British and crown territories. And I have many more questions, like why the representative from the Isle of Man is called Juan*?

*Pronounced JOOwan.

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