Spanish Pining for Rock
With the London Olympics well passed, a resurgent South America and a new Latin Pope, the Spanish clearly feel that sympathy for all things British is on the wane. Time, then, to take another pop at Gibraltar. The dispute over sovereignty is back on the front pages, with the unwelcome prompting of the Daily Mail to turn up to full its jingoistic editorial fever and slag off anything remotely hispanic. (Why on earth do people still read this rag ?). Aside from this cooling of Britain’s international rep, it is not clear what kicked off the latest round of spite from Madrid. Returning to their usual trick of slowly searching every vehicle which crosses between Gib and La Linea, the Spanish have also fired shots in UK waters around the promontory and undertaken provocative overflights. These are not idle acts of petulance but most likely an orchestrated build-up to some diplomatic effort to wrest the territory back from the UK. If the pace is kept up then it is likely we will also be treated to parallel actions regarding the Falkland Islands, with Argentina and Spain working closely together in diplomatic, press, territorial and covert circles.
Gibraltar has a rich history. It is true that the English and Dutch took the port by force in 1704, acting on behalf of Charles of Austria who was chasing the Spanish throne. As part of the Treaty of Utrecht, on 13th July 1713, Spain formally ceded Gib to Britain in perpetuity. Admittedly, they also gave up a few other territories and rights which have since lapsed, such as Minorca (although you could argue that this gem of the Belearics is British by stint of the knotted-hankie brigade). In subsequent years, Britain fortified the town, fought off the Great Siege in 1791 by the Spanish and French, and opened Gibraltar up to international trade – making it a free port and guaranteeing its prosperity. Local elections kicked off in 1922 and the Rock was allowed to govern itself, albeit in support of a significant investment by Britain in the local naval base. Britain alone defended Gibraltar during the Second World War, stationing 30,000 soldiers there.
In 1967, 12,138 of a total of 12,672 registered Gibraltarians voted to remain British (a 99% ‘yes’ to British rule from a 96% turnout). Presumably peeved at this rebuff to his diplomatic proposal to cede Gib back to Spain, Franco promptly closed the border (well, at least the soppy old dictator didn’t shoot them !). The electoral result at the time was no surprise given Spain’s charming human rights record under Franco’s regime. Fast forward to the noughties and Tony Blair shows his true colours in his dismissal of the rights of the locals on the Rock. The Labour Government jumped into lengthy discussions with the Spanish over shared sovereignty as a lever for diplomatic negotiations on EU policy. This culminated in Home Secretary Jack Straw’s announcement to the Commons that Spain and the UK would share Gib if the inhabitants agreed. Sensing betrayal perhaps, and to Straw’s reported dismay, a vote was organised by the Gib government, under international supervision. The result was 17,900 to 183 against leaving the UK (a 98% ‘no’ to shared sovereignty from an 88% turnout).
On 26th March 2008, Minister of State Jim Murphy stated the position of the UK Government with respect to Gibraltar to the House of Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs:
…. Is sovereignty off the agenda for ever? Such conversations cannot stop people raising matters, but we have made it very clear—I think, Mr. Hamilton, that you were at the Gibraltar day celebrations at the Guildhall when I made this speech—that the UK Government will never—”never” is a seldom-used word in politics—enter into an agreement on sovereignty without the agreement of the Government of Gibraltar and their people. In fact, we will never even enter into a process without that agreement. The word “never” sends a substantial and clear commitment and has been used for a purpose. We have delivered that message with confidence to the peoples and the Governments of Gibraltar and Spain. It is a sign of the maturity of our relationship now that that is accepted as the UK’s position.
Ignoring the principles of self-determination on which it has already agreed, Spain continues to use the decolonisation argument with respect to Gibraltar, in much the same way as the Argentinians do over the Falklands. They paint Britain as a tired old grasper of disparate lands, pining for its lost empire, and strangely ignoring their own imperial past. When that fails, the Spanish resort to overt intimidation of the kind we saw in Franco’s day. Surely not the actions of a responsible and modern democracy which has more significant problems to deal with. Then again, perhaps that is precisely the point.