WHAT MAKES US WANT TO BETRAY GIBRALTAR?
"How would you feel", my Galician barber asked me the other day, "if we had occupied, say, Plymouth, filled it with colonists, and then hung on to it?"
"To be honest, Pepe," I told him, "I think most British people would treat it as an exotic holiday destination. We'd go there for the flamenco and the sangria, and enjoy the fact that we had a little bit of Spain on our doorstep. What I don't understand is why you chaps are still so edgy about these things after three hundred years ".
Pepe shrugged. "No tengo puta idea" he replied, in his coarse, cheerful, Spanish, and we turned the conversation, as we often do, to our favourite bull-fighters.
The Gibraltar issue tells us as much about ourselves as about the Spanish. After all, you can't really blame Madrid for pushing at a door that we have so ostentatiously unlocked. The world is full of disputed territories. What makes this case special is the unique pusillanimity of the British Government which, despite having both international law and democratic self-determination on its side, seems determined to turn a non-issue into an issue.
When we huff and puff about Spain's hypocrisy in pressing its claim while refusing to discuss the status of its North African enclaves, Ceuta and Melilla, we are missing the point. The reason the Spanish have become so exercised about Gibraltar is because they believe that their pressure will eventually yield results. And, for that, our own Government is to blame.
Gibraltar does not fit easily into Labour's conception of a modern, European Britain. It is too shrill, too patriotic, too red-white-and-blue. The stance which this administration has assumed over the Rock tells us a great deal about Labour's whole attitude to Britishness.
At his very first conference as Labour leader, Tony Blair told his party: "I will never allow Britain to be isolated or left behind in Europe". At one level, of course, he simply meant that he wanted to sign up to whole swathes of EU policy which the Conservatives had eschewed, such as the euro and the social chapter. But he also meant something much deeper. When Labour modernisers speak of "the Project" they have in mind a complete overhaul of Britain: an ironing out of the things that make us different from the rest of the EU. This includes the continentalisation of our economy, through higher taxes and more state intervention; the continentalisation of our constitution, through the introduction of regionalism and proportional representation, and the abolition of such British anomalies as the House of Lords; and the continentalisation of our legal system through the incorporation of European human rights codes.
Part of becoming a modern European country means shedding the encumbrances of Empire, so as to sit in Brussels on the same terms as everyone else (except the French, who have somehow managed to hang on to their own outposts without anyone thinking the worse of them). In such a scheme, Gibraltar is a positive embarrassment. Gibraltarians, like Ulster Unionists, represent everything that Mr Blair finds disturbing in his country. They are loyal -- visibly, painfully loyal -- to the kind of Britain that he is trying to consign to history.
After all, in a world where national identity is not meant to matter, Gibraltar's politicians speak of little else. European integration is founded on a belief that national loyalties are temporary and transient, quickly to be discarded in favour of the benefits of living in a bigger state. Simply by existing, Gibraltarians make a mockery of this entire philosophy. Through decades of bullying and harassment by their larger neighbour, they have clung steadfastly to their British identity. Neither threats nor enticements have served to make them think differently about who they are. In the final analysis, they would choose to be poor but free.
To New Labour modernisers, as to our bien pensant diplomats, such thinking is anathema. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that, even if Spain did not claim the territory, they would be keen to get rid of it. With its fish-and-chip shops, its union-jack hats, its provincial inhabitants, it represents everything they hate about their own country. To have 30,000 members of the forces of conservatism under their jurisdiction is bad enough. The idea that these people might actually impede a deal with one of our European partners over agricultural prices or whatever is simply horrifying to them.
Last month, I participated in a debate in Oxford against a very senior British Eurocrat. As we lingered over our port after dinner, he leaned back in his chair and asked, theatrically, "why is it that everyone seems to want a solution to the Gibraltar problem except the Gibraltarians?"
"What do you mean 'problem'?"
"You know: the Gibraltar problem. We can't let one issue like this hold up our other interests in Europe".
Note the interesting use of the word "problem". If Britain chose to make a unilateral claim on, say, Sicily, would this create a "Sicily problem", with consequent pressure on the Italian Government to meet us half way? If I took a fancy to my neighbour's car, would he be expected to let me use it on certain days of the week in the interests of "reaching a solution"? For Britain's legal claim is guaranteed in a watertight treaty, and bolstered by the near unanimous support of the population who, in 1967, voted by 12,138 to 44 to remain British.
Even in its own terms, the argument that Britain stands to gain from a "solution'' is spurious. After all, we were members of the EU for a full 13 years before Spain was admitted. Spain, consequently, was not able to join without Britain's permission. One of the issues on the table during the accession talks was the status of Gibraltar, which Spain was obliged to accept as an EU member with full rights. Are we really to believe that, at a time when we held all the negotiating cards, we deliberately betrayed Gibraltar's interests? If so, what does this tell us about the Foreign Office? And if not, what is it that Spain is meant to be offering us now? For the extraordinary thing about the appeasers' argument is that they are unable to name any specific, concrete advantages that would come to Britain if we gave in to Madrid. We are being asked to betray our Gibraltarian countrymen in return for that most nebulous of Euro-phile concepts, "influence".
The truth is that, for many in this administration, jettisoning Gibraltar is an end in itself. If Madrid happens to put something on the table in return, fine. But one feels that Labour would still seek to withdraw from the Rock, even if they had to pay Madrid to take it. The only thing that stands in their way is the stubborn loyalty of the Gibraltarians themselves. Our countrymen on the Rock are displaying a steadfastness and a belief in freedom that we in the UK seem to be in danger of forgetting. It may be out of place in Labour's Britain. It may be awkward. But it is the last defence they have.