There seems to be an inverse law of empires, whereby the smaller the remnants of colonialism, the louder the patriotic roar when there is any question of returning purloined territories to their rightful owners. It looks as if we are in for a lot of noise over Gibraltar. The Gibraltarians' veto over change would seem to rule out serious progress in the Anglo-Spanish talks resumed in London yesterday, but that has not prevented an upsurge of pre-emptive outrage.
Here is an issue on which Tory super-patriots can make common cause with trade unionists nostalgic for the days when the TGWU pretty much ran the Rock. The left/right alliance of Little Englanders hasn't had so much fun since Labour and Tory backbenchers combined to veto Mrs Thatcher's proposal for a leaseback deal with Argentina and thereby caused the death of hundreds of British soldiers.
For an Opposition bereft of something to oppose, a phoney war over Gibraltar would be a godsend. At last the incredible shrinking Tories could stand tall again. Two and a bit square miles of land snatched from Spain three hundred years ago, and every inch of it ours for ever and ever! This is not even Little England, it is microscopic England. Gibraltar is the perfect Lilliputian issue, a chance for all true micro-Brits to hang out plastic Union Jacks made in Taiwan or South Korea.
Our peevish patriots are already on the march, chuntering about Foreign Office sellouts and the God-given right of every would-be Englishman to self-determine on foreign soil. The cynicism and self-delusion are wondrous to behold. Mrs Thatcher signed away the lives of five million Hong Kong Chinese to a communist regime, but for Labour even to contemplate transferring 27,000 Gibraltarians to a flourishing democracy would be treason. And before anyone mentions leases, Hong Kong island, like Gibraltar, was technically ours in perpetuity.
Gibraltar belongs to Spain in the same way that Calais belongs to France, and Bognor Regis to Britain. Handing it back was never an option while Franco was in power, though, and it is scarcely surprising that the quasi-totality of Gibraltarians voted against change in 1967. Today Spain is an established democracy, an EU and Nato partner. In Kosovo, the respected Javier Solana, then Nato Secretary General, was in command of British troops.
Some eight million Brits visit Spain annually, presumably because they like it. And large numbers of our countrymen, not all of them crooks, settle on the Costa del Sol, while many an undertaxed Gibraltarian patriot has invested in Sottogrande, a vast and spacious development deep in "enemy'' territory.
One understands why. Gibraltar is a seedy, pokey enclave, rife with money laundering, mafia activities, you name it. Not the sort of freebooting place the British would care to have foreigners run in Newhaven or Portsmouth. To anyone privy to what goes on, the claim by its Chief Minister that: "There is no smuggling'' in Gibraltar will be met with derision, notably among Gibraltarians themselves. And when they insist on how frightfully loyal they are to the mother country, we should remember that their sense of patriotism did not extend to allowing the dockyard to work on a British nuclear submarine.
As the UN long ago concluded, claims to self-determination are an emotive obfuscation. There is no analogy whatever with colonies such as Algeria or India. The parallel with Hong Kong is closest, and there Mrs Thatcher was careful not to allow its people to determine their future. Sentimentally this was sad; realistically, as the lady was fond of saying, "there is no alternative''. Like the Chinese, the Spanish would never tolerate an independent entity on their territory, and in similar circumstances, nor would we.
Our big mistake was under Franco. Instead of just saying no to any question of transfer, we wrote into law the Gibraltarians' right to veto. Today this means that the interests of 60 million Brits are forever subordinate to those of 27,000 mostly Andalusian-speaking Gibraltarians. In the politics of the Rock, the tail wags the Barbary ape, and guess who is the monkey.
Bluster about "Foreign Office sellouts by yellow-bellied mandarins'' is part of the micro-Brit's fantasy world. To admit that in the FCO, as in all ministries, it is civil servants who propose and governments who decide, spoils his game. The implication that Prime Ministers like Mrs Thatcher are putty in the mandarins' hands some will see as curious.
No doubt the lady herself will soon be waving the Treaty of Utrecht, which gave us Gibraltar, just as she briefly flourished the treaties by which Hong Kong island became ours for ever and a day, shortly before giving it back. Her realism in office deserved praise, though even she would not have had the courage to tell the country the truth about Gibraltar.
Politically, one can see why. When it comes to the Rock, most of the media play the old tub-thumping game and the majority unthinkingly support them. That is democracy. So is the right to dissent from mass sentiment, and to suggest that Britain's interests lie in a gradual transfer of the territory to its historical owner.
Anyone who wanted would be free to be British in Britain, pay British excise duties, taxes and house prices, and enjoy the British sun. Help with resettlement would be forthcoming, and the rights of those choosing to remain could be internationally guaranteed. Obviously it would be a pity to disrupt the lives of Gibraltarians who have been encouraged to believe that they can go on living in the past for ever, but I can think of people more deserving of our sympathy.
I propose this in the certain knowledge that dispassionate debate on Gibraltar is foredoomed. The time for common sense will eventually come, as it will for the Falklands, but not before we have squandered much more of our political and economic substance on these archaic distractions. The Spanish have played a poor game on the Rock, but so have we. Our national stance does not make us look elevated and principled; it makes us look small and stubborn.
The writer is a former diplomat and Conservative ministerReuse content