Until last week, I believed that the days when the British government would despatch a gunship to impress pesky foreigners were over, especially with a Labour government in power. That was before HMS Grafton sailed into Gibraltar and fired a 21-gun salute. The frigate's arrival initiated celebrations of an event described with varying degrees of tact as the Rock's 300th birthday or the 300th anniversary of the expulsion of its Spanish population, and it is hard to think of a more provocative gesture towards Spain, one of our EU partners.
Spain's Socialist foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, rightly complained about Britain's "clear lack of sensitivity" as Royal Marines with fixed bayonets paraded through the streets, the Union Flag was duly waved and even the dogs wore patriotic hats. From the whole Cabinet, Tony Blair chose the Secretary of State for Defence to escort Princess Anne, a decision described by Moratinos as the latest in a series of British blunders. The Tory leader, Michael Howard, and his foreign affairs spokesman, Michael Ancram, also turned up, raising questions about the disproportionate influence exerted on Britain by this tiny colony.
I have visited Gibraltar twice and it is like stepping into a time machine, emerging in a place that looks like a provincial English town 40 or 50 years ago. Bobbies in blue helmets and red telephone boxes bake under the Mediterranean sun, the only clue that you are several hundred miles distant from the mother ship. "No one more British than the Gibraltarians unless you be HM the Queen", proclaimed a flyer handed out on Main Street last week, reinforcing the impression that Gibraltar is some kind of olde worlde theme park.
This is a matter of substance as well as appearance, according to the indefatigable campaigner Peter Tatchell, who wrote a couple of years ago that the rock "has the worst human rights record in western
Europe, with immigrant workers, the disabled
and gay people treated as second-class citizens". In almost every sense Gibraltar is a backwater, barely touched by the benign developments of the late 20th century - cultural diversity, a decline in deference, relaxed attitudes to sexuality. It reminds me of Ceuta, one of the Spanish enclaves in North Africa whose continued existence does so much to undermine Spain's claim to the Rock. Last summer, after I made the exhilarating sea crossing from Algeciras to Ceuta, passing within sight of Gibraltar, I felt the same sense of dislocation that I experienced on the Rock.
Last week's flag-waving was accompanied by jibes at Spanish politicians, who were informed by Gibraltar's chief minister, Peter Caruana, that the anniversary celebrations were "none of their business". The Foreign Office joined in, with an unnamed spokesman telling Spanish journalists that their government was indulging in "childlike" behaviour. The mystery is not that Gibraltar's politicians behave as badly as they do but that British governments, even Labour ones, actively collude in it. The Rock "is not Spain's to claim, or Britain's to give away", a member of Gibraltar's house of assembly declared during the celebrations, a show of defiance that was somewhat undermined by the demand for a display of British naval strength to back it up.
None of this helps the Gibraltarians'
insistence on their right to self-determination,
and it is a lesson in the pitfalls of constructing
an oppositional identity: the Rock's population is not so much British as not-Spanish, even if Spanish is the language many residents use daily. More to the point, the shrill declarations of patriotism we heard last week are a mirror image of what Gibraltarians object to most about Spain, which has at least shown a willingness to discuss joint sovereignty.
Not so the inhabitants of the Rock, who are so puffed up by their leaders' rhetoric that they expect, and get, gunboats, royals and ministers on demand. This supine attitude does the Gibraltarians no favours, for while they are so indulged they are unlikely to agree to sensible talks about their future. They may maintain their nostalgic identification with post-war Britain, but it is time they realised that, in the 21st century, the sentiment is not necessarily returned.