What a splendid sight it was last
week, British warships sailing out of Portsmouth harbour – Spithead to some of
you – cheered on from the shore by the faithful of Pompey, our jolly tars ready
to protect the beleaguered citizens of Gibraltar. Just like the good old days, eh?
Well, not quite.
In those good old days, a British
warship would sail into a foreign port and merely by raising the white ensign,
or firing a warning shot across the bay, quell the restless natives, or send
would-be invaders scurrying back whence they came. Well done, lads, extra rum rations all
round! That was then. This is now. It’s hard to imagine today what British
warships cruising back and forth off the Rock are going to do, can do, in the
defence of Empire, other than cruising back and forth off the Rock.
Yes, it’s true we retook the Falklands
– and not so many years ago, at that – but that might be seen, and I think will
be seen, as the very last hurrah for belligerent British naval action anywhere. Anyway, that expedition was against the
Argies, who might play good football, cook great steaks and produce a few
decent wines but are hardly a Premiership team when it comes to a bit of
argy-bargy (despite the phrase). The sad
truth is that the British Navy these days has hardly enough ships to patrol the
Thames Estuary, let alone the Oceans blue.
We could probably, at a pinch,
hold on to the Isle of Sheppey, but I don’t think any foreign power has laid
claim to it.
It’s true that those pesky
Spaniards are inviting trouble, but what else is new? They’ve been causing trouble for His or Her Imperial
Majesty for as long as anyone can remember – even after the 1713 Treaty of
Utrecht under the terms of which Spain
ceded Gibraltar to Britain
in perpetuity. Back in those days of
yore Drake could singe the King of Spain’s beard by bombarding Cadiz.
And Trafalgar is just around the corner; I would have thought that
little skirmish had put paid to their nonsense once and for all. But no, those Iberian idiots, yearning for a
return to ancient glories, still choose to tweak the lion’s tail. Well they’d better watch out. One of these days, if they’re not careful,
the old lion will turn round and purr at them.
To be serious, though, our serious
options can be counted on the nails of one finger. We could, I suppose, arrest the crews of a couple
of Spanish fishing boats, though we’d have to release them after one-hour of
questioning to avoid infringing their human rights under European Union law. We could drop leaflets on Ceuta,
one of Spain’s remaining
enclaves in North Africa, and long claimed by Morocco, inciting the ethnic population
to revolt. Here’s another idea. We could ban flights from Britain to Benidorm, Ibiza
and Magaluf, depriving them of the privilege of hosting those charming hordes
of British visitors. On second thoughts,
that’s probably a non-starter. Spain might
just be grateful to us.
But wait! Isn’t Spain one of our partners and allies,
nay a friend, in the European Union? Surely
the disputants should be turning for a solution to Brussels
rather than exchanging insults, even if London
lobbing invective-laden bombs at each other seems harmless enough. Of course we
should – but don’t bate your breath. Germany could invade Belgium again while the EU
bureaucrats struggled to agree on a protest note.
Let’s get down to cases. Just what is it that Spain wants from Gibraltar? Nothing grows there. Nothing is made there. The Gib, admittedly of strategic importance
in the days when Britain might
have needed to blockade the Mediterranean, is but
now just a dusty frontier town with red
pillar boxes and a few fish-and-chip shops.
can’t want any of those things. There
must be something else.
The something else is the one and
only thing that Gibraltar does make, and that’s: money.
The place has become a tax-free haven to hundreds of offshore investment
funds and of companies running on-line casinos, and is the residence for tax
purposes of scores of expatriate millionaires. The proud and loyal Gibraltarians all work for
them – and, incidentally, they don’t pay taxes either. No wonder the citizens of the Rock want to
stay British. Britain
may not want its share of that moolah, but Spain does, and right now it could
certainly use it.
Spain should just come out and say
so, instead of wittering on about wounded national pride and all the references
to ancient betrayals. Then – and only
then – the disputants could start thinking about some kind of mutually suitable
There are matters of principle to
can’t just abandon the loyal tax-evaders, dodgy investment mangers and casino
operators of Gibraltar to Spanish rule – at
least not overnight. What we could do is
sign a long-term lease on the place, say for 100 years, and then hand it over. It’s the Hong Kong
solution. Its advantage is that, by the
time the lease came up, none of the present Gibraltarians would still be alive;
the disadvantage is that by then all the tax-dodgers would have scarpered off to
some coral island in the Caribbean, leaving Spain no taxes to collect. Well, no deal is perfect.
I’m sure it’s all going to be
sorted out. Meanwhile, let’s enjoy, perhaps
just for one last time, watching the fleet set sail to the stirring tunes of
Rule Britannia and Hearts of Oak.