Leaving aside the bellicose rantings of some Tories who are, it seems, quite willing to contemplate a war against Spain over the future of Gibraltar, the public spat over the status of the territory does raise serious questions about its future. And it’s a reminder, at the least, that the line between Northern Ireland and the Republic isn’t the only land border between the possessions of the UK and the EU.
One of the ‘advantages’ which Gibraltar enjoys (apart from having a greater degree of self-government than anything which any of the parties so keen to defend it have ever considered offering to Wales or Scotland; a population of 30,000 is apparently not too small to enjoy independence in all matters other than foreign affairs and defence, whatever they may tell us) is that it is, to all intents and purposes, a tax haven (as well as allegedly facilitating the laundering of money). There are a huge number of companies registered there, and the main reason for that is the favourable tax regime. Indeed, it’s one of life’s little ironies that, according to this story, the successful Leave.eu campaign was set up as a subsidiary of a Gibraltar-registered company. Or actually, given the 96%-4% vote in favour of remain in Gibraltar, maybe it’s not such a small irony after all; they helped to facilitate the process which brought them to this situation.
Anyway, politicians of the main UK parties have been quick to dismiss any claim which Spain may have over the territory, including Welsh Tory MP Glyn Davies who said simply “No grounds at all”. As ever, the truth is far less simple than the response from any politician. And his position isn’t the one taken by the United Nations on the issue (although, for all I know, withdrawal from that body may well be next on the Brexiteers’ list).
It’s true, of course, that Spain formally ceded the territory to Britain 'in perpetuity' under the Treaty of Utrecht some 300 years ago, but there are plenty of other ‘in perpetuity’ treaties forced on losing sides in battles which have been subsequently reversed, whether through negotiation or re-conquest. The same treaty (or more strictly, series of treaties) also ceded Menorca to Britain and granted Britain a monopoly on the slave trade to the Spanish colonies in America. I don’t see UK politicians threatening to send a task force to enforce those provisions (although perhaps Michael Howard just hasn’t been told about them yet).
As a result of the British conquest, all but around 70 of the original 5,000 Spanish inhabitants left the territory and resettled in Spain, to be replaced by a horde of British immigrants (or 'ex-pats' as the UK prefers to see its exports of people). The descendants of those migrants now insist on their absolute right to possession of the territory, and are being supported to the hilt by UK politicians. It's hard to see any justification for arguing that the sins of the forefathers should be visited on their descendants, and that they should simply be expelled from the territory in order to return it to Spain. On the other hand, I don’t have much sympathy with any argument based either in part or in whole on a treaty forced on the losing side in a war 300 years ago; a wrong doesn’t become a right purely by the passage of time. Anyone who wants to argue that it does needs to be able to explain exactly how much time has to pass – and how many generations of people – before theft of territory turns into unquestionable ownership. I doubt that they can. It's a far from simple problem. We are all the descendants of immigrants if we go back far enough – at what point do immigrants in the wake of military conquest somehow become indigenous people with territorial rights? The only answer that I can come up with is the essentially pragmatic statement "when everyone else accepts the claim". But that doesn't help us when the claim is contested.Michael Howard drew a parallel between Gibraltar and the Falklands. I think he was justified in doing so, but he drew the wrong parallel. The parallel isn’t about sending military forces to defend the rights of settlers’ descendant. It’s about the long-ago military occupation of a territory and the removal of the previous inhabitants; and it's about whether, when, and how the resulting territorial claims can be resolved. I see no real value for the UK in hanging on to colonial possessions in far-flung corners of the world, and sensible long term policy would be about how to extricate the UK from them and bring a final end to imperial pretensions. It’s a more twenty-first century approach than sending gunboats. But therein lies the catch – it’ll never appeal to eighteenth century politicians.