The Gibraltar Question

Glen Newey

In politics, principle is play-dough for adversaries. Take nationality. Gibraltar is as British as the royal family, or a cup of Darjeeling. No it isn’t: it’s as Spanish as Catalonia, or the Alhambra, or flamenco.

Spain's long-running case for owning Gibraltar (from Arabic Jabal al-Tariq, or ‘Tariq’s mountain’) seems to rest on the joined-on theory: a territory X belongs to nation Y if X is joined to Y. But that would lead to disputes between France and Germany, say. Maybe it's peninsular joined-on-ness that matters. But few people nowadays think, though some used to, that Austria owns Italy. Maybe the theory needs a bigger bit clause: X owns Y if Y is joined onto X and X is bigger than Y. Scottish nationalists, and the Portuguese, are unlikely to buy that one. Or maybe X has to be a lot bigger than Y. How much bigger? Germany compared to Denmark? Or Russia to Finland? And if Gibraltar ought to be Spanish, shouldn’t Ceuta and Melilla be ceded to Morocco?

Britain ingested the Rock in 1713 after the War of the Spanish Succession sped it on its path to becoming Top Nation. Spain tried to get Gibraltar back by force of arms, notably during the American Revolution, when they laid siege in concert with France. The 2006 plebiscite on sovereignty recorded an impressive 99 per cent in favour of remaining British. Surely that clinches it? Well, there's what political theorists call the boundary problem: answers to sovereignty questions depend on whom you ask. Gibraltarians? Britons? Spaniards? Well, you ask the people in the disputed bit, don’t you? Except perhaps for resident aliens, but including expats etc. Does that mean that if Lesotho votes unanimously for union with the UK, or Northampton to become part of Brazil, international law should snap into line? What if, as with Northern Ireland, the demographic is the upshot of earlier colonisation?

Speaking at the weekend in Kent, from what one can only hope was a secure unit, Lord Howard, the former Tory leader, slavered over the prospects of launching another Falklands flotilla in what remains of the imperial bathtub. Tuesday's edition of the Sun went with 'Up yours Señors!' and quoted 'retired police officer James Parody' as saying: 'I'm glad the British bulldog has finally shown its teeth.' The patriotic bosom distends with pride.

It’s Brexit that has brought us to this, as we live out the contradiction between little Englander micro-nationalism and dreams of projecting global power. (The Sun for some reason doesn’t mention that 96 per cent of voters in Gibraltar last June wanted to stay in the EU.) The EU talks of giving Spain a veto over any free trade deal that includes Gibraltar, while Spain makes mischief by signalling that it won't block an independent Scotland's joining the EU, despite its worries about Catalonia. In one of the tastier ironies, UK expats in Spain, including the denizens of the 'Costa del Crime' who'd otherwise be Sun-worshipping Brexiters, are having their collars felt by the prospect of being forcibly returned in a future trade deal to the Blighty they dearly love but would never want to go back to.

One demographic so far unconsulted are the three hundred or so Barbary macaques on the Rock. Despite the legend that Gibraltar will remain British as long as the monkeys are there, they've been present longer than Britain has, and indeed Spain; they were brought in as pets by the Moors. Maybe they'd favour union with their cousins on the Barbary Coast. When the population dwindled to a handful during the Second World War, Churchill ordered an emergency infusion of reinforcements from forests in North Africa to shore up morale among Gibraltar's humans. Postwar, the monkeys have picked up aggressive raptor behaviour from contact with tourists, ripping open handbags in a futile search for oranges. How gratifying it is for us humans to have outgrown such barbarism.


  • 4 April 2017 at 9:04pm
    Joe Morison says:
    Brexit fuxit.

  • 4 April 2017 at 10:52pm
    streetsj says:
    Howard from a "secure unit" - very good.

    The media has been enjoying the disruptions caused by Brexit/Trump and its knock ons, but it needs to be serious too. The Sun can do what it likes but when the FT and others report, the clearly sick, Howard's comments as though it is Government policy it is not helpful to anyone except possibly, I guess, themselves but only in the very short term.
    To be fair to Howard, despite goading from the interviewer, he clearly said he was not advocating war what he was doing (he thought) was making sure there was no misunderstanding about the UK's commitment to Gibraltar.
    I suspect he might have been set up too. Was it (is it) clear what Spain was claiming veto rights over? I think as it was initially reported it was made to sound as though it would veto any deal that didn't include ceding Gibraltar to Spain.

  • 5 April 2017 at 10:42am
    Graucho says:
    Does the joined on theory give Spain sovereignty over Portugal and why doesn't it work the other way around ? If it's size that matters then Russia has sovereignty over the whole Eurasian land mass. Putin is certainly working on it. Anyway, but for the Duke of Wellington, the Spanish would all be speaking French now. No gratitude is there?

  • 5 April 2017 at 11:41am
    piffin says:
    Scotland and NI will likely have departed within a generation, but we'll always have Gib, falklands and South Georgia..
    *cue stirring patriotic music*

  • 6 April 2017 at 10:57am
    holografLRB says:
    Interesting start, putting up Catalonia, Moorish Al-Andalus and Romani culture
    as quintessentially Spanish. Are we taking the piss, or what?

    • 8 April 2017 at 12:15pm
      Surely it was another one of the Professor's ironies...

  • 7 April 2017 at 7:26am
    kwhk says:
    I think the primary argument Spain is making is based on history - ie Gibraltar used to be Spanish 300 years ago - and not geographical which is secondary argument. To play devil's advocate, Britain has itself to blame by setting precedent with Hong Kong. Hong Kong was handed back to China despite popular opposition among population at the time - the main argument was that it rightly belonged with China because it was part of China before imperial Britain seized it 150 years ago. Spain is just being consistent - if Britain went along with such argument presumably to curry favor with a up and coming superpower (and you can find plenty of quotes from 1997 saying how Britain would become the bridge to China) - then why not when dealing with its European partner? Not saying that it is right but definitely internally consistent position for Spain to take.

    • 8 April 2017 at 12:14pm
      streetsj says: @ kwhk
      The main argument for ceding Hong Kong back to the Chinese was that it was unsupportable without the New Territories and they were only held on a 99 year lease which expired in 1997. I think the presumption, probably correct, is that China would have no qualms about cutting off the water to HK once they regained control of the NT.

    • 15 April 2017 at 4:02pm
      Diplodoctus says: @ streetsj
      streetsj is correct (I was in the Foreign Office at the time). But just as important was the fact that the Chinese regarded the original colonisation of Hong Kong as having been perpetrated through "unequal treaties", which they undoubtedly were. Of course losers will always argue that a treaty is unequal, but I don't recall the Spaniards claiming this over the Treaty of Utrecht.

  • 7 April 2017 at 7:30am
    IPFreely says:
    "But that would lead to disputes between France and Germany, say." Is this meant ironically ? Most of the local difficulties between Germany and France, or Germany and anybody else (Denmark, Poland, Czechoslovakia (as was) ... the list is endless.

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