Politics Member States

Gibraltar dispute: Colonies deny the logic of history

20 August 2013
The Guardian London

A Spanish fisherman protests in the bay of Algeciras, opposite the Rock of Gibraltar, on August 18, 2013

A Spanish fisherman protests in the bay of Algeciras, opposite the Rock of Gibraltar, on August 18, 2013

The days of the British Empire are over and holding on to once-strategic territories such as Gibraltar are a relic of the past. Gibraltar’s flourishing success as a tax haven has frustrated its impoverished and crisis-striken neighbour, but its future appears secure.

Nothing beats a gunboat. HMS Illustrious glided out of Portsmouth on August 12, past HMS Victory and cheering crowds of patriots. Within a week it was off Gibraltar, a mere cannon shot from Cape Trafalgar. The nation's breast heaves, the tears prick. The Olympic spirit is off to singe the king of Spain's beard.

The British empire had much to be said for it, but it is over – dead, deceased, struck off, no more. The idea of a British warship supposedly menacing Spain is ludicrous. Is it meant to bomb Cadiz? Will its guns lift a rush-hour tailback in a colony that most Britons regard as awash with tax dodgers, drug dealers and right-wing whingers? The Gibraltarians have rights, but why British taxpayers should send warships to enforce them, even if just "on exercise", is a mystery.

Any study of Britain's currently contentious colonies, Gibraltar and the Falklands, can reach only two conclusions. One is that Britain's claim to them in international law is wholly sound, the other is that it is nowadays wholly daft.

Twenty-first Century nation states will no longer tolerate even the mild humiliation of hosting the detritus of 18th- and 19th-Century empires. Most European empires were born of the realpolitik of power, mostly the treaties of Utrecht (1713) and Paris (1763). The same realpolitik now ordains their dismantling. An early purpose of the United Nations was to bring this about.

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