Britain’s Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy About Gibraltar
The United Kingdom doesn’t need a war to protect its imperial remnants – it needs a psychiatrist.
Politicians don’t always lie. Sometimes their promises come true in the most hideous way possible; there are glimpses of the rule-by-enchanted-monkey’s-paw that dominates our lives. Take, for example, Brexit. Throughout last year’s campaign and beyond, the British people were promised that Brexit would not mean the U.K. retreating into itself, hiding away from a world that no longer makes sense and marinating in its own boggy parochialism. Instead, in Theresa May’s repeated phrase, it would see the birth of a “truly global Britain”: The country would heft itself flapping out of the EU’s stagnant little pond and head for the wide-open ocean. Brexit Britain would claim its old heritage, a seaborne people, roving the world for profit and opportunity.
In the end, this wasn’t entirely untrue. Just days after the U.K. delivered a polite letter to European Council President Donald Tusk that started the withdrawal process, Britain’s politicians and press demonstrated their country’s newfound independence by quite seriously considering the prospect of war with Spain.
Michael Howard, a former secretary of state and leader of the Conservative Party, has directly compared the situation to the Falklands War; popular tabloid newspapers have spent days eagerly sizing up the capabilities of the British and Spanish navies; unknown thousands of ordinary British people are seized with fantasies of once again singeing the king of Spain’s beard, warships bombarding their beach resorts, radioactive rubble tumbling out from the center of Madrid.
The reason is Gibraltar, a dangling peninsula crowned with its big ponderous Rock, hanging off the southern coast of Spain, ceded to Britain in 1713, and which Spain has tried to get back ever since. (After the triggering of Brexit, the EU announced that Spain should have a veto on any settlement with regards to Gibraltar, providing at least the proximal cause for the general outrage.) Another relic of that fractured post-medieval European order that the EU was supposed to have done away with: a British town where the hills of Morocco can be seen just over the straits; a place with palm trees, red phone boxes, and Sunday roasts; where the sternly patriotic population of 30,000 have Spanish names and cockney accents.
Gibraltar was, briefly, vastly important for the British Empire, another quirk of the old imperialist worldview that saw the nations and peoples of the earth as only so much geography. Controlling the entrance to the Mediterranean, it helped secure (along with the British possessions of Malta and Cyprus) the Suez Canal, which in turn opened up the route to British India.
Now, its role is more indeterminate. As in so many other places, post-industrial capitalism has been happy to seize on the remnants of early, less rationalized global orders. The city of London’s (fast-shrinking) prominence as a finance hub can be traced to the ancient liberties it secured from the monarchy; even today, the queen has to formally request the lord mayor’s permission in an elaborate ceremony to enter the Square Mile. Gibraltar, free to specialize, chose online gambling. With its military dockyard closed and the Pillars of Hercules no longer fought over by clashing empires, internet poker and sports betting bring in around 25 percent of the peninsula’s GDP and employ nearly 10 percent of the population.
But as valuable as betting might be to the Gibraltarians, it doesn’t explain the sudden frothing tide of irredentist sentiment on the British mainland. Shortly before the current Anglo-Spanish controversy, the Northern Irish Sinn Fein party declared that it would seek a referendum on Irish unification, and the response to the potential loss of an actual constituent part of the U.K. was, strangely, far more muted. Unionists are troubled by the increasing likelihood of Scottish independence and the faint glimmers of a liberated Wales — but the fury, the jingoism, the flag-waving madness and spittle-spewing terror of decline only come out when the threat is to Gibraltar.
It’s particularly strange in that most of the British population doesn’t really know anything about this distant possession, in the same way that nobody gave much thought to the Falklands until the Argentine invasion. People know about its famous apes (its five troops of macaques form the only population of wild monkeys in Europe), and a few take holidays there, but apart from that it’s silent. Gibraltar looms vast and rocklike in the British popular consciousness whenever Spain makes another claim to sovereignty or whenever the Spanish Navy makes one of its periodic minor incursions into Gibraltarian waters; the front pages of the newspapers scream in red, white, and blue against European aggression and pledge their ever-living loyalty to the territory’s British inhabitants; and then the mountain recedes back into its mists. The only other time Gibraltar has ever been noticed by the U.K. public was on the night of the referendum vote itself: The territory was the first to announce its totals, and 96 percent of the population voted to remain.
Journalists and politicians aren’t whipping up a frenzy over Gibraltar to protect the Suez Canal, which has long since fallen out of British control; they’re probably not doing it to protect lower tax rates for online bookies either. It’s also hard to imagine that all of this really stems from a principled respect for the wishes of the Gibraltarians themselves. After all, to take another distant British possession, there’s the case of the Chagos Islands, a few brief specks of sand in the British Indian Ocean Territory. Their entire native population was deported in the 20th century to make way for an American military base. The Chagossians, who remain British subjects, have been petitioning the government since 1971 to let them return home, to repeated and heartless refusals and a general popular indifference. The (temporary) loss of territory to the American global empire didn’t have much effect; the faraway Brits losing their home to a domineering foreign power hasn’t stirred up any nationalist resentments. The Gibraltarians are, of course, white; their compatriots in the Indian Ocean archipelagoes are not. The importance of this distinction shouldn’t be underestimated. But something else is at work, too.
Britain can so easily slip into a war frenzy over a 3-mile strip of land because it’s not about Gibraltar at all; the rock just comes into play as a usefully concrete symbol of something darker and undefined. Part of this pathology is a hoarder mentality: In the senescence of empire, the U.K. clings to every isolated rocky outcrop it can hold. It can no longer go about slaughtering millions of people for global supremacy, but its loose network of statelets and atolls make sure that, even now, the sun never sets on its empire.
These overseas possessions help Britain achieve a vast overestimation of its national importance. It’s why so many Britons assumed, in the early months after the Brexit vote, that Europe wouldn’t want to impose any kind of punishing trade settlement on the U.K.; the idea that the continent could survive quite happily without them was never considered. When it became clear that it could and would, a new idea was floated — a trade bloc of Britain and its former colonies: Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, but also the emerging economies of India and sub-Saharan Africa. The civil service privately referred to it as “Empire 2.0.” Exactly why these energetic and expanding nations would want to give special treatment to a declining and austerity-ridden archipelago on the damp fringes of Europe isn’t clear; Britain’s bureaucrats have certainly overestimated the extent of sentimental attachment to the mother country. What remains are the dregs of glory. A few islands in the Caribbean, a few more scattered lonely in the southern seas, the two sovereign base areas on Cyprus, a large frozen slab of the Antarctic, and Gibraltar.
It’s not that British people have entirely blinded themselves to their own unimportance; the campaign for Gibraltar is what an awareness of Britain’s insignificance looks like. Nationalists get no comfort or pride from their tiny Spanish half-world, in the same way that few people in the U.K. are actually relieved by the Crown’s continued sovereignty over the Turks and Caicos Islands. Nobody ever really thinks about them until they’re under threat. And every year, Spain seems to inch just a little closer to restoring full territorial integrity, as an old sea power loses its winds and starts to bob helpless on the tides of history. Brexit is just the final storm; Gibraltar is perpetually under threat.
All this provides, in actual geopolitical form, an image of the terror and secret desire that haunts every Little Englander. Distant tyrants knocking at the door, a chance to play the plucky underdog, the nebulous sense that the foreigners are up to something unpleasant. The confusion of a world that isn’t how it used to be, the very real decline that has left vast swaths of the country underemployed and immiserated — it’s the result of some secret and terrifying plot from across the Channel.
The defenders of Gibraltar don’t really care about its residents or its status as a last remnant of British greatness; they’d love nothing more than a brutal military invasion from the mainland. It would mean a smaller world and one that would finally make sense. Britain retreating into itself and Britain sending out warships half a continent away mean, in the end, the exact same thing.
Photo credit: PABLO BLAZQUEZ DOMINGUEZ/Getty Images