In Depth

Why do we care so much about Gibraltar and the Falklands?

The Chinese are grown-up enough to run our former colony properly. The Spanish and Argentines are not

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ACCORDING to the memoirs of Labour's former Europe Minister, Peter Hain, in 2002 he and Tony Blair secretly agreed with then Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, to share sovereignty over Gibraltar - in exchange for Spanish support at the EU. Hain and Blair were apparently willing to defy the wishes of the Gibraltarian people in order to railroad the deal through.

Ironically, the arrangement seems to have been scuppered by hard-line Spanish military officers. Hain adds that Blair was "contemptuous" of the Gibraltarian people – something his spokesman has denied. As it happens, in early 2002, I used to attend Whitehall meetings on Gibraltar, representing the Cabinet Office. Tony Blair may have minded his manners when referring to the Gibraltarians (if you believe his spokesman) but senior members of the Foreign Office certainly didn't. Their preferred formula for the 30,000 inhabitants of the Rock of Gibraltar - of mixed British, Genoese, Maltese and Jewish descent, but fiercely loyal to Her Majesty - was "the sweepings of the Western Mediterranean". They thought it frightfully clever, expecting a knowing laugh each time it was expressed.   The Foreign Office's institutionalised treason was distasteful. They were the prime movers - not Tony Blair, for once. But I wonder why I minded so much – why many British people mind so much about the fate of an obscure and frankly inconvenient colony? Is it about the right of self-determination? We handed back Hong Kong to the Chinese in 1997 and didn't give a stuff about the wishes of Hong Kong's population. Perhaps the legal status of British control is crucial to how we perceive each territory. By this criterion Gibraltar, as a result of the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, is definitely British "in perpetuity". But so was Hong Kong; the New Territories were ceded to the UK for 99 years in 1898. But Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula, up to Boundary Street, were ceded to us in perpetuity, in 1841 and 1860 respectively. Queen Victoria and the Chinese Emperor of the day ratified both cessions. The UK's legal claim on Hong Kong was actually rather stronger than its claim on the Falkland Islands. It didn't stop us handing the place over to the direct heirs and successors of the mass murderer, Mao Tse Tung. Perhaps we become hugely attached to those territories sanctified by the spilling of British blood. This is definitely true for Gibraltar, although it was a long time ago. During the Great Siege (June 1779 – February 1783) the garrison lost over a thousand men to combined Spanish and French attacks. Mozart was so impressed by the resistance he wrote a piece of music to commemorate it. But it's also true of Hong Kong. In December 1941, 70 years ago, British, Indian, and Canadian soldiers, alongside Hong Kong's own volunteer force, defended the colony with great skill and bravery against a Japanese force four times their size. More than 2,000 were killed in action with a further 2,500 wounded - almost a third of the 14,000-strong garrison became casualties in 17 days of heavy fighting. Those that survived then endured three-and-a-half years of brutal captivity. It did not stop us handing the place over to the Chinese.   Thirty years ago 255 British servicemen were killed in a comparatively short campaign in the Falklands and that seems to mean we can never, ever negotiate with the Argentines. But if the British attitude to these colonies is inconsistent, the attitude of the Spanish and Argentinians to the British possessions they so covet is even more so. Both countries have spent considerable time, energy and sheer spite over the last half-century being beastly to the inhabitants of Gibraltar and the Falklands respectively. Nothing could be more self-defeating. General Franco initiated a blockade of Gibraltar in 1969, enthusiastically continued by Spain's democratic governments for seven years after his death in 1975. Even today the Spanish authorities harass Gibraltarians at every turn with Spain even objecting to them joining Europe's governing bodies for soccer and rugby. As a result, 98 per cent of Gibraltarians voted to remain British in the 2002 referendum. The Argentine record in the Falklands is worse. Invasion in 1982 was bad enough. Subsequently insisting that Falklands schoolchildren must be taught in Spanish and that all cars must drive on the right was petty in the extreme. Many of the locals who lived under the nine-week occupation felt it was only a matter of time before Argentina's brutal secret police arrived on the islands to ensure their loyalty.  

Most unforgivably, the Argentine occupation forces littered parts of the hauntingly beautiful islands with unmarked minefields which British engineers are still trying to clear up.

The nihilistic environmental vandalism has reared its ugly head again in 2012 with Argentine plans to overfish the South Atlantic's stocks of Ilex squid - just to spite the Falklanders who derive a handsome income from catching them when they migrate into their territorial waters. In the end, our national inconsistency over Hong Kong, Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands – made much of by both Spanish and Argentine diplomats - comes down to a basic fact. The Chinese Communist Party, for all its other faults, is grown-up enough to run a former British colony properly. The Spanish and the Argentines are not.

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