War Over Gibraltar? Spanish Threats and Britain’s Post-Brexit Weakness

Between June 1779 and February 1783 British forces in Gibraltar survived an almost unrelenting Franco-Spanish siege, fighting one of the most remarkable defensive actions in early modern history. Given this heroic feat it is perhaps unsurprising that, more than 200 years later, the British government is not willing to give up its Iberian exclave without a fight.

The Great Siege of Gibraltar

Whether it is wise to threaten the claimant Spaniards with war should they attempt to use Gibraltar as a bargaining chip in negotiations over a post-Brexit EU trade deal is somewhat debatable. What is certain, though, is that London is acutely aware of the symbolic importance of their Mediterranean outpost, even if its strategic significance at the gateway to Europe is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Captured from the Kingdom of Castile during the War of the Spanish Succession in 1704, Gibraltar was formerly ceded to Britain by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Attempts by the Spaniards to recapture the territory in 1727 and then during the siege of 1779-1783 failed, leaving Gibraltar as an important base for the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean.

Spain has never relinquished its claim to Gibraltar, a somewhat hypocritical stance mindful to overlook Madrid’s remaining colonial possessions on the North African coastline at Ceuta and Melilla. Periodic diplomatic spats have led to border closures and delays, often carefully orchestrated by Spanish crossing guards.

Border delays following a diplomatic row in 2013

Just as Ceuta and Melilla have a centuries-long affinity with their Spanish motherland, Gibraltar remains unapologetically British. Despite their overwhelming preference to remain within the EU, Gibraltarians have no desire to become part of Spain.

There are of course parallels here with the Falkand Islands, over which Britain went to war against Argentina in 1982. That Spain would attempt a brazen assault on Gibraltar comparable to that launched by the Argentinians against the Falklands is unthinkable, their democratic rulers far more encumbered in their actions than the brutal junta in Buenos Aires ever was.

A classic British telephone box at the Gibraltar walls

What George Augustus Eliott, commander of the Gibraltar garrison during the siege of 1779-1783, would think of the petty squabbles of today one can only guess at. Probably he would be gratified by continuing British sovereignty over the outpost his men fought so hard to maintain, no doubt more than eager to throw himself back into the fiery cauldron of battle.

Fortunately, despite the crass comments of some naive politicians, such a scenario is more than unlikely. However, the Spanish decision to publicise this potential stumbling block for Britain’s future economic relations with Europe points to the dissatisfaction on the continent surrounding the Brexit verdict.

Britain has often been seen as an outsider in Europe, an aloof power whose imperialistic history has not endeared it to many of the nations that remain tightly ensconced in the grip of Brussels.

Undoubtedly further tribulations await Theresa May and her Conservative government. Britain’s European neighbours are likely to resurrect these historical enmities in a vindictive attempt to punish one whose dismantling of the long fought for European federalist project is most unwelcome.

Elliot and his officers in discussion during the Great Siege of Gibraltar, 1782

As the British and the Spanish have long recognised, the power of a rock cannot be measured by conventional indicators. History, nationalism and symbolism combine to make the most toxic of concoctions.

Yes or No: Will the Historic Merger Hold?

The Act of Union of 1707 may have seemed unthinkable to a populace accustomed to the historical rivalry between England and Scotland. Today, it seems just as strange to be contemplating a future where the two nations are no longer bound together in a United Kingdom.

However, if First Minister Alex Salmond has his way, Scotland will become an independent nation once again 2014, when a referendum is now due. Salmond’s nationalism may appeal to some, although currently less than one-third of Scots are planning to vote for independence. It is hardly surprising given that, for most of its history as an independent state, Scotland resided in England’s shadow, prey to its military whims and economic demands.

The determined Salmond has much persuading to do

The Battle of Culloden in 1746 ended the final Jacobite Rising, which attempted to re-create an independent Scottish monarchy before making a decisive move on England. The crushing defeat for Charles Edward Stuart and his Scottish allies reflected a historical reality; the disparate, small and under-equipped tribes of the north were no match for the larger English Army. From the days of Edward I, “the Hammer of the Scots”, through to Culloden, Scotland’s grip on independence was at first tenuous and subsequently non-existent. Of course, some notable Scottish victories occurred over the centuries, including at Bannockburn (1314) and Culblean (1335) and these have helped feed a misconception of equality on the battlefield.

Indeed, more notable Scottish military achievements have come when fighting as part of the British Army during both World Wars and in numerous colonial conflicts which helped Great Britain become the greatest imperial power on the globe. Such shared achievements will no longer be accomplishable should Salmond win his referendum.

Putting aside the military, there are obvious economic and political connotations for independence. Scotland already subsumes a disproportionate amount of national budgets and political appointments. Why forfeit such privileges to rule the roost over a comparatively puny and feeble nation? What happens when North Sea oil and gas runs out and Scotland’s economic lifeline dies?

It is considerations such as these that are likely to doom Salmond’s referendum to failure. He believes Scottish pride and freedom will be restored by independence. But how about the potential economic regression and political inferiority such a move would also entail? Scottish pride would be better served within a United Kingdom, whereby each part contributes to a strong whole. Unfortunately for Mr Salmond, many Scots will be thinking the same.