This week, people started looking out of their front windows to make sure that they weren’t living in a Jonathan Swift novel, a Rudyard Kipling poem, or some strange fusion of both. This was because, within days of the British government’s formal announcement of its intention to withdraw from the European Union, its defence secretary, Michael Fallon, egged on by Michael Howard, also announced his willingness to go to war. For a short while, the Tories took a break from normalising their domestic war against the poor to propose another one, this time against Spain. Howard even invoked the spirit of Margaret Thatcher, the not long-dead Iron Lady who, he believes, has been reincarnated in the body of Theresa May. Thus the Conservatives addressed an imagined threat to British sovereignty that is being posed, in their minds, by a friendly neighbour, some of whose territory they seized and colonized in 1713, telling the world that Britain will do anything to protect its imperial interests in 2017.
The argument about the non-negotiability of Gibraltar’s Britishness is a familiar one to anyone who has had to endure the contradictions of partition: “We’re going to look after Gibraltar”, Fallon said. “Gibraltar is going to be protected all the way because the sovereignty cannot be changed without the agreement of the people of Gibraltar…”. The colony’s puppet First Minister, Fabian Picardo, went even further by declaring that “the United Kingdom goes to war over the principle of consent all over the world.” This is the political equivalent of last summer’s English football hooligans, and of the more frequent weekend spectacle of those steroid-addled morons who can’t have a drink without wanting to beat up passing teenagers for delivering perceived but non-existent insults. By declaring their resolution to go “all the way” with a nation that has tolerated centuries of British military and strategic presence within its own national territory, the British establishment revealed what it really thinks about the principle of peace within Europe.
But it’s not all thuggery, to be fair. The implication here is that, as with Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan, the Brits don’t really want to be in Gibraltar anyway, and they never did want to be there, either. They only want to start a war over it because they need to protect the democratic rights of the English people who live there, including the 96% of whom who voted to remain within the EU. Manufactured colonial consent, with its distortion of mandates, is the same justification given for the permanent, if secret, war footing that they assume in Ireland (even though they don’t think that publicly announcing this instance of low-visibility violence would be as acceptable as sending a spectacular military “taskforce” to sort out their new “Spanish-speaking” enemies, as Michael Howard described them). According to this long-standing imperial rationale, occupiers never want to occupy anywhere – they only want to help people, according to a very familiar, if rather worn-out, proposal that has been doing the rounds a lot lately, and especially since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
The principle of false consent has always been built into the practice of colonial land-grabbing once, of course, the occupying power has planted enough consenters and then terrorised, imprisoned, dispossessed or expelled anybody else who disagrees with it. What we are hearing now is the a minimally-adapted articulation of Britain’s geopolitical interest in Ireland, and the jingoization of Gibraltar expresses the equally self-contradictory claim that part of Spain is part of Britain, simply because they once planted enough colonists and troops there. As with the occupation of Ireland, the British political and military presence in this part of Spain is central to the ideology and practice of the permanently-armed and forever war-ready imperial state. Portraying their rush to belligerence as a quaint, harmless and even amusing manifestation of a deluded sense of self-importance, as some have done, misses the key point that the military grasp of colonial territory has a very practical resonance: every empire, ultimately, depends on the acquisition and possession of land, and this is achieved through force. Occupation is power, and as Fallon keeps telling us, so too, in post-Brexit world, is a permanently poised, war-ready military complex. In Gibraltar and in Ireland, British occupation today means British control in the future.
“This isn’t a bargaining process”, Fallon reminded viewers of the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, because “we happen to have the biggest defence budget in Europe, we have the biggest navy in Europe.” He added that his government is sending 800 troops to Estonia, more to Poland and reminded the British public that they’ll be footing the bill for lacing Romania with heavily-armed Typhoon fighter planes, just in case they were curious about where the savings from all of those hospital ward closures, benefit cuts, student finance “savings” and bedroom taxes might be going (in 2016 alone, Britain spent £392 billion on weapons procurement).
The Gibraltarians will be sorely tested when they’re fenced in by the European border. Perhaps they’ll be forced to leave en masse, but if that happens, it’s unlikely that the local British military garrison, or “permanent regional operating base”, as it’s officially known, will follow them. In the meantime, like the Irish, they’ll have to get used to having an intensively policed boundary, all over again, and one that the vast majority of them voted against. And with its imposition, they’ll be reacquainted with the experience of having their vehicles and persons searched whenever they want to go out for a drive. As the Irish novelist, Eoin McNamee, recently warned, and as we’ve just seen this week on the Andrew Marr Show, there’s no such thing as a soft border.