When last week the Spanish government hinted it might veto a Brexit Gibraltar, the pro-Brexit UK press was quick to respond. ‘Up yours Señors’ bugled Britain’s best selling newspaper, The Sun, from its front page, next to a picture of ‘The Rock’ wrapped in a Union Jack and below an advert for cheap flights to- you’ve guessed it- Spain.
They couldn’t be serious, could they?
Yes, they could. -No Se Toca Nuestra Roca, the paper followed up, red-faced, providing one of those gaily anti-foreign pull-out posters you can stick in your bedroom window. It got even better still in the form of a piece from the former editor Kelvin MacKenzie, who was on hand to call the Spanish populace ‘donkey rogerers’ and its leaders ‘creeps.’
‘The Spanish are off their Rioja over Gibraltar,’ he exclaimed. ‘So let’s put up a good ol’ British fight.’
Now the English are famed for their banter, a concept often lost on the arguably more literal Spanish. But this is not banter. Banter is mocking your work colleague’s hair with ironic praise. It's the dialogue of Oscar Wilde. It's 'Sir, you are drunk!'/'Madame, you are ugly, but in the morning I shall be sober.'
The kind of language coming out of the UK press - donkey-rogering aside - was not harmless, ‘it’s a bit of a larf, innit?’ banter. Nor was it sanguine black humour. It was insulting and nationalistic, showing a nation at its most insular and belligerent.
The hysterical reaction in quarters of the media found an echo among certain senior Conservative peers, who were quick to react to the mention of Gibraltar with all the cool-headed sagacity of playground infants. We’ll support Catalan independence then, exclaimed a long-forgotten remnant of Thatcher’s cabinet, Norman Tebbit. That’ll teach ‘em a lesson.
We’ll go to war, like we did in the Falklands, said another former thatcherite veteran, Michael Howard.
A descent into sabre-rattling over newly formed frontiers. But only really from the one side of the Channel. Whereas Britain was often the one to provide perspective on events on the continent, now it’s the rest of Europe which looks on with a sense of surprised consternation as the normally reserved neigbour goes beserk in his own garden.
In Spain the general response has been one of amused bafflement. Reflecting the general attitude of the Spanish press El Pais took an ironic response to the ‘Up Yours’ diatribe in The Sun, calling the scribe responsible ‘a poet,’ and his message ‘a haiku’. Moncloa and Brussels were quick to take the heat out of all the hot air, Spanish foreign minister Alfonso Dastis claiming that ‘some in the UK are losing their nerves, without any justifiable cause.’
An article in La Vanguardia meanwhile claimed this was all just part of a geological process dating back millennia, pointing out that the first real Brexit happened thousands of years ago during the last Ice Age:
‘The separation of what is now the island of Great Britain and continental Europe began over 450,000 years ago and happened in two phases of erosion.’
The flooding of the channel and a remote northern latitude meant Britain would often be out of sync with events in the rest of Europe. The world’s great agricultural, metallurgical and philosophical revolutions would trickle slowly across the channel to the British backwater. During the Iron Age southern Britain would absorb the artistic and social traits of the Halstatt Culture and trade with the Celtic Kingdoms of western Europe, but was distant enough to appear both barbaric and exotic to seafarers from the Mediterranean cradle . It was at the beginning of the first millennia AD when (most of) Britain would for the first time belong wholly to a pan-European civilization, after Roman occupation.
During the Dark Ages, following Rome's collapse, a disconnected, divided island under siege from would-be conquerors was too mired in its own problems and tribal divisions to be much involved with affairs on the continent.
The advent of Norman rule would see an attempt to create in Britain a reflection of a French mainland, and the English would play an active role throughout the medieval period alongside other Christian European kingdoms in the Crusades. But Henry VIII famously did a Brexit of his own with the creation of the rebel Anglican Church, eventually leading to an unsuccessful, Pope-blessed Spanish invasion of England which would only further serve to garnish native suspicion of activities on the continent. The dashing of the Spanish Armada on its coast seemed not only to confirm Albion’s mystic sense of detachment but also a new-found naval confidence to take on the world from its inconquerable island-fortress.
By the dawn of modernity, busily carving out an empire far from home, Britain felt empowered once again to involve itself in the continent's affairs, hence its involvement in the Spanish War of Succession, siding with the Austrian Hapsburg pretender Charles in ordrer to slow down the expansions of the formidable Bourbon dynasty; King Louis XIV and his son Philip of Anjou.
At the end of this war, just over three hundred years ago, Gibraltar was formally ceded to Britain by Louis XIV, thanks to the 1713 Treaty Of Utrecht. It was part of a very generous package, including slave-trading rights and other overseas possessions, in exchange for an end to British involvement in the war.
A Bourbon accession to the Spanish throne seemed to British observors the lesser of two evils once the Hapsburg Archduke Charles was installed on the Austrian throne as Holy Roman Emperor. Britain’s withdrawal from the Spanish peninsula left Louis XIV’s son Philip with an open path to the Spanish throne - which the Bourbons have enjoyed up to this day.
Just six years before the signing of the Utrecht Treaty the fiercely independent kingdom of Scotland had been politely blackmailed into unification with England following its financially devastating attempts at colonizing the Darien rainforest.
Not long before that the Hapsburg-supporting Catalans had welcomed English military support in their war against the Duke of Anjou, who was perceived to be unsympathetic to the preservation of Catalan laws and privileges and eager to replicate his father’s more centralized French state. After the ‘English perfidy’ of Utrecht and inevitable defeat at the hands of the Franco-Castillian Bourbons (led by, of all people, an exiled Scot – the Duke of Berwick), Catalonia would face two centuries of insignificance, castigated, sidelined and stripped of all autonomy by a furiously vengeful Philip V. Scottish influence meanwhile would from now on be measured through the conduit of Westminster.
It was the spur of a period of extraordinary economic and political growth for a fledgling union of Scotland and England, while Castilian-dominated Spain and its humiliated cohort Catalonia would enter a period of stagnation under the Bourbons, falling by the wayside of industrialized modernity.
Now, three hundred years later in the equally uncertain times of Brexit, those distant events seem somehow relevant.
Scotland, or some of it, seeking independence, sensing its chance at last for a permanent break from Westminster as Britain fragments into polarized self-wounding tribes. A newly confident Catalonia still trying to tear itself from the perceived oppression of Bourbon sovereignty. And the sovereignty of Gibraltar being used as a bargaining chip. We’ve come full circle. Nothing is forever. The rise and fall. Ebbing tides. Seas drain and fill. Ice-caps melt. ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme,’ said Mark Twain. What next for Gibraltar, in history's rhyme?