War with Spain was not on the ballot paper when Britons went to the polls in last year’s referendum and voted to withdraw from the European Union.
But Prime Minister Theresa May was forced to rule out the prospect of military action to defend the British enclave of Gibraltar on Monday, after a former leader of her Conservative Party seemed to suggest that might be necessary to keep Spain from demanding the territory’s return as part of the deal to allow the United Kingdom to trade freely with remaining E.U. members.
Speaking on Sunday, Michael Howard, who is now a member of the House of Lords, suggested that if Spain tried to assert sovereignty over the outpost, the British prime minister could emulate her predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, who used force to keep control of another Spanish-speaking nation, Argentina, from seizing another British enclave, the Falklands.
In a subsequent appearance on Britain’s Channel 4 News, Howard said that he was not calling for war, but because the E.U. had referred to Gibraltar in their draft guidelines for the talks over Britain’s exit, “I can see no harm in reminding them what sort of people we are.”
This jingoistic talk, which was echoed by a retired British admiral and lapped up by England’s right-wing press, was widely mocked by Britons who see Brexit as a descent into nationalist fantasy and nostalgia for an imperial past.
Before the laughter had died down, the leader of the Brexit campaign, Boris Johnson, stepped before the cameras in his role as Britain’s foreign minister to insist that the sovereignty of Gibraltar “cannot conceivably change without the express support and consent of the people of Gibraltar.”
Strangely, Johnson made no mention of the fact that the people of Gibraltar are about to be forced out of the European Union against their will, since 96 percent of them voted against Brexit in last year’s referendum.
Before Monday was out, however, the prime minister’s spokesman, Greg Swift, felt it necessary to explain that a British naval task force sailing to defend Gibraltar from Spain, just “isn’t going to happen.”
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