16
Aug

These relics of empire pay hardly any UK tax – but when the neighbours cut up nasty, they demand the British protect them.

By Simon Jenkins

Gibraltar-Spain border, 9/8/13

Nothing beats a gunboat. HMS Illustrious glided out of Portsmouth on Monday, past HMS Victory and cheering crowds of patriots. Within a week it will be off Gibraltar, a mere cannon shot from Cape Trafalgar. The nation’s breast heaves, the tears prick. The Olympic spirit is off to singe the king of Spain’s beard. How dare they keep honest British citizens waiting six hours at Spanish border control? Have they forgotten the Armada?

The British empire had much to be said for it, but it is over – dead, deceased, struck off, no more. The idea of a British warship supposedly menacing Spain is ludicrous. Is it meant to bomb Cadiz? Will its guns lift a rush-hour tailback in a colony that most Britons regard as awash with tax dodgers, drug dealers and right-wing whingers? The Gibraltarians have rights, but why British taxpayers should send warships to enforce them, even if just “on exercise”, is a mystery.

Any study of Britain’s currently contentious colonies, Gibraltar and the Falklands, can reach only two conclusions. One is that Britain’s claim to them in international law is wholly sound, the other is that it is nowadays wholly daft.

Twenty-first century nation states will no longer tolerate even the mild humiliation of hosting the detritus of 18th- and 19th-century empires. Most European empires were born of the realpolitik of power, mostly the treaties of Utrecht (1713) and Paris (1763). The same realpolitik now ordains their dismantling. An early purpose of the United Nations was to bring this about.

Of course those living in these colonies have a right to be considered, but such rights have never overridden political reality. Nor has Britain claimed so, at least when circumstance dictated. The residents of Hong Kong and Diego Garcia were not consulted, let alone granted “self-determination”, when Britain wanted to dump them in the dustbin of history. Hong Kong was handed to China in 1997 when the New Territories lease ended. Diego Garcia was demanded by and handed to the Pentagon in 1973. The Hong Kong British were denied passports, and the Diego Garcians were summarily evicted to Mauritius and the Seychelles. Read more…

As published in www.theguardian.com on August 14, 2013.

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