Is it 1982 all over again? Gibraltar’s chief minister declares that, in challenging the UK’s control over the colony, the Spanish government is emulating the Argentine military junta’s invasion of the British-ruled Falkland Islands, trying ‘to bang the nationalistic drum to make people look away from the national problems that Spain is suffering’. The Madrid press reports that Spain is to seek a ‘united front’ with Argentina against Britain, linking their respective claims to Gibraltar and the Falklands (Malvinas).
Meanwhile, the UK government threatens ‘unprecedented’ action in response to Spanish ‘sabre-rattling’, as three British warships steam towards Gibraltar. Boris Johnson, the London mayor and Tory Party leadership hopeful, attempts a Margaret Thatcher impression, boasting that ‘HMS Illustrious is about to bristle into view on the southern coast of Spain, complete with thousands of Royal Marines and other elite commando units. I hope that one way or another we will shortly prise Spanish hands off the throat of our colony.’
But no, it’s not 1982 all over again. No doubt both Spanish premier Mariano Rajoy and UK prime minister David Cameron are indeed indulging in some flag waving over Gibraltar in an effort to project a strongman image and distract from their domestic difficulties, rather as Argentina’s General Leopoldo Galtieri and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher both did way back then over the Falklands.
There, however, the parallels abruptly end. If Thatcher’s ‘Falklands Factor’ sounded a last hurrah for traditional Tory nationalism and British imperial power, then Cameron’s ‘Gibraltar Falter’ signals its decline into impotence. One Argentine writer pithily compared the Falklands war to ‘two bald men fighting over a comb’. Yet the Gibraltar stand-off makes that look like a meaningful major power clash by comparison.
What Galtieri-style ‘sabre-rattling’ has the Spanish government actually achieved in its efforts to rebuild the beleaguered PM Rajoy’s image? Have thousands of troops crossed on to Gibraltar, raised the Spanish flag and forced the locals to bend the knee? Not quite, so far.