It was true then, and it is true today. It is just as true of the Falkland Islanders, who have recently confirmed their overwhelming desire to be British; and though the Foreign Office might secretly wish it were otherwise, that desire to be British will exist in Gibraltar for the rest of our lifetimes and beyond. Of course, there are people like Peter Hain MP, who will try to persuade them to seek an alternative destiny, or who will try to cook up schemes for joint sovereignty. They will never agree. The last government came up with a plan to sell them down the straits, but Jack Straw at least had the decency to put it to a referendum. Of the 38,000 Gibraltarians, only 2 per cent were interested in even sharing sovereignty with Spain. There are 98 per cent of Gibraltarians who want to be British, and as long as that is the case it is our absolute duty to protect them and their right to go about their lawful business, in accordance with EU law, without hassle from their neighbour.
I don’t for one minute believe that this spat has been provoked by the Gibraltarians. Forget all this palaver about a few concrete blocks that have been dumped in the sea. That isn’t why the Spanish are going back to the Franco-style blockade. This isn’t a row about fish. I am afraid that this is a blatant diversionary tactic by Madrid, and though it would be ludicrous to compare the Rajoy government with the tyranny of General Galtieri and his invasion of the Falklands, the gambit is more or less the same.
Mr Rajoy not only has political problems caused by a corruption scandal, but another and more fundamental difficulty. When I queued for hours in La Línea, all those years ago, it was an unashamedly tacky sort of place. There were stalls selling “hamburgesias” and candyfloss, and an awful fair involving tiny ponies lashed to a carousel – their pizzles knotted (I kid you not) to stop them urinating – while colossal flamenco-dressed children sat astride their little bowed backs. But at least it was bright and bustling, and full of business of one kind or another.
Today the unemployment rate in La Línea is 36 per cent, while the overall unemployment rate in Spain is 26 per cent and shows no sign of coming down. Youth unemployment is still over 50 per cent, and the worst of it is that Spanish unit labour costs – the key index of productivity – are actually rising by comparison with Germany, not falling. The prospects of a whole generation of young Spaniards are being sacrificed on the altar of monetary union.
The euro is the crisis facing the Spanish government, not the right of the Gibraltarians to fish off their own Rock. The problem in Spain today isn’t the Treaty of Utrecht, it’s the Treaty of Maastricht, and it is a supreme irony that a process that was meant to bring harmony among European nations should actually be provoking this bizarre row between Britain and Spain. The real and long-term solution isn’t for some Anglo-Spanish condominium over Gibraltar; if anything, it is for Spain to bring back the peseta.
In the meantime Madrid should be in no doubt as to the strength of British determination. Remember what the Queen said in 1981, when Charles and Diana went on their honeymoon cruise to Gibraltar, on the royal yacht Britannia. The Spanish protested, and so she phoned King Juan Carlos. As she later confided to the Privy council, she told him: “It’s my yacht, my son, and my Rock.” That’s the spirit.