The sun set on the British Empire long ago, but there remain a few small corners of the world where the Union Jack still flies. Britain's remaining overseas territories are far-flung and usually far from anyone's mind. You get a sense of these places' embattled history just from their mottoes: ''Let the lion protect his own land'' (South Georgia), ''Be Watchful'' (British Virgin Islands), ''Strength and Endurance'' (Anguilla), ''Loyal and Unshakeable'' (St Helena) and ''No enemy shall expel us'' (Gibraltar). Passed-by and ignored by the outside world, they cling to their Britishness with a passion that's as endearing as it is entertaining.
The Rock of Gibraltar, about 650 hectares of limestone perched above the western entrance to the Mediterranean, is back in the news just in time for this year's summer silly season. The Spanish are on manoeuvres again, menacing the embattled 28,000 inhabitants of Britain's last significant Mediterranean possession. The plucky inhabitants, British to the marrow, are having none of it.
In this they have the full support of Fleet Street's flotilla of desktop admirals. As the Daily Mail put it, ''Mired in corruption, facing economic meltdown, the Spanish government plays its age-old trick to distract attention from problems at home: rattling its sabre against the people of Gibraltar, who have been British for 300 years.'' Unless the Spaniards back down, the paper thundered, David Cameron should take measures to ''add to their economic difficulties.'' What, you could be forgiven for asking, is going on? What has provoked this tempest of diplomatic ill-will?
The short, if less than obvious, answer is 70 concrete blocks dumped into Gibraltan waters. The Gibraltan authorities - the Rock is British territory but self-governing in all matters other than defence and foreign affairs - are currently constructing an artificial reef that will, they insist, improve the quality and quantity of marine life in their small patch of ocean. The Spanish, however, suspect that the reef has been laid ''without authorisation'' in what Madrid considers Spanish waters - and, moreover, it poses a risk to Spanish fishing boats and a threat to … wait for it … scallop dredgers.
Cue escalation! Spain retaliated this week by imposing tougher border controls - ensuring that visitors to the Rock had to wait for up to six hours to cross the frontier - and threatening to impose a €50 ($72) fee for each border crossing. Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, Spain's Foreign Minister, added that Madrid might even close Spanish airspace to flights headed to the Rock, saying ''the party is over'' for Gibraltar. Britain's ambassador to Spain lodged a formal protest and, this week, Prime Minister David Cameron berated his Spanish counterpart, Mariano Rajoy, in a 15-minute telephone conversation devoted exclusively to Gibraltan affairs, warning that unless Spain backed down there was a risk of Anglo-Iberian relations being damaged.
All this for a lump of limestone that, in 2013, is of no significant strategic importance whatsoever? Yes, indeed. Spain has long coveted the Rock, mainly, it seems, because it is attached to Spain. But so is Portugal. The British annexed Gibraltar in 1704 during the War of the Spanish Succession (not to be confused with the later War of Jenkin's Ear) and Spain signed away all rights to the Rock in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. Gibraltar has been British ever since.
And like many of Britain's overseas possessions, it sometimes seems determined to be more British than the British themselves. Fish and chip shops abound, as do red telephone boxes and other familiar ''icons'' of British life. The Union Jack is ubiquitous. Alongside this cheerful nostalgia for a Britain that has largely disappeared, however, lies a different tale. The Spanish have long suspected Gibraltar of being a haven for cigarette smugglers, money-launderers and assorted other modern ills. Like other British overseas territories (most notoriously the Cayman Islands), Gibraltar has what might be termed a relaxed attitude towards financial services - corporation tax, for instance, is levied at 10 per cent.
Nevertheless, Gibraltar is
British and must remain British! Thirty years on from the Falklands War - a rather more significant dispute and one subject, again, to fresh sabre-rattling on both sides - Fleet Street is once again thrilled at the idea of dispatching the Royal Navy (or what is left of it) to protect the territorial integrity of the Empire. We may know nothing at all about the Gibraltans and few Britons have ever visited the Rock but, by God and in the name of Queen Elizabeth, they're our people.
Or, as Andrew Rosindell, Conservative MP for Romford put it, ''the Royal Navy must be dispatched to the waters around Gibraltar to protect British interests and in every international forum and organisation, Britain must use its influence to challenge Spain. We must demonstrate by words and actions that Spain have lost Britain as a friend and if they want to change things, they have to change their own attitude towards Gibraltar.'' He was not joking.
London's suspicion that Madrid's attitude is designed to divert attention from Spain's crippling economic woes may be accurate. (Something similar may be true of Argentina's latest posturing over the Falklands.) But, in truth, Spain has no prospect of winning this fight. The law says that Gibraltar is British and talks about joint sovereignty collapsed in 2002 when the Spanish insisted that the Rock would revert to Spain after 50 years. When it comes to Gibraltar, the British take a very legalistic line to justify the occupation of lands overseas: the Spanish signed the Rock away in 1713 and nothing has changed since then. (In the Falklands case, by contrast, the British claim is based on longevity of tenure, not a treaty.)
However much sense it might make - rationally speaking - for Spain to co-administer the Rock, Madrid's bellicose attitude makes it impossible for any British government to offer a concession that might jeopardise Gibraltar's residents' rights to self-determination.
In truth, both sides would benefit from a better, calmer, more open relationship. The rest of the world may think this dispute laughably ridiculous. Indeed, I imagine many non-Britons wonder why the United Kingdom is so attached to a rock of such negligible significance. But, perhaps paradoxically, it is because Gibraltar does not matter very much that the British people think it matters.
The British pride themselves on their sympathy for the underdog and view plucky little Gibraltar as the David - albeit with the Royal Navy as a slingshot - pitted against a bullying Spanish goliath. If that makes the British look ridiculous then so be it. There are worse things than looking ridiculous, especially if the matter at hand concerns protecting the last embers of empire. In truth, many Britons secretly enjoy these Spanish provocations. There are few things more agreeable to a stout-hearted, roast-beef-and-beer-fed Englishman than telling foreigners - of whatever filthy stripe - to go to hell. Gibraltar's continued existence is reassurance that there will, after all, always be an England even if that England is not in England itself. Wait, what's that? They've agreed to a dialogue? Come on, England!
- Alex Massie writes for The Spectator. Twitter @alexmassie.