Gibraltar, 1 December. The Rock stands 426m (1,398 feet) high. This massif of carboniferous limestone is a portal, a great gateway, between the Atlantic and Mediterranean worlds. Since 1713, and the Treaty of Utrecht, Gibraltar has also been both fact and symbol of British power. That was the theme of my talk at a delightful dinner hosted this week at his official residence the Convent by my friend, His Excellency the Governor of Gibraltar, Lt. General Ed Davis. The dinner was held in honour of another friend, General Ben Hodges, Commander, US Army Europe. My theme? The place of Gibraltar in Britain’s past, present and future story of power. It is a story that is far from over.
Everywhere one goes in ‘Gib’ one finds layers of Britain’s power past. Great military bastions of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries jostle with each other in silent testimony to the waves of history that have crashed upon the rocky shores of the Straits over which ‘Gib’ still stands sentinel. These great bastions underpin new layers of financial and commercial power as an exciting twenty-first century Gibraltar is being cast. Before ‘Gib’ there is the Great Mole that once protected the mighty fleets of the Royal Navy when my grandfather sailed from this place to guard the sea lanes of Empire. Today it protects the mighty ships of commerce that drive the great engines of globalisation.
It would be easy to suggest that as the sun has set on Britain’s once great empire, so it is now setting on Britain as a power. Nothing could be further from the truth. Brexit will soon force London to again think about hard matters strategic and hard matters power. Russia is snapping at NATO’s eastern heels, whilst much of the Middle East and North Africa teeter on the edge of a potentially abyssal epoch. In the face of such forces Britain and Gibraltar will once again be called upon to stand firm – two rocks of stability in a sea of change.
Britain once possessed many ‘Gibraltars’, a ‘string of pearls’ that stretched from London to Delhi and far beyond. Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus, Aden, and Singapore all guarded the imperial sea lanes between Mother England, the far-flung eastern Empire and Australasia. Today, only Gibraltar and the British Sovereign Base Area on Cyprus remain, but they are as vitally strategic as they ever were, and London must understand that.
Indeed, Gibraltar’s vital importance to British, European, and the security of a wider world cannot be over-stated. The great post-Cold War hiatus in power is now at an end. The world is entering a new age of contested power. China understands that, which is why Beijing is constructing a string of power pearls to close off the South China Sea. Britain has no such need to act illegally as she already possesses such a ‘string of pearls’, with Gibraltar perhaps the most important.
Britain herself is now one such ‘pearl’. An island off the shores of Europe that will again underpin and guarantee the defence of Europe as parts of Europe again become contested. Gibraltar, as she always has, still guards the entrance and exit from the Mediterranean, something I am sure Moscow is only too aware off as she seeks to extend her own global footprint. Cyprus, the other pearl, offers Britain (and her allies) a platform from which to see and help influence much that happens in the Black Sea region, the Middle East and North Africa.
Soon the first of Britain’s new super aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth will visit Gibraltar, the largest British warships ever to have sailed past the Great Mole. My guess is that she will spend much of her life operating from ‘Gib’ deep into the Mediterranean. Critically, such operations will help ease the pressure on the US Navy to be everywhere, in strength, all of the time. Together with HMS Prince of Wales the two ships will also demonstrate the unrivalled ability of America’s British ally to ease the many burdens on an over-stretched United States. If, that is, Downing Street, the Ministry of Defence, and the Naval Staff in London can face down the naysayers, the short-termists, and the whingers to realise just what national strategic assets of power and influence projection Britain is again about to possess. The latter day heirs of a re-building Royal Navy’s once powerful Mediterranean Fleet.
Together with allies and partners the new fleet will be able to project power, influence and stability into the Mediterranean world and thus give real meaning to NATO’s 360 Degree Approach – hard deterrence to NATO’s east, discreet stabilising power to NATO’s south. That is why I plead humbly and respectfully with my great friends in Spain to see the bigger strategic picture in which Gibraltar is a gilded pillar. Gibraltar is not just a vital adjunct to Spain’s economy, but in strategic partnership with Britain and the people of Gibraltar, the Rock will again be vital to Spain’s security. A Spain that is again on the front-line between security and insecurity, stability and instability, poverty and wealth, hope and despair.
Old-fashioned thinking? I can almost hear the decline managers and maudlin soft power merchants of Whitehall tut-tutting at the very idea of British hard power. However, it is they who are out-of-date, not me. The Europe, of which Britain is and will remain an integral part, has made the world a more dangerous place by failing to invest their great institutions of soft power with the necessary hard power. This massive strategic failure makes all the talk of ‘values’ one so often hears from our leaders little more than a hollow lie.
In fact, Britain (and Europe) will need all forms of power in the coming age. For Britain its immense soft power must now be underpinned by credible hard military power. If a new power-balanced Britain again emerges Gibraltar will act as both power platform and power multiplier. As an aside, it is power that will ultimately shape Britain’s future relationship with Europe, not petty-fogging negotiations over irrelevant tactical details.
Gibraltar is a delightful place. It is also an important place. Like Britain, if it so chooses its future lays not behind it, but before it; a rock of stability, a rock of prosperity, but above all a rock of British power in an age when such power must again be to the fore. Indeed, there are two things that clearly never cease here on the Rock; history and power.
Gibraltar: rock of power.