Boris Johnson could be the first PM to expand the UK since Pitt the Younger
Yesterday, Matt Hancock reported to Parliament the following words from Fabian Picardo, the First Minister of Gibraltar: “The United Kingdom has played a blinder on vaccinations and we have been among the beneficiaries in the British family of nations.”
News that the Rock has successfully vaccinated its entire adult population is obviously welcome. But Picardo’s phrasing raises an interesting question: is Gibraltar a British nation? And if so, isn’t it time we treated it like one and invited it to join the United Kingdom?
British nationhood is a complicated concept. There are plenty who deny it exists, and insist that the Union is simply an economic and political arrangement — a sort of miniature predecessor to the European Union.
A more historically-informed view is that there is certainly such a thing as the British nation, as the millions of people who report themselves ‘British only’ on the census attests, but that it has often expanded beyond the borders of the UK.
The sense of obligation the Government is displaying towards Hong Kongers, and before them the East African Asians, demonstrates this; as does the persistence of the Union Flag in the official symbols of the other ‘CANZUK’ nations of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.
But if it is possible to be comfortably British without formally being part of the UK, why ought Gibraltar to consider it? There are several strong arguments.
First, representation. Parliament currently acts for Gibraltar in certain areas, and a Member of Parliament could represent the Rock when the House of Commons considers those issues. This need not be accompanied by any diminution in the powers and responsibilities of the Gibraltarian government and parliament — an expansive devolution settlement could be part of any treaty of union.
Formally joining the UK would also ‘normalise’ Gibraltar’s position in international law, giving it status analogous to that of France’s overseas departments and making it harder for Spain to exert pressure on it.
(The current international system is weighted against British arrangements — it is telling that the UK is regularly raked over the coals for its Overseas Territories whilst France has held on to an entire Latin American country without anybody really objecting.)
On London’s side, the appeal is even more obvious. By showing a bit more imagination than his mid-century predecessors who rejected Malta’s bid to accede to the Union, Boris Johnson could become the first Prime Minister to oversee an expansion of the United Kingdom since Pitt the Younger. (Rockall doesn’t count.) What better rebuke to those who insist that the country is doomed to fall apart?