Michael Howard, what on Earth do you think you’re doing?

April 2, 2017

by Martin Odoni

The bellicose blundering of the modern Conservative Party never runs out of ways to amaze and appal me. We are, at the time of writing, a mere four days on from the activation of Article-50, starting the process of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union. Developments over the last few days have made certain that our hapless Prime Minister, Theresa May, will be conducting negotiations from a position of weakness. You would imagine, therefore, that everyone connected to the British Government would realise that what is needed now, in relations with other EU countries, is absolutely seamless, pitch-perfect diplomacy.

What we have seen from Michael Howard, former Conservative leader, now Lord Howard, over the subject of Gibraltar, does not fit the bill. ‘The Rock’, occupied by the English/British since the War Of The Spanish Succession in the early 18th Century, has long been a bone-of-contention between Britain and Spain. With the onset of ‘Brexit’, the issue of Gibraltar’s sovereignty was inevitably going to be raised once more. Howard, this morning, decided to throw his tiny-fraction-of-a-ha’penny’s-worth into the discussion by comparing the scenario to the Falklands War of 1982. He said,

Thirty-five years ago this week, another woman Prime Minister sent a taskforce halfway across the world to defend the freedom of another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country, and I’m absolutely certain that our current prime minister will show the same resolve in standing by the people of Gibraltar.

The current Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, also had something to say about it.

We’re going to look after Gibraltar. Gibraltar is going to be protected all the way because the sovereignty cannot be changed without the agreement of the people of Gibraltar.

In response, a former Ministry of Defence Operational Director, Rear-Admiral Chris Parry, helpfully suggested,

If the Government wants to talk big over Gibraltar… they have to invest appropriately in the military capacity to back that up… We could cripple Spain in the medium term and I think the Americans would probably support us too. Spain should learn from history that it is never worth taking us on and that we could still singe the King of Spain’s beard.

I have one or two questions about these three masters of diplomacy. The first is as follows; –

What in blazes do these idiots think they are doing?

Another one is, why are the imbeciles even saying stuff like this?

What are they trying to accomplish? They are actually talking about using military force to cripple a fellow EU and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation country, all over who controls a confounded tax-haven! At any time, that would be crass stupidity. But they are doing it just days after Article-50 was triggered. This is a time when the UK needs the most careful and skilled diplomatic manoeuvres the country has perhaps ever displayed, or it will face the prospect of an awful severance package, or even no deal at all.

It is like the whole of the UK Government and armed forces have been taken over by a gang of Donald Rumsfelds. Just threatening another country in this  macho-juvenile-on-steroids fashion borders on violating International Law. But more important, the UK is still presently part of the EU and so are the Spaniards. Still more important, both countries are members of NATO. The mutual defence nature of the Treaty means that, were the UK really to take military action against Spain, the rest of NATO would be compelled to intervene, vastly outmatching the British forces. NATO might also choose to expel the UK for attacking a fellow signatory within the alliance, meaning the country would lose the shared military protection it presently enjoys.

Comparisons with the Falklands War are therefore not only offensive (“Spain speaks Spanish, the Argentine Junta spoke Spanish, so obviously they’re all just the same,” seems to be the near-racist reasoning) but downright inaccurate. Argentina was not a member of NATO in 1982 – never has been in fact – nor a member of the EU, for obvious reasons. Spain is both. The implications of a war with Spain today are therefore totally different from those of a war with Leopoldo Galtieri’s Argentina in the 1980s.

For these reasons, an actual war is very unlikely to follow; both the British and Spanish Governments would be too frightened of the high price of being the aggressor. But the inept dearth of political skill or diplomatic instinct in the British making public statements like these at such a delicate time is thoroughly startling. Insensitive and obsolete reminders about the 16th Century terrorism of Sir Francis Drake lends a really yobbish quality to Parry’s remarks. But we can at least give him the benefit of the doubt, given he is not a politician. Howard and Fallon do not have that excuse, and their macho posturings, harking back to the Falklands War, have doubtless left many on Britain’s negotiating team in Brussels slamming their heads on their desks.

With every other move, the British Government seems determined to provoke the EU into hardening its stance on Brexit negotiations, inviting a less and less favourable deal. Is that deliberate, so the British have a way of blaming the EU if-and-when negotiations fail? Maybe, but that prize is far less valuable than getting a good deal in the first place. It is the better prize that the Conservatives seem determined to spurn. It may sound sneaky, but it certainly does not sound intelligent.

With Donald Trump in the White House and the Bullingdon Set all over the British Government, crass anti-intellectualism dominates international relations.

On the subject of Trump, imagine what everyone would be saying right now if he had made remarks like these. Everyone would be right too.

The British should not get away with it either.

3 Responses to “Michael Howard, what on Earth do you think you’re doing?”

  1. fusr2 Says:

    Howard has gone gaga like Thatcher. Male Tories never been the same since she got a tank commander photo op. It’s called “penis envy”

  2. As a non-British, non-Spanish European, I’d like to add the following:

    First, Howard and Parry hurt the British position in Brexit negotions. Second, if they want Scotland to remain British, war speech may be a bad idea. Third, it is unlikely that they can correctly estimate the Spanish reaction and already for that reason should just keep theirs mouths shut.

    Their words may well be remembered for years in Spain, and whatever follows may be counterproductive – in an unlikely worst case scenario, this leads to Spain having a populist, nationalist, poisonously anti-British government with nuclear ambitions and serious invasion plans. Unlikely but not impossible at all, considering how the world is regressing into the past. Vladimir Putin might be interested in selling some little used nuclear missiles in exchange for friendship. Even in the present state of affairs, he should be interested in finding some benefits from the British-Spanish Gibraltar argument.

    Fourth, there have been plans about a British-lead quick reaction force, consisting of the United Kingdom and a group of Northern European countries. Well, those plans may need to be shelved for a while. A military partnership with Britain just became quite unpopular in the eyes of the public, thanks to those two fools.

    Fifth, Chris Parry might well have been excellent as a commander of a single vessel, but he does not seem to have any understanding of strategy.

    He is apparently blind to the fact that an attack on Spain would result in an immediate trade embargo by the EU. This would stop the flow of goods from Europe and the flow of money as well, so the British civil society would be in a crisis very soon. Even after the war, relations with Europe would remain icy for years and economic recovery might take decades.

    Spain would suffer as well, but less, and as the attacked party, they would be more motivated to keep the war going on.

    Falkland War is not comparable here. There are the similarities of Argentina being Spanish-speaking and both the Falkland islands and Gibraltar being British overseas territories. Similarities, yes, and of little importance.

    As for the world opinion – what a war look like to us outsiders? Well, I think most of us want the Gibraltarians to decide which country they are part of, but if Britain attacks Spain, most of us will support the Spanish.

    The comments about past wars, then. Well, history shows us that horribly incompetent military leaders do exist, and that such generals and admirals have the tendency to see past victories as signs of victories in the future. Typically, such looks at the past are quite selective.

    A more reasonable review of the past tells us that even an overwhelming military force does not bring victory, if conditions favour the defender.

    If the admiral absolutely must look at some specific occasions of the past, irrelevant as they might be now, he should notice that peninsular Spain is very tough nut to crack. After all, they did fight the Arab invaders for 700 years and in the end, they won. If you believe in “national character”, as the ex-admiral may do, then you could conclude that the Spanish are the most resilient people of them all. National character issues aside, it is safe to assume that if Spain is attacked, they will adapt that “we shall never surrender” attitude and will be as willing to sue for peace as Britain was during World War 2.

    In any case, it is saddening to see Western European politicians and military men, even former ones, speaking as if they were in the 1930s and on cocaine.

  3. One further comment: Those two individuals may have done an amount of damage that is completely out of proportion with their lack of position. Also, the possible damage done is out of proportion with the fact they they do not have to answer for that possible damage in any way whatsoever.

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