Can we all just calm down a bit: nobody is actually going to war

I know our position in the EU still raises the blood pressure of some but I wonder whether we can just get a little bit of perspective. In the last few days, it was reported that the EU would not block Spain in any trade or sovereignty issues pertaining to Gibraltar. This was largely reported as an effective veto by Spain over any potential trade deal we may receive (eg here).

So why has a possible veto over a UK-EU trade deal turned to discussion of war? What’s that? Michael Howard said something on TV? Well he is a former Conservative Party leader and a serving Lord. He wouldn’t stoke up tensions by ramping up rhetoric over a trade deal so it sounds as though we’ll be mobilising our armed forces tomorrow would he?


That would explain tweets like these:

It does bear saying that Michael Howard did not say we would go to war with Spain over Gibraltar. What he said was that Theresa May would show the same resolve over Gibraltar as Mrs Thatcher did over the Falkland Islands. Given that Mrs Thatcher only mobilised our armed forces following an invasion by Argentina, it would presumably require the same from Spain – something which they are manifestly not going to do – before such considerations would even be discussed. Lord Howard’s comments might be extremely unhelpful and not a little inflammatory but they do not amount to a statement of intent for war.

Let’s just take stock. Many Spaniards work in Gibraltar and, despite some of their rhetoric, Spain are more concerned about tax and trade arrangements on the rock rather than the territory itself. It would not be sensible for Spain to seek to upset relations with the self-governing region. More to the point, the hoo-ha really revolves around what is being cast as a potential veto over a UK-EU trade deal.

Whether the EU has really handed Spain a veto over the trade deal or not is another question altogether. However, for the sake of argument let’s assume they have. The question to ask, then, is this: are the UK really going to go to war with Spain over a vetoed trade deal? Given there are already people arguing for the UK to leave the EU without bothering with a deal at all, it seems highly unlikely. Even were nobody making that argument, would parliament really sign off on a war because we didn’t get a trade deal with the EU? Seems doubtful.

If Michael Howard is right – and the government would show the same resolve as over the Falklands – it would take Spain invading Gibraltar and claiming sovereignty for war to be a possibility. Given that it is in the interests of neither Spain nor the UK to do that, war seems particularly unlikely. Much more likely is for Spain to press for particular rules altering the current tax status of Gibraltar within the trade deal, using the threat of a veto as leverage. But that doesn’t make as exciting headlines and certainly doesn’t exercise people the same way as threats of war.

The problem here is the readiness of people to believe what is manifestly nonsense. Many remain folk began tweeting and posting about this with some glee. They wanted to say any claim by Brexiteers that the EU doesn’t prevent war were clearly wrong. Well, that’s only true if we actually fight Spain, which we clearly won’t. But that doesn’t matter because being able to make a claim I want to believe is more important, and that’s the very best kind of fact. Interestingly, it is an argument often levelled at those on the Brexit side of the debate. The view that Brexiteers are post-truth and just believe what they want to believe. I fail to see how this doesn’t apply equally to the other side.

By all means, point to the problems you perceive with our leaving the EU. It is quite right to hold the government to account over the deal that we will receive. It would just be great if we save the opprobrium for actual problems rather than seizing upon non-issues and claiming this is proof the whole thing is a disaster. It doesn’t do the credibility of your argument any favours at all.

It particularly doesn’t help the stated claims of wanting better debate. Many seem to argue that Brexiteers have been angry, unpleasant and busy slinging mud. I have no doubt that has happened in some quarters but let us not pretend the other side were not just as bad. It is tiresome to repeatedly hear I am an idiot, bigot, racist, or whatever simply because I do not share the belief that the EU is a force for good. Anybody who has known me for more than five minutes would know something of my history of political activism and affiliation and I struggle to see how the label can stick.

More to the point, if we want better debate, perhaps we can start with reframing the discussion. Something has gone seriously awry when your position on our membership of a supranational political organisation becomes a shibboleth for whether you are an amoral monster. Maybe we can start again without presuming on the motives of either side. Maybe we can be charitable enough to begin with the presumption that there were good reasons to vote either way and that your views on continued membership of the EU in either direction do not denote, of themselves, any sort of moral integrity or otherwise.

It seems a basic refusal to accept this possibility is what drives some to now believe we are genuinely considering war. If all brexiteers are idiots, xenophobes and bigots then of course war with Spain is eminently possible. Only idiots would go to war and clearly xenophobes would relish a war with our European neighbours, who they manifestly hate. But maybe, just maybe, if we reassess our presumptions perhaps our assessment of the current situation may stay within the bounds of reality.