It has been 30 years since Britain last fought a war over the remnants of a colonial empire on which the sun never set.
Although Spain hasn’t explicitly threatened a remake of the 1982 Falklands War between Britain and Argentina in its own centuries-old colonial-era dispute, over Gibraltar, the belligerent talk coming out of Ol’ Blighty suggests that Margaret Thatcher’s famed “Falklands spirit” is alive and well.
In the wake of the latest round of argle-bargle with Argentina’s former colonial master, Britain sent warships to the Mediterranean on Monday and weighed legal action against Spain.
“Hands off our Rock — that’s what I say,” London Mayor Boris Johnson wrote in The Telegraph newspaper Sunday, pooh-poohing official claims that the timing was a coincidence and that Britain was not planning the Spanish Armada in reverse.
“Perhaps it really is a coincidence … that we have just sent a fleet of warships to Gibraltar,” he wrote. “But I hope not. I hope that one way or another we will shortly [pry] Spanish hands off the throat of our colony.”
Madrid also played up the echoes of the Falklands War by threatening to join Argentina in a U.N. effort to strip Her Majesty of the South Atlantic outpost.
In London, Defense Ministry officials said the Royal Navy deployments are part of a long-planned military exercise and not connected to the 3-centuries-old dispute over the 2.6-square-mile area with its iconic Rock of Gibraltar, a limestone promontory nearly 1,400 feet high.
But the timing of the exercise underscores the tension over the British territory of nearly 30,000 residents that guards the narrow channel at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea separating Spain and Africa.
The feud between the two European Union and NATO allies has increased since February 2012, when Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called on Britain to agree to talks about Gibraltar’s sovereignty — an issue Britain says was settled more than 300 years ago. In 2002, Gibraltar residents voted overwhelmingly to remain part of Britain.
Tensions increased after Spain protested Gibraltar efforts to expand an artificial reef, started in 1973 to promote marine life. Madrid said the expanded reef would disrupt its fishing fleets and was not within Gibraltar’s territorial waters.
Spain retaliated with expanded security checks along its three-quarter-mile border with Gibraltar, prompting Britain to accuse Spain of trying to sabotage Gibraltar’s key tourist industry with lengthy customs inspections.
“The prime minister is disappointed by the failure of the Spanish to remove the additional border checks … and we are now considering what legal action is open to us,” a spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters Monday in London.
“This would be an unprecedented step, so we want to consider it carefully before making a decision to pursue.”
In Madrid, Spanish officials are weighing action at the United Nations, where Argentina is a member of the powerful Security Council, though Britain is an even more powerful permanent member.
In recent years, Argentina also has turned up the heat in its dispute with Britain over the sovereignty of the wind-swept Falkland Islands, about 300 miles east of Argentina. That conflict brought the two nations to war in 1982 after a lightning Argentine invasion overran the colony and Thatcher sent a naval and air task force to expel the Argentines.
Argentina, which calls the islands the Malvinas, insists the Falklands are part of its territory, although the islanders have voted repeatedly to continue as part of Britain.
A spokesman for the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation sees a common cause with Argentina.
“There are common elements in the issue of Malvinas and Gibraltar and elements that are more distant,” he said without specifying the differences.
Spain is considering taking its case to the United Nations or the U.N. International Court of Justice in The Hague.
“They are possibilities. No decision has been taken,” the spokesman said.
Gibraltar, at the tip of the Iberian Peninsula, juts into the narrow strait between Spain and North Africa and guards the gateway to the Mediterranean.
British and Dutch forces captured the territory in 1704 during the War of Spanish Succession when Spain was wracked by quarrels over who would inherit the throne of Spain after Charles II.
A war involving a divided Spain and 10 other European nations ended with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, in which Britain gained Gibraltar “in perpetuity.”
Disputes between Britain and Spain over the status of Gibraltar have flared up periodically ever since. In 1969, after another referendum and a constitutional conference underlined Gibraltar’s rejection of all Spanish claims, fascist dictator Francisco Franco sealed the border completely and downgraded other ties to Britain.
More recently, Gibraltar overcame decades of Spanish vetoes to become a member of European soccer’s principal governing body, though it still can’t join the world body and compete in the World Cup because it is not a sovereign nation. After the May vote, however, Michel Platini, president of the Union of European Football Associations, said Gibraltar’s and Spain’s teams would be kept apart in the draw and not play each other in the next European championship.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.