This week former Conservative Party leader Michael Howard caused a furore with his comments over Gibraltar in an interview with Sky News. In response to the announcement that the EU appeared to have handed Spain a veto over “the Rock’s” future in Brexit negotiations, Lord Howard claimed that Theresa May would show the same resolve to stand by the people of Gibraltar that Margaret Thatcher had shown during the Falklands War.
Many commentators leapt upon Howard’s statement, claiming he was advocating that Britain would be prepared to go to war over Gibraltar. For their part the Spanish – famed for their own cool heads and rational approach to Gibraltar’s sovereignty – suggested that Britain should calm down and regain its “traditional composure”, while Mrs May laughed off the suggestion. Number 10 explained that Lord Howard was simply establishing the lengths of Britain’s “resolve” to defend the territory’s sovereignty by providing an historical example.
Howard had commented: “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.”
While this statement may not be terribly helpful, particularly in light of the strained UK-EU relations and the historically heated context of Gibraltar’s sovereignty, to be fair to Howard he didn’t actually say that the Prime Minister would go to war with Spain (who are, after all, our ally in NATO).
However, it highlights how easily an off-the-cuff remark can be misinterpreted by commentators eager to read between the lines and provide their own representation of what a statement really meant.
As communications professionals, we can all learn something from this episode. If a seasoned political heavy-weight like Michael Howard, who has been in the media spotlight for more than 30 years, can get himself in hot water with a few poorly chosen words then the rest of us need to take extra precautions to ensure that our clients’ messages are as clear and easy to interpret as possible. After all, when you’re in the business of communicating there is surely no substitute for clarity.
Then again, perhaps Howard’s statement contained just the right degree of veiled, calculated threat to make the EU think twice about its standpoint on Gibraltar’s role in the Brexit negotiations…