The Falkland Islands are in the news again, with Argentine President Cristina Kirchner taking full page advertisements in Britain’s press to argue that Britain’s continued claim to sovereignty in the Falklands is a hangover of imperialism that is no longer tolerable, and that sovereignty should be handed back to Argentina.
For those of us who came to political awareness in the early 1980s, the Falklands War remains a potent political symbol; speaking personally, it was for me a profoundly radicalising experience. It was like a sort of collective leave-taking from normality – from that extraordinary Saturday morning debate in the House of Commons after the invasions – Michael Foot’s vainglorious last stand in support of the military action that would end his hopes of becoming Prime Minister, John Nott’s disastrous defence of Government policy (and, after it was over, the Radio 4 continuity announcer apologising, without a hint of irony, for the postponement of I’m sorry I haven’t a clue) – to the sailing of the Canberra, turned into a troop ship for the duration, the reports of battle thousands of miles away, the ponderous MOD announcements, to the pernicious sinking of the Belgrano and Thatcher’s shameless appropriation of the war to support her battle against trade unions at home. At the time the use of military force in this way (leaving aside its daily deployment in Northern Ireland) was novel – it’s perhaps a sign of how much things have changed that a Labour Government should send British troops into action in spots as diverse as Iraq, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan without any sense that anything was abnormal here. To sense the tenor of it all, you had to be there. I was a second year student at the time, and I mostly remember a baking hot summer in which a small group of us from around the non-Tory political spectrum conversed in necessarily muted tones about the sheer oddness of it all.
And it is clear that the Ruritanian aspects of it have not gone away. The central issue for the British Government – and majority British opinion – was of course the right to self-determination of the Islanders; people at the other end of the world whose right to remain British demanded the despatch of a naval task force to deal with an invading dictatorship that was, we were told, opposed to the freedoms and rights that Britishness stood for.
And what Britishness! We were sold – and Cameron continues to sell – an idyllic image of a society that looked like a sort of conservative nirvana – an intensely loyal people in a far-away place, where phone boxes are red, the populace is white, where policemen are deferential towards their betters, where a portrait of the Queen hangs behind the bar of the local pub, and where there’s not a hoody or a wheelchair to be seen – all presided over benignly by a Governor in a silly hat using a converted London taxi to traverse his domain. It’s a world that the Daily Mail could have invented, a world intimately bound up with the Thatcher legacy, and a Conservative leader as insecure in his position as Cameron is hardly going to traduce the reputation of the ailing former leader against whom his party compares him so unfavourably by challenging that illusion. The wishes of the islanders were, according to Thatcher, paramount, and if that meant the logistics and expense of retaining Fortress Falklands, so be it. It is often forgotten that the basic democratic rights that Britons might be inclined to take for granted never really existed – the Falkland Islands Company, a private sector subsidiary of a multinational, effectively ran the place.
Of course it was never that simple. British foreign policy has never been a respecter of the wishes of indigenous people – our whole imperial history demonstrates this amply, and less than a decade earlier the Chagossian population had been deported en masse from the British dependency of Diego Garcia to make way for an American naval base. We are in the world of Liberal Imperialism, where apparently progressive-sounding tropes of self-determination and democracy are used to disguise the pursuit of naked power. And in the South Atlantic, in 1982 – as with so many of the outbreaks of liberal imperialism since – it was, at least in part, about oil.
Today, Argentina is a democracy – there’s no doubt that defeat in the Falklands hastened the end of military dictatorship – but, from the Argentine side, the issue remains mired in post-imperial hypocrisy – as Professor Norman Geras points out in this blog piece. One can debate the legacies of imperialism at length, but if we are going to get serious about dealing with the crimes of empire the expulsion of the Argentine garrison from the Falklands in 1833 is probably not where we would start. Moreover, the Argentine authorities – especially in the Peronist era – were every bit as unscrupulous as Thatcher in using the Malvinas dispute for domestic political ends, cranking up the anti-British rhetoric whenever domestic politics hit a sticky patch. Kirchner’s actions have a long, if not exactly reputable, pedigree – although historically and culturally Argentina’s links with Britain are closer than the Falklands dispute might lead one to believe (it’s one of the ironies of the Falklands War that the Argentine air force pilots who came closer to inflicting military defeat on the Task Force than the British authorities have ever been willing to admit had as their role models the moustachioed Spitfire pilots who fought the Battle of Britain).
There is a sensible, grown-up solution to all of this. It involves going to the UN, and negotiating a deal which protects the rights of the islanders while conceding joint sovereignty. It would make life easier for the islanders, as it would secure their supply chains. It would enshrine their rights to enjoy their chosen way of life in international agreements. It would be a stirring demonstration of the way in which trans-national institutions can secure long-term stability. But it would require a maturity of outlook and an imagination – above all a willingness to stop clinging to national symbols – that simply does not exist in the world of post-imperial politics – either in Britain or Argentina.