Thursday, 3 January 2013

A small row about some Islands

David Cameron will surely be thanking Argentina's president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, for brightening up what must otherwise be rather a depressing new year by taking out an ad in the Guardian demanding the "return" of the Malvinas.

There are, as I've suggested before, good reasons of realpolitik that might induce a sufficiently cynical British government to give the Falkland Islands to Argentina over the heads of its inhabitants, or better perhaps to sell them.  Maintaining British presence there is pointless and expensive, and harms diplomatic and trade relationships with an area of the world that is of increasing economic importance.  The islands themselves are of almost no strategic significance, and as for the Islanders, they are sufficiently few in number that they could be bought off and given generous resettlement grants should they wish to move to the UK rather than live under Argentinian sovereignty.  Why should the wishes of three thousand islanders, half of whom are recent immigrants anyway, continue to outweigh those of the sixty million of us who live on the British mainland?

The principle may not be a good one (self-determination and all that) but the British government has rarely been above such high-handed colonial behaviour in the past.  Just ask the inhabitants of the Chagos Islands, disgracefully kicked out of their own country in the 1960s because the Americans wanted an airbase.  Only a couple of years before the 1982 invasion, Margaret Thatcher dispatched one of her most trusted ministers, Nicholas Ridley, to do a deal with Argentina.  Under the plans, sovereignty would have been ceded and Argentina would have had an offical role on the Islands, but British administration would have continued under a 99 year lease.  British and Argentinian flags would have flown side by side.  The idea was only dropped after it became clear that the Islanders would refuse to accept it and a number of sympathetic MPs on both sides of the House took up the case.

Things are very different today, however.  Kirchner's rather silly letter, which dismisses the Islanders as "a population implantation process" and bases her claim to the islands on events of 180 years ago, was one assumes written largely for domestic consumption.  The Argentinian economy is in an even worse state than Britain's, and there's no more obvious distraction tactic than a bit of nationalistic sabre-rattling.  Still, it's hard to believe that many Argentinians still fall for it.  The exchange of insults is by now entirely ritualistic, Kirchner accusing the British of "colonialism", while demanding the right to colonise an already inhabited country, Cameron in turn "vowing" to defend the Islands as though an actual invasion were on the cards.   In fact, the Royal Navy is so tiny these days that defeating a successful Argentine invasion would be all but impossible now.  But fear not, it won't happen.  Kirchner can attain her objectives much more easily, by creating a synthetic row.

On the other hand, batting away Kirchner's demands offers Cameron an easy win.  At no cost, he can pose as a champion self-determination and, of course, British pride.  Not that he has any choice in the matter.  Politically, conceding to Argentina's demands, even to the extent of acknowledging that discussions are a possibility, would be close to political suicide.  I doubt that even in 1980 the Ridley plan was practicable: it relied upon the Islanders being biddable or, if they weren't, on them being unable to attract the support of British MPs who could see advantage in banging the patriotic drum.  Such a scheme couldn't succeed now.  The effect of the war was twofold.  Firstly, it made the Falklands, a territory of which few British people were even aware in 1982, into a nationalistic obsession almost (though not quite) on the scale that the Malvinas had always been among many in Argentina.  Secondly, it gave the Islanders a moral veto.  Theoretically, Britain and Argentina could negotiate, with any deal being offered to the Islanders in a referendum, without violating the sacred principle of self-determination.  Practically, even starting negotiations would be impossible because the Islanders plainly do not want it and, therefore and more importantly, the British press would never stand for it.  A deal was only possible when most British people had never heard of the Falklands and would therefore not have cared either way. 

A parallel is sometimes drawn with Hong Kong, where the Thatcher government saw little trouble agreeing to hand over several million people to a Communist regime.  But the difference was far more than one of scale.  The vast majority of Hong Kong's population were ethnically Chinese, after all; they happened to live in a British colony, and many of them might have preferred to remain so, but their language and customs were not British.  If the population of Hong Kong prior to 1997 had consisted entirely  of expatriates and the descendants of British settlers, the handover would, I suggest, have been unthinkable.  The Chinese government would still have wanted the territory, of course, but I doubt they would have wanted the people.  It would have been a mess.  Fortunately, the British always had the good sense to keep Hong Kong essentially Chinese.

The Falklands, however, have never been settled by Argentinians or by other Spanish-speaking South Americans.  They are almost monoculturally British, far more than the United Kingdom itself: embarrassingly so, in some ways, which is partly why sections of the British Left would like nothing better than to be shot of them.  That, ultimately, rather than any high-sounding rhetoric about self-determination, is why this and any future British government will be both unable and unwilling to give them away.