Independent on Sunday, 17 June 2012
When the entire political class speaks with one voice, I feel nervous. When MPs from all parties repeat the same platitudes, I worry about the absence of dissent. And when a British prime minister who’s just had one of his worst days plays the patriotism card, I get cross. So you can imagine how I felt last week when David Cameron, who’d just suffered exquisite personal embarrassment at the Leveson Inquiry, issued a stern warning to Argentina about the Falkland Islands.
Argentina is no longer a military dictatorship. General Galtieri is long gone and the country’s current leader, Cristina Kirchner, is a popular President who’s won two elections. She went to New York on Thursday, after it was announced that the Islanders will have a referendum next year, and told a UN committee she would like to sit down with Britain and open talks over sovereignty of the Islands. ‘Can someone in the modern world deny that possibility and say they are leaders of the civilised world and defenders of human rights?’ she asked.
Yes they Cam – I mean can. Kirchner’s remarks seemed reasonable compared to Cameron’s a few hours earlier, when he flatly ruled out any negotiation on the future of the Falklands. At a reception in London commemorating the war, the prime minister ramped up the rhetoric, declaring that Britain is ‘ready and willing to stand up for the Falkland Islanders at any time. As long as they wish to remain a British territory, that is the way it will stay’.
I can’t help wondering, as I did 30 years ago, about proportionality. I thought the loss of life on HMS Sheffield was tragic and I felt the same about Argentinian casualties, most of whom were young conscripts. The loss of just over 900 lives to regain the Islands
for a population of slightly more than 1,800 didn’t make sense to me, any more than the idea that the Islands were ‘British’. I know the Islanders insist that’s their identity but they’ve chosen to live on the other side of the world, and I don’t think they can reasonably expect a blank cheque from British governments in perpetuity.
It would make a great deal more sense to open negotiations with Argentina while guaranteeing Islanders the opportunity and means to settle in the UK, if they aren’t happy with the outcome. It’s not even as if British governments uphold the idea of self-determination across the board: in 1971, the last of the Chagossian Islanders were removed by the Royal Navy from their archipelago in the Indian Ocean after the UK agreed to allow the US to build a military base on Diego Garcia. The Chagossians now live for the most part miserably in Mauritius and the Seychelles, and diplomatic cables leaked in 2010 show that the British government is still resisting any possibility of a return.
There are double standards at work here, and they make the absence of a political debate about the Falklands all the more puzzling. At a time of economic hardship, when so many people are struggling, shouldn’t we be talking about the cost of defending these far-away islands – and the alternatives? The Falkland Islanders have had plenty of opportunities to air their views, and I wonder when the debate will be opened to the rest of us.