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Self-determination and the Falklands

Drawing on his new edition of Iron Britannia, a veteran critic of Parliament's war over the Falklands says that today's 'referendum' of 1,600 islanders is a sad projection of British dreams. 

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
12 March 2013

So the Falkland Islanders have voted to stay a British territory by 1,517 votes to 3 with 152 abstaining from the total electorate of 1,672.

Since the war of 1982 the Falklands has become a fantastical object onto which the British and Argentinians scan dreams of themselves energised by nightmares at home. We in the UK can't hold a referendum to tell all the foreign invaders from the EU to get out! Let's celebrate our kith and kin who number little more than the monthly regulars of a properous pub, doing so with an up-yours elan protected by £billions of our kit. 

Once again, Argentina has handed the British regime an easy dose of patriotic self-righteousness so that while the British government preens itself in principles actually it is enjoying old-fashioned knock-about. Once again, it seems, Argentina has out-manoeuvred itself to score an own-goal, only this time thankfully with no loss of life.

There are three key points which need to be established and repeated as the issue resurfaces:

1. Argentina needs to pledge and mean it that it will never again use or threaten force against the Falkland Islanders, and it needs to agree to talk with them, after all it believes they are Argentinians!

2. The British government needs to drop any claim to the mineral or other resources of the South Atlantic and ensure that the islanders negotiate their access to them with Argentina.

3. Everyone should seek the complete demilitarisation of the South Atlantic: the Islanders should learn to live with and respect the legitimate interests of Argentina, and Argentina to respect and live with the legitimate interests of the Islanders

In the run-up to the vote the BBC broadcast vox pops with Falklanders. Most were utterly predictable. There was one anonymous voice who said:

If one looks at reality, without the Union Jack-tinted shades, the islands were stolen from the Argentines back in the 19th Century.

It's crazy to have more contact with a nearly defunct imperial power separated from us by thousands of miles, than with a now relatively democratic and vibrant country that's a hop, skip and a jump away.

People round here cling to an absurd notion of 'Britishness' that, like Ulster unionism, is going nowhere.

I lived through the occupation and have no wish to repeat the experience, but this is not going to be repeated so there's no point in stirring this up in a paranoid, knee-jerk manner.

All the flag-waving nonsense on both sides could be resolved by sensible negotiation. We could extract a very good deal from Argentina with a high measure of autonomy.

My views are, sadly, not typical. Sometimes my wife and I feel like oppressed outcasts.

Today, the transformation of the Falklands over thirty years does now make its inhabitants more than the pathetic dependents of the UK they once were. A vivid account of the change can be found in a Daily Mail report by David Jones. He had visited the Falklands two years after the conflict as a journalist. He was so alienated by the "grim depressing place", the scorn of UK troops for the locals and the fighting between them that he thought the war not worth it.

He returned last year to report that it is becoming an island paradise. The big, decayed estates once controlled by absentee British landlords have been broken up and are worked by local owners. Huge Antarctic cruise ships dock and spill out souvenir hunters. Japanese demand for squid, and proper control of the sea around the Falklands, brings in over £100 million a year in fishing permits. The resident (though not voting) population has nearly doubled as support for the thousand-strong British garrison, tourism and oil exploration brings in new families. Also reporting for the Daily Mail, Caroline Graham painted an even more extraordinary picture last summer. Seven families have become millionaires thanks to the fishing bonanza. The average household income is £45,000 (the UK’s is £25,000): Islanders enjoy free healthcare and education up to university level. A new secondary school teaches children up to GCSE level. Pupils are then offered free flights, have all tuition fees paid and get £8,000 a year to study at colleges and universities in the UK.

And this is before the oil begins to flow.

In his Thatcher and Sons, Simon Jenkins recounts how after the Falklands War when he was invited to No 10,

I once heard her iconoclastic adviser Alan Walters, at a Downing Street lunch, suggesting that it would have been cheaper to give every islander a million pounds to vote to resettle in Switzerland or anywhere. Thatcher was incandescent, shouting at him about Judas and ‘pieces of silver’.

It would, of course, have been a far more humane as well in 1982, with no loss of lives, and anyway Argentina should have paid. Today, however, Buenos Aires will find it hard to raise enough money to make an attractive offer to buy the islanders out of their privileged toehold.

That’s before the oil, apparently discovered in very large quantities, tens of billions of barrels’ worth. Where there is black gold there is trouble.

Last February I was interviewed on the Stephen Nolan Show on BBC’s 5 Live along with the Honourable Jan Cheek on the line from Port Stanley. She is a member of the eight-strong Falklands ‘legislative assembly’. She said, "If there is oil in the Falklands . . . then like the natural resources of any overseas territories it belongs to the Falkland Islands." (The well-named Cheek recently sold her late husband’s Fortuna fishing company to a fellow Falklander for £8 million.) I replied that it is dangerous nonsense to think that British lives should be put at risk to claim the oil for 200 miles around the Falklands in the deep South Atlantic. When I said they should negotiate any claims with Argentina Mrs Cheek replied, barefaced, that the people of the Falkland Islands have the right to self-determination "like New Zealand".

I pointed out that they are not a people. Self-determination means taking your external as well as internal government into your own hands, not something that 1,600 can undertake.

The Falklanders are natives of a British dependency covered by the UN Declaration Regarding Non-Self-Governing Territories (Articles 73 and 74 of the UN Charter). Article 73 stipulates, "the interests of the inhabitants of the territories are paramount". "Interests" are not the same as their wishes. These interests include taking account of their "political aspirations" but also the need to "further international peace and security". Article 74 states that policy towards non-self-governing territories must be based "on the general principle of good-neighbourliness, due account being taken of the interests and well-being of the rest of the world, in social, economic, and commercial matters".

Does Britain have the right to override the wishes of the Islanders? Much of this post is re-cycled from the new introduction to my book on the Falklands written during the war itself, Iron Britannia. The 2012 introduction is quite long and reviews the rebirth of British militarism thanks to the success in the South Atlantic. In Chapter 7 of the book I write about this fascinating issue. At the time the air was full of accusations of 'appeasement' as those who embraced the desire to fight justified it in terms recycled from the war. I show that the lesson of appeasement in 1938 is this: that the inhabitants of the territory do not have the sole right to determine the outcome as they wish if what is at stake is their loyalty to other sovereignties.

A people have the right to self-determination, ie to exercise their own independent sovereignty but that is different from their determining between sovereignties. It was the appeasers who demanded that the Sudeten Germans had the right, as they put it at the time, to "self-determination" if they wanted to leave what was then Czechoslovakia and join Germany. This was agreed at Munich with disastrous results. It should not have been. They did not have the right to self-determination, in such circumstances the other states involved have a direct interest and a say. If Britain does not want another war with Argentina over the oil - something that is quite different from the islanders - then we have the right to insist on a negotiation on the lines of the anonymous islander. 

The Falklands may be the size of Wales but they are not a country, they are a settlement of 1,600. As such, the settlers cannot themselves alone decide that Britain must spend billions to protect their cashing in on the totality of the oil revenues in their part of the Atlantic pastime.

The real argument will be here in the UK between those people of sense and the lobbyists for the army, navy and air-force, slavering over the opportunity of all the new kit, live training and extra funding that conflict in the South Atlantic brings with it.

In principle, then, the UK government can insist on making peace with Argentina and reaching a negotiated agreement about the rights to the oil resources, bearing in mind the duty to protect the interests of the islanders but, if necessary, going over their heads. Argentina cannot possibly mount an invasion without losing many thousands of lives against the well-entrenched, state-of-the-art British emplacements. More important, all Brits should want to reach such an agreement. We should want to demilitarise the South Atlantic and withdraw, with everyone’s interests secured. It is bad for British politics to have the Falklands implanted in our leaders’ brains, so that it matters far more to them than the fate of, say, Birmingham, England’s second city.


Drawn in part from the new introduction to Iron Britannia, time to take the great out of Britain published by Faber Finds

Some responses to Iron Britannia’s original publication:

“The most impressively sustained polemic against the government’s policy on the Falklands yet to appear.” Sean French, Sunday Times

“One of the liveliest pieces of expert polemic this country has seen for many years, and done with almost Swiftian vigour. I warmly recommend it.” John Fowles, Guardian

“A furious, sometimes gleeful and often witty polemic against the decaying British political system which the conflict revealed… the Churchillism idea remains the best thing in this essay. Another hit is Barnett’s joyous savaging of the British press: the gloating screams of the Sun, the surging moral orgasms of the Times.” Neal Ascherson, London Review of Books

“A blistering polemic from the outside left written in the heat of anger (and incidentally in limpid English). Anthony Barnett makes a variety of telling points in his attack on Mrs. Thatcher and the English parliamentary hegemony. Most tellingly of all, the concept he puts forward of ‘Churchillism’, the rhetoric of national unity which overrides party and class considerations.” Geoffrey Wheatcroft, Times Literary Supplement

“Brings some sense into the strange episode of the Falklands war.” A. J. P. Taylor, Observer (Books of the Year)

“A sharp intelligently argued case … his examination of the mythological factors at work in the British political situation is brilliant.” Robert Kee

“In the most honourable tradition of left-wing journalism, it is also very funny.” Angela Carter

“Without belittling those who served, it exposes the rhetoric heaped on their efforts by the Government and the media.” Andrew Wilson, Observer

“A welcome antidote to the current wave of Falkland porn, and the author poses the right questions.” Ben Pimlott, New Society

“The only interesting analysis of the war I’ve read.” David Hare

“Barnett makes a devastating case to show Thatcher’s attempt to utilize the war for political purposes.” Tam Dalyell, Tribune

Source Faber Finds.

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