Monday, March 05, 2012

News from nowhere

"The Falklands thing was a fight between two bald men over a comb."
Jorge Luis Borges

It is odd how particular words trigger a certain memory in one's head. When I've heard the Falkland Islands mentioned on news reports in recent weeks, I immediately find myself transported back to my time as a fifteen year old in a history class where my schoolmates and I were listening to our teacher speak about the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935. The teacher in question told us that Mussolini had chosen Abyssinia because it was a war that his army was certain to win and that nothing boosted a leader's standing more than being victorious in war. Just in case we still didn't get her message, our teacher pointed out how Margaret Thatcher had done something similar in 1982 when she went to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands in order to enhance her popularity back home.

As analogies go, it was not a particularly good one. However, the view that the war in the Falklands was no more than an act of imperialist aggression on the part of Britain and its trigger-happy 'Iron Lady' PM is one which thirty years on still commands considerable support. Now, with the sovereignty dispute having reared its head again, the spotlight is back on the region and, unsurprisingly, a whole range of people have popped up to call on Britain to 'hand over' the Falklands to Argentina. From George Galloway to Sean Penn to Morrissey, there are many individuals out there that view themselves as progressives of some kind or another who are only happy to put their name to the cause of Argentine nationalism. We have been here before. Over the years a large chunk of the left has developed a habit of arriving at the wrong answer on often the most simple of questions. The 1982 conflict in the Falklands was a prime example.

The Argentina of thirty years ago was not the liberal democracy we know today but rather the Argentina of the National Reorganization Process, the misleadingly mundane title given to the military dictatorship which ruthlessly ran the South American nation for seven years from 1976 until 1983. During this period the regime slaughtered tens of thousands of socialists, communists, trade unionists, journalists, students and anyone else that they deemed to be enemies of the state. Maggie may well have been a nasty piece of work, but if Arthur Scargill thought he was treated harshly at Orgreave he can at least be thankful that he never had to come up against the junta's henchmen.

If my history teacher back in the mid-nineties had wanted to provide my classmates and I with an example of a leader that went to war in a bid to enhance their status she could have mentioned General Leopoldo Galtieri. In the early eighties Galtieri was in charge of an Argentina which was in a poor economic state and had a population who were, to put it extremely mildly, not overly happy. Had they been rational thinkers the generals would probably have decided at this point to cut their losses, call elections and clear off. Fascism is, however, never rational. The option they chose in this dire situation was to send 600 troops into the South Atlantic to invade some islands packed full of sheep and penguins. The rest is, as they say, history. Britain went to war, reclaimed the Falklands and a year later the junta came crashing down. One of the unfortunate side effects of the conflict was the decision by many leftists to in essence take the side of a brutal authoritarian military dictatorship which had spent the previous five years murdering their comrades. How short the memories of some can be.

I am no fan of British nationalism, or nationalism of any variety for that matter. The flag-waving euphoria and jingoistic tabloid reporting that characterised the 1982 war is not the sort of thing that particularly enthuses me. Nor am I asserting that the British state has some form of god-given right to hold onto this tiny insignificant little archipelago. All that I would ask for is that the Falklands question is allowed to be answered by the Falkland Islanders themselves. For now, the 3,000 or so inhabitants wish to retain their status of being a British Overseas Territory rather than come under the jurisdiction of the Argentine Republic. So be it. I have no axe to grind when it comes to these islands. The only side I take is that of the right of the people who live there to determine their own future.

It puzzles me how anyone who considers themselves to be a genuine democrat can object to this position. If we were to follow the advice of those who call for the handover of the islands to Argentina what would become of the people who lived there? Would they be happy being unwilling citizens of a nation they did not ask to be a part of? Doesn't sound like a workable solution to me. Perhaps they would like Falklanders to be deported to the UK in order to make way for a few thousand Argentinians (although the forced deportation of entire populations doesn't have a great track record). Neither should distant history be considered a legitimate tool to try and transform the status of the islands. The argument about how Britain acquired the territory in 1833 has about as much relevance to the sovereignty dispute nowadays as the Plantation of Ulster has to the Northern Ireland question in 2012.

No, if you are serious about democracy then you must accept that the future of these islands will be decided, not by bureaucrats from Buenos Aries and London, but by the citizens of the Falkland Islands. How heartening it is then to see a group of Argentine intellectuals issue a statement entitled An Alternative Vision of the Malvinas which criticises the "climate of nationalist agitation" and recognises that, when it comes to the people of the land they call Las Malvinas, "respecting their way of life means giving up the intention to impose on them a sovereignty, citizenship and government they don't want." Well said. Many may look upon the sentiments expressed here as axiomatic but then, as Orwell said, sometimes the first duty of intelligent men is the restatement of the obvious.

The obvious thing to do now is for Argentina to confront their Articles 2 and 3 moment and relinquish the antiquated territorial claim to the Falkland Islands. It should be clear to almost everyone now that this policy has only a negative impact on relations between the United Kingdom, Argentina and the Falklanders. Now is the time for Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's government to toss the claim into the same historical dustbin where Eamon de Valera's equally pointless and provocative claim on Northern Ireland now lies. In short, its time to stop fighting over the comb.