Palmerstonian

Bernard Porter

  • The Official History of the Falklands Campaign. Vol. I: The Origins of the Falklands War by Lawrence Freedman
    Routledge, 253 pp, £35.00, June 2005, ISBN 0 7146 5206 7
  • The Official History of the Falklands Campaign. Vol. II: War and Diplomacy by Lawrence Freedman
    Routledge, 849 pp, £49.95, June 2005, ISBN 0 7146 5207 5

In 1982 Britain’s continued possession of the Falkland (Malvinas) Islands was ridiculous. Even at the British Empire’s height they had been one of its least important and favoured colonies. At the Great Exhibition of 1851 they were represented by a showcase containing some tufts of wool and dried grasses. Dr Johnson’s famous description of them in 1771, which Lawrence Freedman uses to open this history, has scarcely been challenged:

a bleak and gloomy solitude, an island thrown aside from human use, stormy in winter, and barren in summer; an island which not even southern savages have dignified with habitation; where a garrison must be kept in a state that contemplates with envy the exiles of Siberia; of which the expense will be perpetual, and the use only occasional; and which, if fortune smiles upon our labours, may become a nest of smugglers in peace, and in war the refuge of future buccaneers.

That last bit, about ‘expense’ and ‘use’, remained the gist of the objection to them by British policy-makers (the people at the Foreign Office, for example); together with the fact that, as they knew full well, but didn’t always let on, Britain’s legal title to the islands was highly dubious. It was anomalous that they remained colonies (or ‘overseas dependencies’) long after most of the rest of the empire had gone. It wasn’t because Britain valued them, even for their potential. (Offshore oil was a rather desperate and unconvincing rationale for them at the time of the 1982 war; it has never been found. Were it to be, Argentine co-operation would be needed to exploit it.) No particular pride was attached to having the Falklands. They were ‘a nuisance’; the situation was a nonsense.

In 1982, when Argentinian troops landed on the Falklands, it looked more nonsensical than ever. There were only two thousand people living there. They wanted to be British, but could remain so only at huge cost to the Treasury (which was already subsidising them heavily), or by reaching some accommodation with their Argentinian neighbour. Alternatively, they could be shipped off somewhere else, which would be very much to Britain’s advantage. It would be cheaper than securing them in the Falklands, which nearly all military experts believed would be impossible to defend were they to be invaded. Britain was 7000 miles away: taking the islands back seemed ‘barely militarily viable’, or at least prohibitively expensive. It would also dangerously divert Britain’s forces from their more urgent Cold War role in Europe. That was why the main goal of FCO policy in the twenty or thirty years before the war had been, reasonably enough, to negotiate some form of transfer.

A condominium was mooted; or a ‘lease-back’ scheme; or an arrangement rather like the one the Åland islands had with Finland. (The Swedish-speaking islanders had been ceded against their will, but with special privileges internationally guaranteed, which seemed to work satisfactorily.) Any of these solutions would have been better than Britain simply hanging on, in deference to a few settlers whose right to have the last say just because they lived there was at least questionable. One British ambassador in South America thought it was

ludicrous that the interests of less than two thousand persons … should be allowed to be a thorn in the flesh of Anglo/Latin American relations, damaging the interests of the more than 50 million population of the United Kingdom. This seems to me to be a case where our principle of self-determination ought to take second place behind the principle that in a democratic society the minority have to bow to the majority.

But the islanders weren’t having any of this; and so successive British governments, clearly frightened of the public (or press) outcry were they to hand patriotic Britons over to foreigners against their wishes, chickened out. Perhaps – some of them reasoned – it might be easier to settle later. The British population of the islands was in decline. The young people were leaving. (One visitor – a Fabian, and clearly jaundiced – pictured them bored out of their minds by ‘an unending diet of mutton, beer and rum, with entertainment largely restricted to drunkenness and adultery, spiced with occasional incest’.) If current trends continued, their ‘fragile economic and social structure’ would collapse. That would force them to come to terms with the logic of their situation: either a compromise, or what one governor called ‘euthanasia by generous compensation’ – i.e. paying them to leave. That’s probably the best one can say for Britain’s foot-dragging. It was the way to get shot of what James Callaghan called this ‘poisoned chalice’ with least fuss.

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