Sabre rattling in the South Atlantic between Argentina and Britain over the Falkland Islands has a feel of déjà vu to it. As a young student, I took to the streets with a motley crew of campaigners with homemade placards demanding “Peace in the Falklands!” a quarter of a century ago, and now here we are all over again; Argentina is protesting at British intrusion into waters she claims as her own, while Britain is insisting that it has every right to drill for oil in waters off what it says is British territory.
The last conflict between both nations was described by one wag as being akin to “two bald men fighting over a comb”. Whatever the sagacity of that allusion, over a thousand people lost their lives, the Falkland Islanders went through the ignominy of occupation and the Argentinians endured a humbling defeat, something that rankles to this day.
My objection back then was that Margaret Thatcher, through her own incompetence had more or less invited the Argentinians to invade when her Government withdrew British passports from the Falkland Islanders and withdrew the only British protection vessel from the area, HMS Endurance. And after she had done so with such carelessness, decided that the Falklands could be rescued along with her own reputation by despatching a taskforce. This she did successfully, restoring her poll ratings in the process and she steamed full ahead to a massive election victory in 1983. I believed then, as I do now, that Britain, Argentina and the Falkland Islanders needed to negotiate a final settlement, which would probably mean a transfer of sovereignty, while allowing the Falkland Islanders autonomy and a right to pursue their chosen way of life, namely a very southerly British way of life, replete with fish and chips and red telephone boxes.
Now it is Argentina’s President Cristina Kirchner, who faces an election next year, complicated by looming allegations of bribery. The arrival of oil exploration kit from Britain and its passage through Argentinian waters provides the possibility for a perfect storm.
Argentina is much better armed than it was quarter of a century ago, and the sense of national humiliation still rankles. Britain now has a permanent military detachment on the islands, and is just as committed – or possibly more committed now that the Falklanders are the new Klondikers, but somehow I don’t think there is much risk of military confrontation, well not at least until oil has actually been discovered.
I sympathise with Argentina, but in truth the Falklands were settled and grabbed by the British before Argentina even existed or had expanded south of Buenos Aires. History and legality are on the side of the British, geography on the side of the Argentinians. In the middle are three thousand or so Falklanders whose wishes have to be taken into account. But in the 21st century, surely both Britain and Argentina are grown up enough to reach some sort of lasting settlement?
In reality maturity and politics are not always easy bed fellows. While there has been a fair amount of speculation as to the motives behind the Argentinian President’s sabre rattling, little thought has been given to the possible British reaction if a head of steam is allowed to build up.
Gordon Brown faces an election in literally a few weeks time – and I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised if his spin doctors are not already thinking of the political dividends that could flow from this possible scenario.
This has; Gordon Brown emerging onto the doorsteps of Downing Street, with an elderly Margaret Thatcher at his side, nodding her head approvingly as the Prime Minister gravely intones that he has despatched ships and submarines from the Royal Navy to Falkland waters to “protect British interests”.