Charles should have handed over the Falklands

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Prince Charles the Pirate - the figure vilified by 200 anti-British demonstrators in Buenos Aires last week - is a new creation. Back here in the Old World, we are used to Charles the Nutter who talks to his calceolarias; Charles the fogey who doesn't like All This Modern Architecture; Charles the Cad who Done his Woman Wrong; and Charles the Prophet who saw the evil of GM crops before they heard about it in the Daily Mail. We also have Charles the Decent Bloke Really, who, most of us believe, has been doing remarkably well in the last couple of years in circumstances which would drive most of us nuts. If you wanted to have a visual image which summed up this troubled English Hamlet, it might well be the stiff figure of Prince Charles in the arms of the gorgeous Senora Adriana Vasile as the hot-blooded Latin smouldered her way through a tango with the old stick.

But let other pens treat of such terpsichorean matters. And let us consider the piratical aspect of things. It is generally agreed that Charles, as so often, was singing from the wrong hymn sheet in Buenos Aires; but for once this was not his fault. The speech had obviously been vetted by the Foreign Office, and what he said was this:

"My hope is that the people of modern, democratic Argentina, with their passionate attachment to their national traditions, will in future be able to live amicably alongside the people of another modern, if rather smaller democracy lying a few hundred miles off your coast - a people just as passionately attached to their traditions - and be able to do so in a spirit of mutual understanding and respect, so that neither will again need to feel any fear from, or hostility towards, the other."

The Vice President of the Argentine immediately denounced the Prince's remarks as "intolerable" and questioned the right of the occupants of the Malvinas to "self-determination". President Menem "distanced himself" from those remarks. On his own visit to London not long ago, Menem was told that the future of the Malvinas was "non-negotiable", and that sovereignty would not be so much as discussed.

Many of us must feel complete bafflement about the British government's attitude to this matter. And this is true not only for those who were opposed to the Thatcher versus Galtieri war, but for those who felt that the war was a tragic inevitability.

After all, Galtieri defied international law in an act of aggression, and it could well be argued that a negotiated settlement would never have achieved what the British Task Force so memorably did. But, apart from Mrs Thatcher and a few die-hards, few of us who defended the legitimacy of that war supposed that it was anything other than a holding-device to stop Galtieri in his tracks before further discussion of the future of the islands with the Argentine.

Don't let's forget that the Foreign Office had been in favour of returning the Malvinas to Argentinian control until that war broke out. The arguments have been incontrovertible, at least since 1771, when Samuel Johnson set them out in his pamphlet Thoughts on the late Transactions Respecting Falkland's Islands. This pamphlet reminds the reader that both the Spanish and the British were equally "piratical" in laying claim to the islands. From 1766-69 it seemed as if they were "British", thanks to a garrison established there by the Royal Navy. In reality "that of which we were almost weary ourselves, we did not expect any one to envy; and therefore supposed that we should be permitted to reside in Falkland's Islands, the undisputed lords of tempestuous barrenness". Then on 28 November, 1769, a Spanish schooner arrived with different ideas, and the conflict - unresolved to this day - began.

It seems extraordinary, since we are now living at peace with our old friends the Argentinians, a magnificent diverse people which contains hundreds of thousands of ethnic Scots, as well its millions of ethnic Spaniards, that we should be making our pirate prince strut about embarrassingly and lay claim to the Malvinas.

There is no "tradition", national or otherwise, among the few hundred nerds who for reasons best known to themselves continue to inhabit the barren bogs of the Malvinas. They expected us, the British taxpayers, to finance an expensive war on their behalf. They were prepared to allow young men to die in the cause of defending them. Instead of being flattered by political double-speak, of the kind written out for Prince Charles, the Falkland Island- ers should be told to "get real".

As Doctor Johnson argued in 1771, "this was a colony which could never become independent, for it never could be able to maintain itself". If you need a decent secondary school, or a brain surgeon, or a washing- machine, and you are bloody idiot enough to live in Port Stanley, then you have to go to Buenos Aires to get these things. You don't fly back thousands of miles to London each time you need a decently made pair of shoes or a new computer. Therefore, in reality, the Malvinas are much more part of the Argentine than they are either "independent" or "British". The Prince, with the full backing of the British government, should have used his visit to Buenos Aires to say: "The Malvinas are yours. Have them back."

Instead of then being forced to go through the motions in Port Stanley as he did yesterday, of celebrating the sheep-shaggers' "way of life", he could for once have been the figurehead of a humane, sensible bit of foreign policy. Until we allow the Argentine to administer the Malvinas - which is the obvious, practical, sensible solution to the problem - the matter will be a running sore between our two peoples.

It won't go away. Rather than allowing some future thuggish Argentinian politician to wow the people with a re-run of Galtieri's war, we should have seized the initiative with the amiable President Menem. That would have been ethical foreign policy indeed.