Felipe Fernandez-Armesto: Thirty years on, the British still can't admit the truth about the Falklands

The opportunity to offload a valueless colony turned into an obligation to hold on to it at any price

Related Topics

I was one of the guilty men of 1982. The previous year, in conversations at my college in Oxford, where my colleagues and I dismissed the Falklands dispute as trivial, visiting Argentinian top brass got the impression that Britain would not fight for so pointless a prize. Indeed, few British people cared about "a far-off country" of which they knew little. The inference, however, that they would not fight over a matter of principle was false.

Britain had virtually nothing of any material value at stake in the islands at the time of the invasion on 2 April 1982. But to allow the Junta to invade the Falklands with impunity was almost as unthinkable as allowing Hitler to seize Poland. Recourse to violence imperilled the peace of the world, because the differences between the sides could have been sorted out with modest compromises. Today, 30 years after the war, two developments have put the continuing controversy beyond hope of a reasonable outcome: first, the effects of the war; then a revolution in the islands' economic prospects.

The war exacerbated feelings and made a negotiated outcome hard to imagine. Both sides worked themselves up into silly self-righteousness and unreasonable mutual condemnation. On the day the invasion started, an Argentinian friend of mine got into a taxi in Park Lane without knowing that hostilities had broken out. "I am from Argentina," she announced cheerfully in reply to the cabbie's idle question about her provenance. "Out of the cab!" he ordered. "I'm not having no bleedin' Argies."

A few months later, when the war was over, my wife was surprised by a rather more courteous gesture from an Argentinian pilgrim on the steps of the cathedral of Compostela. He solemnly shook her hand, explaining that he exempted her from responsibility for the malevolence, piracy, war crimes, atrocities and evil aggression committed by her government. The pilgrim was nicer than the cabbie – but both showed the insuperable ignorance that divided the sides.

In some ways, the war did both countries good. The British enjoyed a rare opportunity for self-congratulation on a victory whose heroics they exaggerated and whose brutalities they largely overlooked. Argentinians, meanwhile, could replace dictatorship with democracy and console themselves with thought that Albion had only triumphed, as usual, by perfidy – shooting the Belgrano in the back and reimposing colonialism at bayonet-point.

Partly in consequence of these comforting delusions, neither side could recall the war with realism, or assess its folly with objectivity. To understand Argentina, one must appreciate that the average citizen conceives his country's past as a history of failure and frustration. God, Argentinians think, made theirs to be a great land, but at every opportunity they have wrecked His handiwork, allowing dictators to repress their virtues and foreigners to steal their resources.

The conscripts' inertia in the face of British forces was understandable – indeed, sensible, as it would have compounded folly to give one's life for valueless islands or gratify the revolting vanity of General Galtieri and his cronies. But so abject a defeat was a source of shame and a cause for evasion in a country whose national anthem ends with the cry, "Let us swear to die with glory!"

The British, in turn, were victims of the gypsy's curse: "May you have wars – and win them!" Victory involved terrible costs for a penurious economy and imposed further waste of resources on defence and investment. Somehow, the costs had to be justified and, if possible, recouped – making a future settlement with Argentina harder than ever. The opportunity to offload a futile, valueless colony had turned into an obligation to hold on to it at any price. Then economic changes began to set in, problematising ever more hopelessly the prospects for lasting peace. First, in the 1990s, the offshore fisheries became highly productive, and fleets from all over the world wanted licences. Then – decisively – in the following decade, the chances of profitable oil exploitation multiplied.

Once rumours of oil seep out, they poison negotiations as surely as slicks blacken the sea. The parties in the dispute go on uttering unconvincing rhetoric. Monotonous cant about the islanders' rights of self-determination dominates language on the British side, as if the handful of people concerned could not be easily satisfied – indeed, bought off – with so many resources to hand. Argentina continues to belly-ache about the injustice of Britain's original seizure of the islands in 1833, as if any of that mattered now. Continued British rule rests on the bottom line. When the islands were unimportant, their fate would have been easy to settle. The magnitude of the problem has grown with the magnitude of the stakes.

There was a moment in the past decade when Britain and Argentina might have agreed to share the bonanza. But, just as the Junta blew the chance of a rational solution by an act of folly in 1982, so President Nestor Kirchner wrecked hope of a settlement in 2007 by repudiating unilaterally existing resource-sharing protocols. He thought he was commemorating the 25th anniversary of the war, distracting his electorate, striking a heroic pose, and making a calculated effort for a better deal.

He was wrong on all counts. He counted Argentina out of a stake in the mounting promise of profits and made it impossible for British governments to give back what he had forfeited. His widow, who now occupies the presidency, has been left with no option but to try to justify or conceal his error retrospectively. Her bluster cannot change the situation. It can, perhaps, obscure the truth. In either event, the problem remains insoluble: Argentina cannot renounce her claims. Britain cannot accommodate them.

Today the islands are grossly under-defended and, if Argentina were to invade, there would probably be little international support for Britain this time round. Big oil would shift allegiance to the victors. It won't happen – but only because Argentina is now indelibly democratic and her citizens will no more vote for war than hens will for Easter. Instead, we can look to a long stalemate, while the islanders get rich and relations between Britain and Argentina stagnate.

When the next opportunity for a settlement comes – probably sometime in the next 20 years, with renegotiation of international agreements on Antarctic exploitation – it may be possible to transfer sovereignty quietly, while divvying up amicably such resources as then remain. Maybe then we shall be able to admit the truth: it doesn't matter who rules the Falklands – or whether we call them the Malvinas.

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's books include 'The Americas: A History of Two Continents'

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Data Specialist

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: Hang on – that’s not how it’s supposed to be written

Guy Keleny
Rafael Nadal is down and out, beaten by Dustin Brown at Wimbledon – but an era is not thereby ended  

Sad as it is, Rafael Nadal's decline does not mark the end of tennis's golden era

Tom Peck
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test