Joan Smith: Why is there no debate in Britain about the Falklands?


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The Independent Online

When the entire political class repeats the same platitudes, I worry. And when a British prime minister who's just had one of his worst days plays the patriotism card, I get cross. So you can imagine how I felt last week when David Cameron, who'd just suffered exquisite personal embarrassment at the Leveson inquiry, issued a stern warning to Argentina about the Falkland Islands.

Argentina is no longer a military dictatorship. General Galtieri is long gone and the country's current leader, Cristina Kirchner, is a popular president who's won two elections. She went to New York on Thursday, after it was announced that the islanders will have a referendum next year, and told a UN committee she would like to open talks with Britain over sovereignty of the islands. "Can someone in the modern world deny that possibility and say they are leaders of the civilised world and defenders of human rights?" she asked.

Yes they Cam – I mean can. Kirchner's remarks seemed reasonable compared with Cameron's a few hours earlier, when he flatly ruled out any negotiation on the future of the Falklands. At a reception in London commemorating the war, he ramped up the rhetoric, declaring that Britain is "ready and willing to stand up for the Falkland islanders at any time. As long as they wish to remain a British territory, that is the way it will stay."

I can't help wondering, as I did 30 years ago, about proportionality. I thought the loss of life on HMS Sheffield was tragic and I felt the same about Argentinian casualties, most of whom were young conscripts. The loss of just over 900 lives to regain the islands for a population of slightly more than 1,800 didn't make sense to me, any more than the idea that the islands were "British". I know the islanders insist on their British identity but they've chosen to live on the other side of the world and I don't think they can reasonably expect a blank cheque from British governments for ever.

It would make a great deal more sense to open negotiations with Argentina and guarantee islanders the means to settle in the UK if they aren't happy with the outcome. It's not as if British governments uphold the idea of self-determination across the board: in 1971, the last of the Chagossian islanders were removed by the Royal Navy from their archipelago in the Indian Ocean after the UK agreed to allow the US to build a military base on Diego Garcia. The Chagossians now live for the most part miserably in Mauritius and the Seychelles, and diplomatic cables leaked in 2010 show that the British government is still resisting any possibility of a return.

There are double standards at work here, and they make the absence of a political debate about the Falklands puzzling. At a time of economic hardship, when so many are struggling, shouldn't we be talking about the cost of defending these faraway islands – and the alternatives? The Falkland islanders have had plenty of opportunities to air their views. I wonder when the debate will be opened to the rest of us.

Joan Smith is Political Blonde