Philip Hensher: My solution to the Falklands problem: sell them

I doubt we have much stomach for another war in the south Atlantic. And we need the money

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With the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War, tensions are rising once more between the owners, Britain, and the islands' nearest continental neighbour, Argentina. In 2007, Argentina restated its claim to the Falklands, which have been British since 1833. In 2010, Britain made a further claim to the territory around the islands, in pursuance of some mineral rights – it seems as if there may be a good deal of oil thereabouts.

Argentina has been responding to the recent history and the recent claims of Britain by restricting access. Cristina Kirchner, the Argentine President, has threatened to ban aircraft bound for the Falklands from passing through national airspace. She has succeeded in persuading her neighbours to ban shipping bearing the Falklands flag from entering their ports.

There is a certain amount of bullishness over the Falklands still. David Cameron said about as bad a thing as you can say about a contemporary politician, and accused President Kirchner of "colonialism". Kirchner said Cameron was "bordering on stupidity".

This week, HMS Dauntless was dispatched. Prince William, as part of his tour of duty, was sent off wearing what Buenos Aires called "the uniform of the conqueror". Kirchner insists that she only wants to talk, but the British government seems pretty sure that there is nothing at all to talk about.

There have been bloodier wars than the 1982 Falklands War. Altogether, 649 Argentine military personnel, 255 British military personnel and three Falkland Islanders died during the conflict. But nobody can really want to fight the same war every few decades. Jorge Luis Borges was not quite right when he described the 1982 war as "two bald men fighting over a comb": there are resources there which both countries legitimately want to get their hands on. Then again, it must also be said that we are in a state of anti-jingoism. To paraphrase the song that gave jingoism its name: we don't want to fight, but by jingo, even if we did/We might have the ships for the moment, we might have the men if they haven't all taken jobs guarding Boots, but we certainly don't have the money.

I have a drastic suggestion. Let's offer to sell the Falkland Islands to Argentina.

The idea of selling sovereign territory seems an incredible one to us, but it was a common thing until recently. America has been quite a regular purchaser of territory over the years. In 1803, Washington bought Louisiana from France for $15m; in 1867, Alaska from Russia for $7.2m; and, between 1916 and 1917, the Virgin Islands from Denmark for $25m in gold.

Germany bought the Caroline Islands from Spain in 1899. In the 1660s, the Dutch and the English agreed to swap two islands on either side of the world: one, considered a treasure trove for its monopoly on nutmeg, was the island of Run in Indonesia, kept by the Dutch; the other, a nothing-much sort of place called Manhattan. (There's an amusing book about it all by Giles Milton.)

Very recently the idea that a seriously hard-up country might sell some sovereign territory to more responsible economies has surfaced again. Greece, with its thousands of islands and shell-shocked economy, has received a number of more-or-less serious offers. Josef Schlarmann, of the German Christian Democrats, wondered out loud why the Greeks couldn't sell a few islands to raise money. The mayor of Vilnius, currently a fast-growing economy, said that Lithuania would happily pay seven million euros for an island in the Aegean. These offers have not been greeted very happily in Athens.

Working out what sovereign territory will be worth is terribly difficult, as the sad story of Run and Manhattan shows. Even enormously mineral-rich territories may not prove profitable. The Economist has quoted a professor from Iowa, David Barker, who has established that Alaska was so expensive to develop that that apparently trifling $7.2m has never been recovered by the government.

All the same, it might be worth raising the question with the Argentinians. We've got absolutely no money. I really doubt we have much stomach for another Falklands War, and then another. They are clearly passionately keen to acquire some territory with rich resources, high GDP and as much sentimental value as you can maintain for something 300 miles from your coastline. It might be worth a lot of money in the future, but actually we could quite do with some money now, this second. Perhaps we can suggest to President Kirchner that half a trillion pounds would be quite a reasonable sum for this archipelago of 778 mostly charming islands. They wouldn't have to pay all at once.

When Aden was abandoned by the British in 1967, Philip Larkin wrote rather an imperial poem saying: "Next year we shall be living in a country/That brought its soldiers home for lack of money". Well, we've been living in that country for a long time now – all my life, and probably yours, too. The thing is, we don't have any money at all any longer. If they really want these remote and intermittently inhabited islands, we might as well abandon any shame we might once have possessed, and sell them to them, priced by the acre.

* Prince William flies in to diplomatic storm in Falklands

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