This week a cabinet level Argentinian politician visited the UK for the first time in 15 years. International observers unfamiliar with the British political weather would be forgiven for associating this development with a thaw in bilateral relations. Quite to the contrary; in fact, to understand the current state of play, outsiders would learn far more by reviewing the dark days of 1982: I refer of course to the Beaconsfield by-election.
Back then, as turbulence in the South Atlantic brewed an energetic young barrister named Tony Blair took aim at a Buckinghamshire parliamentary seat vacant following the death of the Conservative incumbent. The Thatcher government was generally unpopular and the maverick, sophisticated communicator Blair had a fighting chance of victory.
But as doors were knocked and babies kissed, so simultaneously the UK and Argentina moved nearer to, then into armed conflict following the invasion of the Falkland or Malvinas Islands by the ruling Argentinian Junta. On the doorstep, the CND leaning Blair espoused the necessity for diplomacy and the avoidance of war - his Tory opponent the polar opposite; fire and brimstone.
On those union jack festooned streets, traditional inter-election protest vote volatility was bucked and the share of Labour’s vote was actually halved come polling day; the poor young Labour pretender even lost his deposit. From this experience, Blair quickly developed a critical tactic for the riding of the collective British psyche and more specifically, its media ring-master. Despite the disastrous eventual outcome for Blair, David Cameron also appears to subscribe to this tactical view.
Back to 1982, public sympathy for war talk was far more logical. Our Island outpost had been invaded by an aggressor in the form of an army ruled by a military dictatorship. In the British media narrative (and so the public heart) the imperial shepherd could not simply abandon its sheep grazing 8,700 miles across the oceans. But in modern day, the bellicosity and aggression of the Cameron position is logically at least far more difficult to comprehend.
Argentina in 2013 is a pluralistic democracy with a peaceful, elected head of state. It is a G20 nation, the third largest economy in a very important, fast emerging continent and a core voice and founding member within all major regional and international institutions. According to the Argentinian government of 2013: “there is no prospect whatsoever that Argentina would go to war over the Malvinas Islands.”
So what is the threat posed by this nation that is so severe that it recently prompted Cameron to announce a flippant willingness to go to war at the drop of a hat? In a word, dialogue.
The Argentinian administration – backed by 40 UN resolutions calling on the two nations to negotiate the sovereignty dispute – has repeatedly asked for talks on the future sovereignty of Falklands/Malvinas. For absolute clarity (in terms of the Argentine claim) sovereignty does not mean displacement of the current inhabitants, in fact the rights of Island inhabitants are enshrined in the Argentinian constitution.
That means that if during any hypothetical negotiations a route was agreed for sovereignty to return to the nation the Falklands/Malvinas sits directly opposite (think the Isle of Wight), the current inhabitants would have their way of life, identity and civil rights protected by legal constitution in a way that present day non-UK inhabitants of the Islands do not; non-British Falklands citizens are still denied the vote.
Given the growing importance of the UK and its economy to Latin America and the significance of good relations with the region as a whole - more unified economically and politically now than at any time in recent history - aggressive, belligerent UK noises begin to look less like mouthy jingoism and more like diplomatic self-harming.
The British government happily negotiated full sovereignty with the previous Argentinian military dictatorship for many years, with all options on the table. Yet when it’s peaceful, democratic successor now asks for talks with terms in line with international law, the prospect of war is raised by Mr Cameron with the rather chilling abandon: “of course.”
Bullingdon bravado and mega-phone diplomacy not only lowers our stock and international reputation with crucial international partners - all of whom, like Brazil, have called on the UK to negotiate maturely with their regional neighbour – it does something worse. This lackadaisical, abstract safety of a politician casually talking war dishonours the 255 British servicemen who gave their lives fighting a military junta, and indeed the 264 Falklands veterans who have tragically committed suicide since their return to Britain in 1982.
In this light, it is time for Cameron and Hague to grow up and act in the broad national interest, not the narrow, opportunistic one of any fleeting “popularity” they feel might be generated by the rather demented paper patriotism of elements of Fleet Street. This is a sovereignty issue, recognised in international law, involving two civilised democracies.
In reality of course, its escalation probably relates more to the activities of London listed oil exploration companies searching the area for lucrative resources than to the honour of those who fell, or indeed to the 1,339 non-military inhabitants of Falklands/Malvinas, less than a third of whom incidentally consider themselves British.
But resolved it must be, and via a peaceful, respectful process. In the meantime we may well witness further post-colonial bulldog posturing from the UK government. If we do, the question posed by the British general (responding to Cameron's despatch of Prince William to the Islands last year) who actually gave the order to sink the Belgrano back in 1982 will become increasingly pertinent: “What on earth are they intending to achieve?”
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