Falkland Islands: Imperial pride | Editorial

It is time for both Britain and Argentina to grow up

"The Falklands thing was a fight between two bald men over a comb," said the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges after the South Atlantic conflict was over, but it is a fight that some people still want to pick. Almost three decades on from Britain's last imperial war, the slightest sign of Argentine edginess sets the white ensigns waving. The Sun yesterday seized upon the routine voyage of HMS Scott, a deep-water survey vessel, as evidence that a new taskforce has set sail. No matter that all Argentina has done is to demand permits from any ships sailing from its ports or crossing its waters to a planned oil exploration platform near the Falklands (something that the oil firm involved says will not affect its work). National pride is at stake. Britain is taking "all the necessary precautions", the prime minister said gravely yesterday. The brass beat of a Royal Marines band all but echoes in the background.

Why do we continue to respond in this way? Britain feels it necessary to maintain 1,000 troops, a destroyer and £300m worth of Typhoon fighter aircraft on the islands to defend 3,000 people, 500,000 sheep and a claim that does not come out particularly well from historical scrutiny. Patriotism and posturing on both sides has obstructed what would otherwise be the natural way forward, a pooling of sovereignty that would allow the islands to develop normal relations with their nearest neighbour. It might have happened in 1980 had Nicholas Ridley not been shouted down in the Commons, and blocked by the islanders, when he proposed a reasonable plan to lease the islands from Argentina after a formal exchange of sovereignty.

The Falklands are British because we fought for them in 1982 and because no government now could survive the apparent shame of giving them up. As a result, the UN's ritual annual call for direct talks over the issue gets nowhere. No one likes to admit that the islands dropped into our hands through an accident of empire: Spanish, French, Portuguese and even Turkish sailors passing by before Britain, along with France and Spain, got a foothold.

The history matters not because it calls into doubt Britain's modern right of possession, but because it adds weight to Argentinian grievances and the case for compromise on both sides. The British, after all, abandoned the islands in 1776, while Spain remained and ruled them until 1811. Before Britain returned in 1833, the newly independent Argentinian republic had made several attempts to establish a presence. Yet Britain asserts its claim today as if only a fool could find it odd that in 1993 it declared a 200-mile exclusive oil exploration zone around some lonely islands 8,000 miles from London.

Britain is stuck in a militaristic pose that it no longer has the resources or need to support, and ought to be looking for an escape from it. The Argentinian junta's decision to invade the islands in 1982 was deplorable and obviously illegal; faced with aggression, Britain had little choice other than to respond. It is understandable that since the war the islanders have set themselves against a deal. Who, in their place, would not want to do the same? They have done well from fishing rights, and if oil is found in economically exploitable quantities they will get richer. Port Stanley may even become a mini-Dubai with a union flag flying over it. But it will still remain in artificial isolation from the country nearest to it, lack its help in developing an oil industry, and always need a British military presence for its security. Defence cutbacks elsewhere will only expose the cost of sustaining the garrison.

It may suit both sides, for political reasons, to strut about boasting of sovereign rights, but this does not mean it is the mature thing to do. Britain can keep the islands in limbo; Argentinian politicians find the Malvinas issue an easy distraction. It is time for both to grow up.

• This article was amended on 22 February 2010. The original referred to Jose Luis Borges. This has been corrected.


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