Thursday 14 June 2012

A rather different referendum

Cameron has been rather more unequivocal about the proposed referendum in the Falkland Islands than he has been in relation to Scotland.  It is, he says, entirely up to the people of those islands to decide their future, and he will respect their choice.  It’s probably easier to be clear when everyone knows in advance what the result will be.
The referendum might allow people to think that they’ve ‘won’ something in the short term, but in the longer term it will resolve little.  Argentina is not about to simply renounce its claim, and with the inevitability of further defence cuts in the future, the UK is not going to be for ever in a position to guarantee the status of the islands.    

Sooner or later, negotiation is inevitable.  Given recent history, that's a particularly difficult thing for a Conservative Prime Minister to face up to.  But burying his head in the sand won't help.
Many nationalists have tended to support the claims of Argentina.  I suspect that to be in minor part because of a romantic attachment to the Wladfa in Patagonia, but more generally because of a strong and natural anti-colonialist stance.  There’s nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes, but the history is complex, to say the least, and there’s more to the situation than simply British colonialism.  Support for Argentina’s claim is over-simplistic.
Argentinean claims to the island owe more to Spanish colonialism than they do to any historical relationship between Argentina itself and the Islands; the Islands were long disputed between the two major colonial powers and were uninhabited before the British and the Spanish took turns at attempting to colonise them.  And the desire to possess the Islands seems to be more to do with territorialism and economic resources than with freeing colonial possessions.
The days when territory and the people living on it could simply be transferred between two countries at the whim of those countries with no heed paid to the wishes of the people themselves are long gone, thankfully; but that leaves a problem.  However unrealistic for the long term is the idea that such far away islands can sensibly remain ‘British’, there seems little doubt that that is the preferred choice of the people themselves.
And however much we might feel that the UK should be divesting itself of its remaining imperial possessions, there is as big a problem in granting independence to people who don’t seem to want it as there is in trying simply to pass ownership to another state.  Nevertheless, it seems to me that Independence, backed by some sort of international guarantees and negotiated agreements with other parties, is the only logical long term solution.
In that context, touting the inevitable result of the referendum as a clear indication of the will of the people and encouraging them to think that no change is required, as Cameron seems to be doing, is likely only to increase tension and prolong the stand-off.


G Horton-Jones said...

Spot on but here we go again. Is England disguised as being British and the UK in this blog

If the Falklanders wanted to align with Argentina --would the position of the Conservatives be the same I think not and what happens after Scottish independence or Welsh independence for that matter. As beneficiaries of oil revenues would England and Northern Ireland still want the current status quo to continue ad infinitum -- surely the answer is yes

Unknown said...

According to Ed Miliband, the Falkland Islanders cannot possibly be British as they are not part of the United Kingdom. At least, that is what he told the Scots.

Adam Higgitt said...

I don't follow the logic of this post. Surely it is for the people of the Falklands to decide their own constitutional status? A referendum is one such mechanism for testing that preference. Regular elections are another. The fact that the result of a referendum is a foregone conclusion does not strike me as a reason for questioning its validity (though I do wonder whether it is worth bothering to hold the actual vote if, as appears to be the case, no-one on the Islands is agitating for change).

You say that the UK may not be able to militarily guarantee the status of the Islands in the long term and thus should accept the inevitability of sovereignty negotiations. But this is to place "might" above "right". Provided that the Islanders have freely chosen their status (and continue to give their consent, either explicitly or implicitly) the onus is on other states to respect that choice and not to threaten or coerce them. I dare say that the suggestion that a notionally separate Welsh state would be at the mercy of its English neighbour in some areas and hence should cave into bullying would cut no ice with Welsh nationalists, and rightly so. There is a grey area, of course, namely around the extent to which Argentina should trade with and co-operate with the Islanders (just as there is a question mark about how a separate Welsh state would continue to be influenced by England in areas such as monetary policy). But we should be clear that threats of force or other coercive actions are wrong. It's not for the UK to move here, it is for Argentina to be clear that it will respect the wishes of the Falkland Islanders.

Nor does it strike me as sensible, practical or correct to cloud the issue with the historic status of the Islands and who is the colonist and who is not. No territory has a constitutional or moral status beyond the aggregated wishes of the people who legally live there. Of course the operational word there is "legally" and there is some dispute about such status. Equally, it is possible for the colonist to fill an occupied territory with its people. If there is any basis for re-examining the Falklands it seems to me that it should centre on the narrow question of whether the current residents are legally settled. If so, we simply go back to the question of what they want. All else is to suggest that big states should be able to impose their will on smaller, nearby territories - and that can't be a consistent position for a Welsh nationalist, or indeed a democrat.

You say David Cameron has treated the referenda in Scotland and The Falklands differently - as far as I can see he has agreed to respect the outcome in both instances. Argentina should do the same.

John Dixon said...


On the core point of principle, I don’t think we’re far apart, i.e. ”it is for the people of the Falklands to decide their own constitutional status”. It seems to me that disagreement between us is focused on the nature and extent of any caveats to that principle.

You focus on one caveat in particular, namely whether the Islanders are ‘legally resident’ on the Islands. I’d agree that that has to be a caveat. But I don’t think that question can be as easily separated from the question of the historic status of the Islands and the conflicting claims of the colonial powers (and their successors) as you seem to suggest. Whether the Islands were seized by military force from one colonial power by another surely goes to the very heart of that question of legality?

I was raising, in effect, another caveat to their right to choose their status, and that is that the choice has to be one which is realistically available to them. In the short to medium term, the link with Britain clearly falls into that category, but I seriously question whether it is viable in the long term. That conclusion isn’t based solely on the military capability of the UK to provide guarantees (although that is certainly a factor given the proven willingness of Argentina to use military means).

There are other factors as well, though, such as the resolution of the UN General Assembly calling for the UK to enter talks on sovereignty. I find it difficult to argue that we should respect the views of the UN in some fields but not others. I’m well aware that many governments choose to use the UN to give authority to their actions when they agree with its resolutions and then ignore those resolutions when they don’t, but that does not seem conducive to building a world order based on peace and international agreement.

I’m certainly not arguing that ‘might is right’, nor that the UK should simply hand over sovereignty to Argentina. Argentina’s claim seems to me to be based partly on the fact that the Islands were at one stage administered by the Spanish from what is now Argentina (back to colonial history) and partly on the fact that they happen to sit on the continental shelf off Argentina. Neither of those seems to me to be enough to over-ride the right of the Islanders to self-determination of their status. But in the court of world opinion, anti-colonialism holds sway, and the British possession of the Falklands is seen as colonialist.

One of the main points that I was trying to make was that the best way of responding to that would be for the Islands to become independent, with appropriate guarantees and support. It would be much harder for Argentina to argue that it should have sovereignty over a small independent offshore state than that a colonial power should be booted out. And I think that’s pretty consistent with a nationalist and democratic position.

But another point that I was trying to make was that automatic support for an ‘anti-colonialist’ position should not lead nationalists to give automatic support to Argentina’s claim, as some seem to do. Argentina argues that the Islands are part of Argentina, in geographical terms. But the boundaries of what is, or is not, ‘Argentina’ (or any other country) are ultimately set by the will of the people; 'boundaries' are about human, not physical, geography. And that potentially raises some very interesting parallels.

Anonymous said...

Generally nationalists take stances on issues on a principled basis, especially where there is no direct effect on Wales.

The UK Government on the other hand doesn't. I am sure they recognise self-determination for the Falkland Islanders, but generally the UK has been on the wrong side of self-determination for much of the decolonisation period. When it suited their interests they heeded native wishes for independence (or for association with Britain in the case of territories like Gibraltar), but when it conflicted with imperialism they attacked self-determination, such as in Kenya or Malaysia ("Malaya"). And even quite recently this has been the case. They fought a war for Kosovo's self-determination but show no such hunger for intervening on behalf of the Palestinians who are actively being denied any kind of dignified existence.

Spirit of BME said...

This referendum is a splendid nonsense – only the English could think up something as wacky as this.
There are 3000 people on the islands and just about 1580 have the vote. There is of course a very tight immigration policy and no free movement of people who would wish to settle there, so the outcome will, shall we say – be no surprise.
There is a better chance to get turkeys to vote for the introduction of two Christmases per year than get them to want to become part of Argentina.

Adam Higgitt said...


Whether and how the Islands were seized and settled seems to me an adjunct to the question of whether the Islanders are legally resident, so I'm not sure we're necessarily disagreeing.

I do, however, take issue with your idea that the Islanders ought to be encouraged or compelled to seek independence - indeed advocating fettering their choice runs counter to the notion that their right to determine their own constitutional status ought to trump all else. (I'm not sure that you regard this as a terribly moral way to proceed, hence the invocation of the "court of world opinion" - a sure signal in my experience that the person arguing the point finds it hard to defend the position being advanced).

Whether or not anti-colonialism holds sway or is perceived a certain way shouldn't be much of a factor here, and certainly not a decisive one. Argentinian rhetoric about imperialism might help to divert domestic attention, but I fail to see why the Falklanders or the British government should take heed of it.

As I understand it, the Falklanders want to remain as British citizens. They don't want to become part of Argentina or they don't want to become an independent state. I don't think any of us is in any position to tell them that is unrealistic or unsustainable.

John Dixon said...


As ever, you make some valid points. In saying "the person arguing the point finds it hard to defend the position being advanced", you are absolutely right, I do. But I equally find it hard to argue that the UK can or should simply ignore UN resolutions. The UN is a very imperfect organisation, yet I still believe that protecting the small from the large - opposing the 'might is right' argument - depends on building such international structures, and that has to include respecting them as well.

I take your point about the "court of world opinion"; but I also think it's unrealistic not to expect increasing support for Argentina within the UN.

The question is one of squaring the circle. I'm not suggesting that anyone should be compelled to seek independence; I'm as uncomfortable with that as I am with the idea that any group who wants it should be denied independence, or that the UK should simply bow to Argentinian pressure and hand over the Islands.

'Encouraging', however is a different issue. It's been done before, and we should not forget that part of the lead-up to the Falklands war was the 'encouragement' by the UK Government for the Islanders to develop closer links with Argentina, including, as I recall, importing Spanish teachers. It was well-meaning, but sent some wrong messages to Argentina, and the outcome was to weaken rather than strengthen the links.

Part of the point I was making was precisely that the situation is a complex one, and that knee-jerk support for Argentina on the basis of anti-colonialism is over-simplistic.

I think we also disagree, though, on how realistic it is in the long term for the UK to continue to possess, and treat as being somehow 'British', small isolated territories so far away. That disagreement clearly colours our conclusions. If it were realistic, then the current situation is sustainable in the long term. But if it isn't (and only history will tell us who's right here!), then we need a way forward which seeks both to respect the rights of the people to choose and the resolutions of the UN. Encouraging the Islanders to move from their current degree of autonomy to a greater degree seemed to me to be the only way of achieving that.