Thursday, 16 February 2012
Malvinas or Falklands?
Nobody needs to ask where conservatives stand on the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. They don’t exactly hide behind the fact that they want the territory to remain staunchly British. Not necessarily because most Falkland islanders want to be British, which they do of course, but for reasons similar to that which led many of them to oppose the end of colonialism last century. In other words, the more territory that belongs to the crown, the better.
As for the Left, I hardly think I am putting my neck on the line if I say that majority opinion would be very much opposed to any military action to defend British control of the islands. Sean Penn probably echoed the sentiment of most left-liberal types when he said this week that Britain was “colonialist” for refusing to hand over what he called “the Malvinas Islands of Argentina”.
The attitude of Penn is not new of course; and the instinct – that of a deep suspicion of the motivations of the British state – is a sound one. British colonialism’s record of ceding power to the demands of popular movements seeking self-determination is not exactly a beacon of enlightened thinking, by any stretch of the imagination.
That being said, an over-heightened suspicion of “imperialism” has also been known to lead a person down a political dead end from time to time. In 1982, despite the fact that the Labour leadership supported Margaret Thatcher’s intervention in the Falklands and the Argentinian invasion was signed-off by the thuggish military junta of General Galtieri, the majority of the Left enthusiastically denounced military action on the basis that Britain was an “imperialist” country. Little was said about Argentina's claim to the Falkland Islands, itself based on a few years of formal possession a century and a half ago, and less was said about the attitude of the islanders themselves – one might think the most important consideration in the whole affair.
Today in progressive circles, there is a strong emotional attachment to the idea that Argentina, rather than Britain, has the only claim over the islands deserving of support. This belief is not based on any evidence of historical injustice towards Argentina – that country’s claim is even more flimsy than Britain’s – but rather on an emotional exchange in the mind of the progressive of one chauvinism for another. The superior virtue of the oppressed, it was once called; or in this case, the superior virtue of any nation that isn’t their own.
This sort of thing highlights another problem the contemporary Left has – outside of opposition to intervention, what does it actually stand for overseas? Democratic self-determination of small peoples, or theorising about which country is the most “imperialist” based on a particular reading of a 100-year-old dog-eared text?
It hardly needs reiterating that British interest in the Falkland Islands is almost certainly not based on altruism – there is increasing talk of an oil windfall from the seas surrounding the islands – but what on earth gives a person the impression that Argentina’s motivations are any less grubby?
The sensible option, it would seem, would be to ignore politicians on both sides of the squabble and ask the islanders what they want. If they reply with the same answer they have been giving for many years - that they would like to remain British – people such as Sean Penn are more than entitled not to like that answer, but they must, at the very least, come up with a good reason as to why the islands belong to Argentina instead. And I’m afraid romanticism just won’t do.