Why the Falklands must remain British

Hillary Clinton would be advised to keep her mouth shut.

Who cares about the Falkland Islands? Why would anyone get worked up about this scattered archipelago in the South Atlantic, far from any mainland and mostly uninhabited, with sheep vastly outnumbering human beings?

Yet, once again, Argentina's government has become agitated about the British allegiance of those human beings, following news that a British company has begun exploring for oil in waters that are within the Falkland Islands' sovereign territory. Maybe cupidity is the source of this latest Argentinian bombast, as it is speculated that any oil find might be comparable in capacity to a typical Saudi oilfield.

The Argentinians have paraded their claim over the Falklands for many decades. They really do have a cheek. The islands are hundreds of miles from the coast of mainland South America and cannot be regarded as an integral part of Argentina in the way that the Chilean islands are obviously part of Chile. When the first British colonisers turned up, they settled on islands that were uninhabited. Yet the Argentinians go on belly-aching.
Thirty years ago, it seemed that their campaign to grab the Falklands was going to succeed. In 1980, Margaret Thatcher sent Nicholas Ridley, her minister of state at the Foreign Office, to the islands to try to persuade the locals that they should accept Argentinian suzerainty. The locals would have none of it.

When he returned to London, however, the customarily indolent and habitually chain-smoking Ridley - "No in tray; no out tray; just an ashtray" was Gordon Brown's verdict on him - advocated the handover of sovereignty to Argentina, with the smokescreen of a temporary leaseback arrangement. Not one MP supported such a scheme. Peter Shore, Labour's staunchly patriotic shadow foreign secretary, was especially condemnatory.

Yet the Thatcher government continued to send out signals to the Argentinians that the Falklands were theirs for the asking. In 1982, it announced that the HMS Endurance would be withdrawn from the South Atlantic. Argentina took the hint and invaded. A two-month war, in which 255 British servicemen were killed, was necessary to retake the islands.

Why should British socialists get worked up about these windswept rocks and their 3,000 residents? Surely we should oppose any manifestations of the survival of colonialism? British socialists advocate self-determination. Mostly, self-determination will result in independent statehood, as in the case of Malta, where sovereignty was ceded peacefully, or of Cyprus, where armed conflict preceded independence.

The Foreign Office has long regarded such territories as irritating anomalies, which muddle Britain's relationships with the more powerful countries that wish to annex them. It has done its best to persuade ministers to get rid of them. Even a Labour secretary of state, Jack Straw, became convinced that Gibraltar, with its 28,000 inhabitants, should be shuffled off to Spain. The people of Gibraltar, however, were determined to remain British. In a referendum in 2002, more than 90 per cent rejected a proposal of shared sovereignty and the vote ended moves towards a Spanish-ruled Gibraltar.

A more shameful episode, in which Foreign Office mandarins got their way, was the hand­over of Hong Kong to China. The decision was made without cavil, when determined negotiation could have yielded a preferable outcome. I was present at the handover in 1997, and felt shame when Chinese troops goose-stepped on to the stage to hoist their flag.

Now Argentina is at it once again. On 1 March, Hillary Clinton visited Buenos Aires and, cosying up to her fellow dynastic politician, the current president of Argentina, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, joined her in advocating that the Falklands issue be referred to the United Nations decolonisation committee. In view of her failure to chalk up any noticeable achievement in her 14 months as US secretary of state, Clinton might be better advised to keep her mouth shut - or, if she must get in a tizzy about something, try harder to achieve a peaceful settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians.

It might be thought that the current US administration, with its half-baked health-care scheme stranded in Congress, with the Guantanamo Bay torture centre still operating despite a pledge to close it down, and with other election commitments, such as ending discrimination agains gay men and lesbians in the armed forces, still unfulfilled since that proud inau­guration day, should have other issues on its collective mind than whether an assemblage of islanders should be turned over, against their will, to a foreign power that would interfere with their current freedoms.

What about Puerto Rico, President Obama, over 1,000 miles away from Florida? What about Hawaii, twice as many miles away from California?
There is no Falklands issue, and those islands are no business of the UN decolonisation committee. In the Commons on 3 March, I put a question to Harriet Harman, who was standing in for the Prime Minister, about the Falklands and she replied staunchly, upholding this government's loyalty to the islands and determination to uphold their people's wishes. End of story, President Kirchner. And sucks-boo to you, Secretary Clinton.

Gerald Kaufman is MP for Manchester Gorton and was Labour shadow foreign secretary from 1987 to 1992

This article first appeared in the 15 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Falklands II