British soldiers leave Southhampton on the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 in April 1982. Photograph: Arnaud de Wildenberg
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The land that time forgot

As we mark the 30th anniversary of Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands, a former British diplomat

On the eve of the First World War, Argentina enjoyed the third-highest standard of living in the world. Today, after a hundred years of woeful misgovernment, this wonderful and immensely rich country is in 45th position. The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges once lamented to me that his country had not been colonised by the British. "If only your invasion of 1806 had succeeded," he said, "today we would be like Australia."

I spent four years there from 1973 to 1977, one of the most tumultuous periods of Argentina's tumultuous history and the one in which it was worst misgoverned. As a diplomat at the British embassy in Buenos Aires, I was successively consul general and minister, and for two years chargé d'affaires. I arrived a few days after the return of Juan Perón from his long exile in Madrid. On his death in 1974, he was succeeded as president by his widow, Isabelita, a former cabaret dancer. She ruled the country for a year with the help of her sinister lover, José López Rega. It was a period of creeping anarchy and soaring inflation. The military finally put an end to the Perónist regime in March 1976 by mounting a coup, which was greeted at first with general relief.

The army restored order and firm government and took action against left-wing terrorist groups such as the Montoneros and the ERP, which had proliferated during the increasingly lawless years of the Peróns. Neither I nor any of the other foreign diplomats in Buenos Aires was aware of the extent of the military's anti-terrorist operations at the time or the beginning of the long "dirty war", though perhaps we should have been alerted to it by the occasional sounds of shots in the night.

Since its emergence from the ruins of the Spanish empire in 1816, Argentina had claimed the Falkland Islands as part of the new republic even though Spain had ceded the uninhabited islands to Britain in 1771. Despite protests from Buenos Aires, Britain formally settled the islands in 1833 and has occupied them ever since, with the exception of 74 days in 1982. Argentina has never relinquished its claim and although it never pursued it with any vigour until the junta took over in 1976, it became part of Argentine mythology. The Islas Malvinas, as they are called in Spanish, are shown on Argentine maps as being part of Argentina and at all schools in the country, even the highly regarded Anglo-Argentine ones such as St George's and St Andrew's, the day begins with the raising of the national flag and recital of the mantra that "las Islas Malvinas son argentinas".
Generations of Argentines have been brainwashed in this way. When our youngest son went to St Andrew's at the age of nine, he was taught in Spanish in the mornings and in English in the afternoons, as is the case at all Anglo-Argentine schools. So, the pupils learned that the islands were the Malvinas in the morning and the Falklands in the afternoon. The boy was understandably confused.

Soon after I arrived in Buenos Aires I made a visit to the Falkland Islands to learn more about the main problem that I should be dealing with at the embassy. Thanks to the Communications Agreement of 1971, it was now possible to fly there from Buenos Aires by a weekly commercial flight operated, sinisterly, by the Argentine air force. I flew to Stanley in an almost empty plane - there was little traffic in either direction - and was met by the governor at the airstrip in his official car, a converted London taxi, with a roof high enough to accommodate his plumed hat on ceremonial occasions. Suddenly, an hour or two away from the seething, modern metropolis of Buenos Aires, I found myself in a 19th-century English village whose inhabitants knew nothing of their Spanish-speaking neighbours 300 miles across the sea and wanted to keep it that way. Apart from discussions with the governor and islanders, I had one small duty to perform - to pass on a gentle rebuke to the governor from London about his method of disposing of confidential papers. After reading them, he was in the habit of flushing them down the lavatory at Government House. Legend had it that they would wash up on the shores around Stanley Harbour.

Off the fence

For the past hundred years the Falkland Islands issue has served successive Argentine administrations as a useful distraction in times of internal crisis. It has also proved a hugely successful rallying cry for a single Argentine identity, creating a nation out of immigrants. Having exterminated the original Indian inhabitants in the 19th century, the local Spanish settlers relied on vast immigration from Europe to fill their empty spaces.

Spain and Italy provided the largest proportion (half the population of Buenos Aires is of Italian origin) and further significant numbers arrived from Germany, Ireland, the Middle East ("Turcos") and, not least, the British mainland, the Scots and Welsh populating large parts of bleak, windswept Patagonia. The English, unlike the rest of these groups, arrived not as poor immigrants but as merchants, businessmen, industrialists, engineers (who built the railways) and remittance men, some of whom made good spectacularly - including a great-uncle of mine who founded Duperial, the largest subsidiary of ICI in South America.

Unlike the other immigrants, the English eschewed politics, regarding it as a thoroughly ungentlemanly business. So far as they were concerned, the Falklands belonged to whomever they happened to be talking to, British or Argentine. The events of 1982 forced most of them to come down off the fence on which they had been sitting for two centuries in favour of their country of origin. The other ethnic groups had no such inhibitions. A Buenos Aires taxi driver once attacked me over the Falklands when he discovered that I was English. "When are you going to give us back our islands?" he asked aggressively. He then confided that he had been born in Milan but his parents had emigrated to Argentina. Nationalism works.

Following the return of the Peróns in 1973, Argentina began ratcheting up the fierce rhetoric over the Falklands once again. A shadowy nationalist group planted a bomb outside the British ambassador's residence that shattered most of the windows and blew to pieces the policeman on duty outside (his hat could still be seen several weeks later high up in the tree beside the front entrance). When Lord Shackleton led an official mission to the islands in 1975-76 to examine ways in which they could be developed, the Argentines' fury erupted. They withdrew their ambassador from London for "consultations", as the diplomatic phrasing goes. Britain did the same, and recalled its man in Buenos Aires. I was then propelled into the hot seat as chargé d'affaires for nearly two years while tensions between the two countries grew. The Foreign Office told me that it was sending out a team of "ex" SAS to be my personal bodyguard. When I protested that I had no need of such extreme measures and that it would only make me more conspicuous, I received a stinging rebuke. "The team will not be coming out to protect John Shakespeare," the telegram said tartly, "but to protect HMG from embarrassment in the event of his being kidnapped or killed."

For the whole of the past century, the Falklands issue has been at the bottom of every foreign secretary's in tray. It makes its way to the top only at times of exceptional turbulence in Anglo-Argentine relations, and the 1970s was one of those. As always, the British government hoped that the problem would just go away but this time it refused to do so because of the intransigence of the parties.

With the Argentine military now making the running, Britain agreed unhappily to negotiate. A variety of solutions was canvassed and tried out on the islanders and the Argentines, including leaseback (as with Hong Kong), condominium and joint development under a sovereignty umbrella, but with little success. We even found it hard to decide whether it was the wishes or "the best interests" of the islanders - two very different things - that should be paramount. The incoherence of our policies in the face of a brutal, fascist regime led inexorably to the invasion of the islands on 2 April 1982 and the near calamity that followed.

In 1976-77, two incidents occurred that in any other circumstances would have been casi belli, but were deliberately hushed up by a supine British government, desperate not to derail the negotiations. In February 1976 an Argentine destroyer fired on the British Antarctic Survey vessel Shackleton while it was in Falklands waters, with deliberate intent to sink it. The Shackleton was saved only by escaping into a bank of fog. I was instructed to deliver a limp slap on the wrist to the head of the Malvinas department at the foreign ministry, rather than to the foreign minister himself, as one would have expected. He was courteous but unapologetic.

Exactly a year later, another BAS vessel discovered that the Argentines had constructed a settlement on the small island of Southern Thule in the South Sandwich Islands, a British dependency 1,300 miles south-east of the Falklands. Once again, I was instructed to complain at the usual level; once again, I received the same response, with the added gloss that the Argentine navy was on the island "for research purposes" only.
But something even more bizarre happened while the Argentines were encroaching militarily on our position in the South Atlantic. We unwittingly encompassed our own destruction by trying to sell them the very weapons most capable of achieving it.

Tipping the balance

Argentina was in the market for new frigates and had already bought two Type 42 vessels from Vosper Thornycroft. Argentina was now interested in buying six of the new Type 21. In those days, trade was the name of the game where British foreign policy was concerned, and our embassy in Buenos Aires was instructed to give full support to Vosper Thornycroft. To that end, I hosted a lavish lunch at the residence in November 1976 - only a few months after the Shackleton incident and just one month before the discovery of the Argentine settlement on Southern Thule - to enable a sales team from Vosper Thornycroft to meet six senior Argentine admirals in the most agreeable circumstances.

I have never forgotten something that one of the admirals said to me at lunch and that I thought, wrongly, was a joke. "When we recover the Malvinas, the islanders will be able to go on with their traditional way of life undisturbed because no Argentine will ever want to live there," he said. (Ironically, the first and most detested action of the Buenos Aires-appointed military governor in 1982 was to impose driving on the right.)
The frigate negotiations got off to a good start but collapsed when Vosper Thornycroft declined to pay the requisite bribe into the naval officers' pension fund. It is chilling to think that, had it not been for this, the acquisition by their navy of six powerful, British-built warships could well have tipped the balance against our task force in 1982.

Now, once again, the Falkland Islands are in the news as the Argentine government steps up the pressure and our coalition government, unlike the Labour administration of the 1970s, digs in its heels. What has changed since then is the discovery of potentially huge reserves of oil in Falklands waters. Both sides realise that another attempt at imposing a military solution is out of the question - but both sides still have to show the necessary statesmanship that will lead, one hopes inevitably, to the joint exploitation of this new Eldorado.

John Shakespeare served as a diplomat in Argentina from 1973-77

John Shakespeare served as a diplomat in Argentina from 1973-77

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, France is my enemy

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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

***

The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

***

The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

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Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

***

Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

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Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, France is my enemy