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

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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