Argentina’s farewell to Margaret Thatcher

Reactions to her death quickly turned from the personal to the political.

 

On 11 April 2013, we were informed that Margaret Thatcher had passed away at the age of 87. In the city of Buenos Aires, my new home of one month, the news wasn’t greeted by carnivals, street parties or funfair. On the other hand, it certainly did not go unnoticed. It is true that for many, she continues to symbolize the loss of the Falkland Islands, 649 Argentine soldiers and a sense of national pride. Some people, especially those who have direct links to a Falklands veteran, viewed her as a tyrannical dictator akin to the likes of Stalin or Hitler. To others she was cast the part of a "baddie" in a story which sees Argentina the victims against an intransigent tyrant. In both cases her death was accompanied by a strong to mild sense of justice. Young people especially, who seem more politically engaged here than in the UK, often participating in political protests in the capital city, had little or no problem broadcasting this point of view.

In the days following her death, social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter were hosts to a handful of barely censored results, such as "Good Riddance!", which explicitly conveyed the feeling that  the "Iron Lady" will not be missed in this part of the world. To add to matters, her passing closely followed the Malvinas War Memorial Day on 2 April on which Argentines gathered to remember the veterans of the war as well as the determination of civilians who had offered time and resources to further the war effort. For some, the Memorial Day, celebrated only three weeks ago, heightened emotion surrounding Thatcher’s death and the desire to see the Falklands restored to Argentina.

On the other hand, there are many Argentines who believe that the demise of the junta military dictatorship, which Thatcher opposed, led to the first signs of democracy in Argentina. In 1983 the junta military dictatorship commanded by General Galtieri, surrendered power a year after war ended. They seem grateful to Thatcher for her courage in deploying the British Army to face General Galtieri, who was removed from power within days of the start of the war. It is safe to say that I have not encountered many people who harbour a deep-seated hatred towards her or expressed unashamed joy at the news. Even on the radio stations no more than a few moderate, predictable comments were made about her character and a questionable song or two played in her "honour" including "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead". Over the following days it became apparent that, to the man in the street, Margaret Thatcher herself did not pose the problem but rather the wrongful ownership of the Falklands to which she is inextricably linked. As such, reactions to her death quickly turned from the personal to the political. "Las Malvinas son Argentinas" (The Falklands belong to Argentina) was the sentiment that was renewed daily - one which the government began to propagate anew.

Equally, there are Argentines who reacted with indifference to the news and to whom Margaret Thatcher represents nothing other than a difficult period in history and a futile on-going conflict. Their perspective is that the islands have caused so many problems at this point that it is about time they became a separate, self-governing entity with ties to neither country. Other people I have spoken to seem to express more antipathy towards Britain and her people rather than Margaret Thatcher.

It is interesting is that the Argentine government has not as yet issued an official statement or expressed their sympathies to Thatcher’s family. The foreign secretary, Hector Timerman, has recently asserted that the decision of Thatcher’s children not to invite the Argentine president was an unnecessary provocation at a time when "the family should have sought to ensure peace". Nevertheless, the government’s response to this seemed to suggest a nonchalant lack of desire to be invited in the first place. While some politicians refused to comment directly on her death, perhaps wishing to remain diplomatic, several newspapers here including those known to be heavily censored by the government did not avoid printing explicit headlines such as "The Iron Lady sunk" and "Galtieri awaits her in hell". The latter refers to General Galtieri, thus illustrating how some Argentines attribute equal blame to both the contemporary Argentine military leader and the British prime minister. Politicians continue to debate the approach and subsequent methods President Cristina Kirchner and her administration are adopting to address the Falklands issue (in terms of speech content and dialogue with David Cameron). However, they do agree unequivocally on the message to be conveyed to Argentines and the rest of the world: serious talks are required to return the Falklands back to their rightful owners. 

 

Margaret Thatcher meets personnel aboard the HMS Antrim in 1983. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

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