Falkland Islands’ post referendum musings and the ‘Britishness’ feeling
Writing for Penguin News its Deputy Editor, John Fowler, takes stock in the wake of the recent referendum in the Falkland Islands which resulted in a 92%turn out and 99.8% of voters opting to maintain the Islands current status as an overseas territory of Great Britain.
The lady doth protest too much, methinks. It is probably not appropriate to use the above famous quote from Shakespeare's Hamlet, with reference to Argentina's President, because as some scholar would otherwise be bound to tell me, in Shakespeare's time, 'protest' did not mean object, but 'promise' and Mrs Fernandez de Kirchner doesn't seem inclined to promise us anything except more of the same old rhetoric with which she has bombarded the world for what is beginning to seem like an eternity.
If one were to give Queen Gertrude's words a modern interpretation however then they might be regarded as very apt; this lady and her acolytes in the Argentine Government do protest about almost everything the Falkland Islands Government does. However, as they also do not recognise the existence of the Falkland Islands Government, they have to blame everything on the Government of the United Kingdom, or more generally and even more incorrectly, the 'English.'
As a consequence of this annoying and contradictory confusion, the world is told by the Argentine Government that it is the 'English' who by an act of piracy implanted a population in the Falklands in 1833 and are holding them there against their will, the 'English' who are illegally licensing oil exploration in the waters around the Falklands, and the 'English' who are illegally stripping the South Atlantic of natural resources by issuing fishing licences to Spanish, Korean, Japanese and other nationalities.
Most recently, of course, because the existence of the Falkland Islands, its government and its people can not be allowed to exist, it had again to be the perfidious 'English' who organised a referendum in the Falklands.
The fact that all the above is untrue and can be proved to be so, does not seem to trouble Mrs Kirchner or her Foreign Minister Mr Timerman, whose principal usefulness to his boss seems to be a willingness to come out with statements that are so palpably false and deniable that even she hesitates to utter them.
To digress in the interests of accuracy, albeit at the risk of boring the reader, may I briefly recite the following:
a) The Falklands, like Argentina, has an immigrant population composed of people, predominantly British in origin, but also from a number of other countries, who were born here or came seeking work and a new life from up to nine generations ago. All volunteered or were recruited; nobody was condemned to live in the Falklands, which has never been a penal colony, while under British sovereignty. No prior civilian population was ever annihilated or expelled from the Falklands in 1833 or at any other time. In more recent times, a small number of Falkland Islanders were expelled from the Falkland Islands following the illegal armed occupation of their country in 1982.
b) Licences to explore for hydrocarbons and other natural resources around the Falklands are issued by the Government of the Falkland Islands and not by the Government of the United Kingdom. This is because such resources belong to the Falkland Islands and not to Britain. Should oil begin to flow from beneath the waters of the South Atlantic in commercial quantities, the UK Government will not benefit directly, though, of course, British companies involved will, as could have Argentine companies if their country had taken a co-operative stance, rather than their current obstructive one.
c) Licences to fish in the Falkland Islands Maritime Conservation Zone are issued by the Falkland Islands Government without consultation with or interference from the Government of the United Kingdom. The chances of conserving the most commercially important fish stock, the migratory Illex squid are now made more difficult by Argentina's withdrawal from the research work which used to take place jointly between Falkland Islands and Argentine scientists.
d) The recently held referendum on the preferred political status of the Falkland Islands was proposed and organised by the Falkland Islands Government alone, not by the Government of the United Kingdom. It was not intended to tell us anything about ourselves that we did not already think we knew, but was impelled by our collective frustration at being denied a voice by a government which not only refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of our democratically elected government, but even our very existence as a people.
Of course, there will still be a majority of Argentines who would refuse to accept the above brief summary, but one of the encouraging aspects of recent weeks and months has been the number of commentators in Argentina who, if not necessarily totally convinced of the British version of the early history of the Falklands as expressed above, have begun to ask questions publicly, both about the accuracy of the officially-held Argentine version and about its function as the bed rock of a kind of mindless, my country right or wrong nationalism. Hopefully the referendum result will give some fuel to those questions at least among the more open-minded of Argentine citizens.
Returning to the subject of mindless nationalism, I was interested to read an article by Lillo Montalto Monella, called Las Malvinas Son Argentinas: Who Taught You That? published in the Argentine Independent on April 4. Mr Monella, who is an independent journalist based in Buenos Aires, reviewed not only how the history on which the sovereignty claim is based is taught in Argentina's schools, but also why, according to some historians, the building of a national mythology around the events of 1833 has been so important to successive Argentine governments.
Montalto Monella quotes from a controversial article entitled 'Are the Malvinas really ours?' published in the Argentine newspaper La Nacion on the 14th February, by historian Luis Alberto Romero who wrote that: We have outlined (the frontiers of the Argentine territory] so many times at school that we ended up believing this was the reality.
Romero's article, as quoted by Monella, explains that Argentine education policies were part of the response to massive immigration into Argentina from Europe at the end of 19th Century. There was a perceived need on the part of the government to weld this tide of immigrants into a unified nation and education, which from 1880 in Argentina was both free and compulsory, offered the perfect vehicle.
Not surprisingly the curriculum was very nationalistic and the 'rape of the Malvinas' in the official history became a rallying point as deeply embedded in the Argentine consciousness as the tale of Robert the Bruce and the spider is for the Scots.
Of course, national myths, like St George and the Dragon, may sometimes be borrowed from other countries and their symbols appropriated by football hooligans.
Even where myths have some basis in truth, that truth may be insignificant. English children of my generation all learned about how King Alfred had burned the cakes of some peasant lady in whose house he had taken refuge after a battle; this incident may or may not have happened, but was far less important than the fact that if it hadn't been for him, Englishmen might all by now have been speaking French as their first language. Zut alors!
The universal Argentine experience from infancy is of years of the kind of nationalistic indoctrination, which Romero says is visible in this galloping love for flags; marches and anthems sung everyday while raising the flag. This kind of response conditioning goes some way to explaining how it was possible that the crowds who cheered Galtieri's announcement of the invasion of the Falklands were the same that had taken to the streets only three days before in protest against the dictatorship.
Some observers of the recent referendum in the Falklands might be forgiven for thinking that we have caught the same galloping love for flags and that this might be a disease for which some kind of mass inoculation might be in order.
I don't think that is necessarily true, though I have to admit that mass flag-waving does have too many uncomfortable historical connotations for me really to enjoy it. However, I was delighted that though there was much flag-waving, there was no flag-burning and this I think was evidence that what we were witnessing was a positive and essentially good-natured celebration of unity and community: self-assertion rather than aggression. This was quite different from the kind of nationalistic confrontation we have recently seen so much of in Ushuaia, Buenos Aires and elsewhere.
I worry, however, that too much prominence of the union flag might have seemed confusing to observers in other countries. What we were so overwhelmingly voting to maintain was a status which admits our dependency on Britain for defence and foreign relations, but otherwise permits us almost complete autonomy and a platform from which we may, with our former colonial master's approval, in time choose whatever future status may seem appropriate. If we have to supplement the power of a democratic vote with any kind of a flag, then the Falklands flag, which has the union flag in one corner and our own national crest in the centre, symbolizes our current situation much more adequately.
We are undoubtedly British in character and in nearly every aspect of our existence and probably always will be, at least in a sentimental and emotional sense. This does not mean we are not politically and legally entitled to consider becoming something else as well. Too much emphasis on our 'Britishness', rather than on our own unique identity, forged by our geographical situation, our history and our climate, simply serves to encourage those who say that we should return to Britain, or become some kind of far-flung extra-county governed from Westminster.
One should also keep in mind the fact that for many countries and peoples of the world, the union flag, as the British label, is not seen immediately as a quality mark – witness the whole unforgivable business of the Chagos Islands, which Argentine bloggers keep mentioning or David Cameron's recent near apology for the massacre by the British of hundreds of peacefully protesting Indian men, women and children, not too long ago.
While one might not totally accept the premise of recently visiting Professor Peter Willetts that retaining our present status actually reduces our legal right to self-determination (See the article by Dr Lyubomir Ivanov in PN of March 22 for a refutation of this), all 99.8% of us who recently voted 'yes' and maybe even the three as yet unknown 'no' voters, should agree that given the light of the world's attention which has been briefly shone upon us, (thanks to the efforts of Argentina's President and Foreign Secretary amongst others) the time has clearly come when we must start to think less about the past and more about the possibilities which the future holds.
There is maybe no rush to consider a change in our present status as the current intransigence of our neighbours would make some desirable scenarios, like full independence, more difficult to achieve, if not impossible. Anyone who was listening to the debates during the recent Regional Commonwealth Parliamentary Association meetings in Stanley will know, however, that the options still open to us short of full independence are many and exploring them need not in any way threaten either our feelings of Britishness or our feelings of gratitude for the sacrifices made on our behalf in 1982.
Come to think of it, we don't even have to do away with the union flag completely, even if Scottish independence might leave it looking a bit different. Australia and New Zealand are both former British colonies which have chosen to retain the British Sovereign as their titular head of state and also retain the union flag in one corner of their own national flags as a symbol of their historic origins. Although within Australia this British connection has occasionally been subject to debate, both countries are independent and it has been a long time since anyone referred to them as mere colonial enclaves.
John Fowler -Stanley