Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Is it the Falklands' oil?

A few nights ago, I watched the 1992 BBC film An Ungentlemanly Act, which dramatises the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands (as opposed to the main body of the war that followed). Needless to say, it's written almost exclusively from a UK perspective, so there are aspects of jingoism and sentimentality about Empire that are bound to set any self-respecting Scot Nat's teeth on edge. Nevertheless, it's well worth a watch on YouTube - it's surprisingly funny, and the actors (including Ian Richardson of House of Cards and Bob Peck of Edge of Darkness) are all superb.

However, I wouldn't blame you if you'd already had more than your fix of Falklands 'nostalgia' for one decade. I can't fault the principle that was at stake when Mrs Thatcher gave the go-ahead for the effort to recapture the islands - the current population is the only settled population the islands have ever had, by 1982 they'd been there for a century-and-a-half, and they therefore had the same right to self-determination as any other territory, large or small. But did the tabloid press realise that the self-determination of others was what 'we' were fighting for? Indeed, did the government, the army and the British public? For all too many, the war was about the recovery of a status symbol, and proof of British prowess.

Which makes it all the more irritatingly ironic when the jingoists and militarists self-righteously pray in aid the principle of self-determination, while certain thoughtful critics of the war lose sight of its vital importance. This from Anthony Barnett -

"To which we should reply: “make peace in the South Atlantic”. The UN Charter stipulates an obligation to protect the “interests” of the Falkland Islanders, not to obey their “wishes”. The islanders want the revenues from the oil being discovered there. We should recognise it as Argentina’s black gold, not “defend’ it with more British lives."

The idea that it would be disproportionate to defend oil with British lives is an arguable one. The idea that it's "Argentinian" oil, however, is downright bizarre. What kind of notion of self-determination is this? We'd be conceding that the Falklands are "really" Argentinian territory on the antiquated basis of "territorial integrity", but then trying to argue that the islanders still have some kind of semi-right to their British status in spite of that. An utterly hopeless case to make, which is presumably why it's being suggested.

There's no point being squeamish about it. It may seem intuitively wrong that a micro-territory of 3000 people can trump a nation of 40 million when it comes to territorially-based claims for ownership of oil. But that's exactly the way international law and self-determination works. It would obviously strengthen the case if the Falklands were formally decolonised and entered into a more modern constitutional relationship with Britain. But for those of us who believe in self-determination, even the weird desire to remain a relic of the British Empire is a legitimate choice that should be respected. And if it's really the case that the islanders will themselves enjoy at least some of the fruits of the oil, rather than all the revenues going straight to the British Treasury, perhaps Alex Salmond should consider adding the option of becoming a self-governing UK dependency to the referendum, alongside the options of independence and Devo Max. In some ways, it sounds like not a bad deal - British jingoists could in future feel a warm glow about defending to the death Scotland's right to do what it wants with its own natural resources!

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