I may think Argentina is flogging a dead horse with its endless pursuit of sovereignty over the Falkland Islands, but as a Scottish nationalist I can hardly blame anyone in Buenos Aires who might be feeling a tad cynical about the UK government's reaction to the news that the islands' own government will be holding a constitutional referendum. After all, there does seem to be a slight inconsistency here, both in tone and substance...
London's reaction to the news that Scotland has decided to hold a referendum on its constitutional future :
'Decided'? What do you mean 'decided'? Decisions are things that happen in London.
(Pauses for brief sulk.)
Oh, if you absolutely must. But you'll certainly need our guidance in framing the question - you Scots can barely string a coherent sentence together when left to your own devices. And why on earth do you need to leave time for a proper debate? Why not hold the vote next Tuesday?
London's reaction to the news that the Falkland Islands have decided to hold a referendum on their constitutional future :
What a splendid idea! Next year, you say? Oh absolutely, the longer people have to think about a decision they've already taken, the better. And you certainly don't need our help sorting out the question - whatever you come up with is bound to be first-rate.
Marvellous stuff, chaps! The world must hear your voices!
* * *
Except, of course, that it isn't such a first-rate idea, and in fact it's a massive missed opportunity. Comparisons have been made with Gibraltar's referendum on sovereignty ten years ago, but that misses the point entirely. The Gibraltar vote wasn't purely a stunt. Spain might not have been any more receptive to the principle of self-determination than Argentina is likely to be, but Spain was not really the target of the exercise. At the time, the British government was attempting to go over the heads of the people of Gibraltar and reach a deal on joint sovereignty. The referendum result troubled enough consciences in the UK to effectively kill that idea stone dead.
There is no such target for the Falklands referendum, because the UK government is not trying to sell the Falklands down the river, and there is absolutely no prospect of it doing so. The BBC's John Simpson pointed out the other day that most Latin American countries have now been converted to the curious principle that anything short of an Argentinian colonisation of the islands would represent a continuing 'relic of colonialism', and suggested that this new consensus might have been enough to exert pressure on the UK to give up sovereignty if it hadn't been for Argentina's recent drift away from its Western orbit towards a more pro-Venezuela/Cuba stance. But that simply isn't the case - London wouldn't have given an inch on the Falklands issue no matter how many countries were lined up in Argentina's corner. That's partly because the islanders' case for being able to retain the British link if they so choose is watertight (and I say that as someone who loathes British imperialism), but it's mainly because the 1982 military victory has become so important to Britain's self-image. It wouldn't have been any kind of psychological trauma to betray the islanders prior to 1982, but it certainly would be now.
So if the referendum isn't going to impress anyone in Argentina, and if it doesn't even need to impress anyone in the UK, and if we all know what the result is going to be anyway, what is it actually supposed to achieve? The islanders do have a problem to resolve - but it isn't the one Gibraltar faced in 2002. They needn't worry about being stripped of their right to remain British, but they do need to worry about bullying from neighbouring countries that could make day-to-day life in the Falklands increasingly problematic. So an intelligent use for a referendum would not be to ask a question we already know the answer to, but instead to open up a meaningful debate about how the constitutional relationship with the UK could change in such a way as to finally remove the 'colonial' label, which is what provides cover for the bully-boy tactics.
Realistically, the Falklands are too small to be an independent state, which leaves two potential ways forward. The first is full integration into the UK. It's too often forgotten in this debate that the Argentinian jibe about the anachronism of Britain retaining South American territory could also apply with bells on to France, which actually retains a significant portion of the South American mainland. But the difference is that French Guiana has been scrupulously decolonised under one of the options specified by the UN, with the territory being fully integrated into the French state. It's a bizarre and probably unhealthy situation that the European Union has a seemingly permanent land border with Brazil, but few seem to question it. A more sensible solution would be a free association agreement of the sort that the Cook Islands have with New Zealand. Under this model, the Falklands would become sovereign but would freely enter into an agreement to allow the UK to handle its foreign affairs and defence. In practical terms there would be little change in the islands' governance, but it would have a huge impact in terms of entrenching the islanders' place on the moral high ground.
But it seems the referendum will do nothing whatever to further that necessary debate. And it won't do anything else either. What a waste.