As a democrat, I believe in people’s equal rights to live under a government of their choosing. I believe in self-determination, and I believe that a people who have lived on their own islands for nearly 200 years and who almost unanimously want to stay under their current government have every right to remain so. As such, I frankly cannot see what is so complicated about the case of the Falkland Islands.
If the argument is territorial integrity, then I fail to see why Argentina’s share of Tierra del Fuego (non-contiguous, on an island mainly in Chile) is legitimate while the Falklands (300 miles away) are not. Nor do I understand why the Canary Islands, Ceuta and Melilla, Alaska, French Guiana, Kaliningrad and many others besides somehow fit the bill. I don’t accept that 3,000 people living on a previously uninhabited set of islands are somehow a remnant of colonisation to be subjugated or deported. I simply do not concede that Argentina has any argument worthy of the name.
My party leader’s view that the UK should discuss sovereignty over the Falklands with Argentina, despite the clearly expressed wishes of their people, thus strikes me as unconscionable. Never mind whether British voters believe that British citizens in British territory who wish to remain British have every right to remain so, though they do. Never mind whether a leader who refuses to defend his fellow citizens from foreign aggression is unelectable, though he is. His stance is just plain wrong.
The correct position is: “The United Kingdom holds no selfish or strategic interest in the Falkland Islands and is more than happy to discuss matters of day-to-day concern with the Argentine Republic. Its only concern is to uphold the democratic rights of its people. On the day it can be shown that Falklanders’ wishes have changed, the UK Government will do all in its power to fulfil them. Until that day arrives, it will not abandon its fellow citizens. Sovereignty can only be placed on the table by the Falklanders themselves.”
So far, so simple. But many people who support Corbyn on this issue come back with accusations of hypocrisy. They ask: “But what about the Chagos Islands? What about the handover of Hong Kong? Why is realpolitik fine for them?” The argument extends over huge swathes of British foreign policy.
In many cases, the response is that it’s not “fine for them”. The UK’s treatment of the Chagossians was and remains unconscionable, too: we should never have been willing to remove 2,000 people from their islands just so our ally could be assured of not having anyone anywhere near its military base. We should put matters right now, and Corbyn has every right to point out the West’s hypocrisies in the Indian Ocean. But that makes no difference to the rights and wrongs of the Falklands.
In many others, though, the answer is murkier: unlovely pragmatism is often required in foreign policy. Hong Kong was, at least in part, a case in point. The UK had a permanent legal title to Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, but not the New Territories. It may well have been that Hong Kongers would have preferred a political arrangement which didn’t involve being part of the largest dictatorship on Earth, but the bottom line was that Hong Kong’s water supplies depended on the New Territories, China had no intention of re-leasing them, the UK would have had no military ability to defend Hong Kong anyway, and no one was going to help us do so.
The only option available was to make the best terms available. You might (validly) question whether the best terms were, in fact, made; you might decry the UK Government’s failure to press China on behalf of Hong Kong since 1997; you absolutely should lay into John Major’s Tories for refusing to offer the Hong Kong Chinese British citizenship. But no UK Government could seriously have been expected to try and defend Hong Kong against the People’s Liberation Army.
Realpolitik is usually ugly, but often necessary. However, there’s no conceivable need to trample on the Falkland Islanders. Argentina’s periodic fits of pique are an irritant, but no more than that. No lease is about to expire; no water supplies depend on Buenos Aires. The UK doesn’t have to put the sovereignty of the Falklands on the table: it would be an act of choice, not compulsion.
One of the most pernicious aspects of much of the hard left’s foreign policy is that it lays into the UK’s cynical or pragmatic compromises (sometimes necessary, sometimes not) not to call for a policy based on consistent defence of human rights or self-determination or the rule of law, but simply a policy based on the assumption that the West is always wrong. And it devalues the very notion of aiming for a genuinely better foreign policy as a result, because it refuses to set consistent yardsticks: we’re wrong whatever we do.
This isn’t just whataboutery to avoid the issue: it’s whataboutery in the name of dismissing virtually every other principle in favour of callow anti-Western, anti-American sloganeering. So Syria ceases to be a question of what can best be done to combat ISIS, or protect civilians, or negotiate a deal – but an opportunity to denounce the sins of Britain, France and America. Ukraine ceases to be about the rights of democracies on the border of an aggressive great power, or how best to allow Ukrainians to live in peace under a government they chose, but a chance to snipe at NATO enlargement. And yes, the Falklands cease to be the home of 3,000 people who have rights like the rest of us and become a chance to complain about British colonialism.
Foreign policy is often murky; double standards are often unavoidable. It is sad indeed that, in the name of a more ethical foreign policy, parts of the left wish to add so many more, with no real need or purpose.