East meets Westminster: Still calculating Falklands factor thirty years on

Richard Porritt’s look at the issues dominating the political agenda.

Three decades ago soldiers from East Anglia helped liberate the Falkland Islands from Argentinian aggressors.

Many would say no war ever has a successful outcome and, although the military objective was met after 74 days of fighting, 255 British servicemen died.

And now it seems Argentina want a replay.

After defeat, dictator Leopoldo Galtieri quit and by 1983 Argentina enjoyed its first free elections – it appeared a new era had dawned. But the defeat at the hands of the British always hurt and sporadically – mainly because flag waving wins votes – politicians have laid claim again to ‘las Malvinas’.

But this time it is different. Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner wants the Falklands, in fact it is becoming an obsession. So much has she ratcheted up the pressure over the disputed islands that a crucial G20 meeting in Mexico where Prime Minister David Cameron should have been concentrating on the Eurozone crisis actually grabbed headlines because of an awkward – and allegedly stage managed on Britain’s part – confrontation.

Thankfully a war is highly unlikely. Even though Britain does not have the naval might it did in 1982 Argentina could not mount a serious bid to take the Falklands and would face strong international condemnation if they did. But undoubtedly the worry and the doubt about what Buenos Aires might do next is playing on the mind of Mr Cameron. The best he can hope for short-term is that everyone politely ignores Mrs Fernandez de Kirchner’s rants and outlandish claims – one piece of recent propaganda said the people who lived on the island were hostages of Britain.

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But for the people on the Falklands those worries are more real. Many remember the terror of being faced with an occupying army and they are furious at the latest bombast coming from Argentina.

The Honourable Gavin Short is a member of the Falklands’ legislative assembly. He remembers 1982 only too well but is confident a defiant message from the people will send a stark warning to Argentina.

“We plan to hold a referendum in the first half of next year and we are very confident the Islanders will not want anything to do with Argentina – we want to stay exactly as we are,” he told East meets Westminster earlier this week.

“The vote is vital because what a lot of people forget is that this is not about Argentina or even the UK – it is about us. This is our home and we love it just the way it is. I know nothing else and I want nothing else.”

He added that Argentina’s current aggression has “radicalised” a new generation living on the island: “Lots of people don’t remember what happened in 1982. And for some time it seemed like Argentina wanted peace. But now the younger people have been radicalised because of their stance.”

So with this chest-beating, new wave of tall-talk from Mrs Fernandez de Kirchner and Britain’s firm “not up for discussion” stand it is odd that taxpayers’ money is finding its way to Argentina - a whole �225 million so far.

The Department for International Development is not directly transferring taxes into Buenos Aires bank accounts – the money is paid through the World Bank to support loans – but it is embarrassing for Mr Cameron.

Conservative MP for Witham, Priti Patel, is demanding the flow of money ends: “The lobbying of the Prime Minister on the subject of the money we give to Argentina is ongoing – he is aware of the issues of course.

“I think with the added sabre-rattling we have seen in the past week or so we really need to get on top of this outrage. These loans should stop immediately and I am sure the British public will absolutely agree with me on that.

“Why should we be spending money we don’t really have on a country that is clearly not friendly towards us?”

When Ms Patel asked about how Britain would vote on any further loans to Argentina she was told that every project would be assessed on its own merits. But already Barack Obama’s administration has vetoed loans to Argentina and the Coalition would do well to follow.

Just four months before the 1982 invasion Margaret Thatcher was polling worse than any British leader in history. She faced being ousted from Downing Street after just one term. But by the time the forces returned home she was destined not only to win a landslide victory at the next election but to change the direction of Britain.

Luckily for Mr Cameron he is unlikely to have to put troops in danger but he could still reap the rewards of a ‘Falklands bounce’ at the polls. When, in December last year, he vetoed a European rescue plan Mr Cameron’s ratings spiked. The public, it seems, like it when their Prime Minister sticks up for Britain on the international stage. The empire may only exist in the memory but those memories remain strong – we believe we should be more respected and feared than we are.

Number 10 needs a fillip. The first half of this year – disastrous budget, Leveson Inquiry revelations and a resurgent Labour party – have been tough for the Conservatives.

War planes and submarines are not the answer – but some stronger words and stopping any taxpayers’ cash going to Argentina, indirectly or otherwise, would prove popular among voters who are clearly not yet convinced by Mr Cameron.

And it might help the 3,000 who live on the Falklands sleep a little easier at night.

Richard Porritt is on Twitter @Porritt.