Falklands referendum: ‘Territory’ belongs to people, not nations. If the islanders want to be British, it’s up to them

Falklands islanders celebrate the referendum result
These guys clearly want to be part of Argentina. Can’t you taste the Latin passion?

If nothing else, the Falkland Islands In/Out referendum was a triumph of democracy. Ninety-two percent turnout; only one spoiled ballot. Of an electorate of 1649, 1518 voted. Only three (3) voted to be part of Argentina. That is what is known, I believe, as a “landslide”. Or conceivably a “drubbing”.

But it’s the Argentinian response that’s interesting. “We respect their way of life, their identity,” said Alicia Castro, Argentina’s ambassador to Britain. “We respect that they want to continue being British, but the territory they inhabit is not British.”

I don’t fully understand how this would work. The people are British, but the land is Argentinian? Does land no longer belong to people?

From the point of view of an ex-colonial nation still largely run by the descendants of European immigrants, this is particularly difficult. Is Patagonia “Argentinian”, or is it still the rightful fiefdom of the Tehuelches nation? How about the Cape Horn archipelago? Does that still belong to the Yámana? Does Senora Castro recognise the Tierra del Fuego as forever Onas? Once you start getting into who “the land rightfully belongs to”, you start getting into serious difficulties, because history goes back a long way. (It’s also far from clear that Argentina ever owned the Falklands anyway; apparently they had a penal colony on the islands for a year or so around 1832-1833. But that’s neither here nor there.)

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If the Falkland Islanders had just turfed the indigenous people off in a bloody invasion, it might be different, but they’ve lived there peacefully for over a century. As John Locke would put it, they have mixed their labour with the soil, building something there: it’s as good a theory of rightful property as anyone has ever come up with. The Falkland Islands belong, if any land belongs to anyone, to the Falkland Islanders, and they want to place their protection in the hand of Britain’s increasingly feeble military. More fool them, you might say, but it’s their decision, not “the territory’s” and not Cristina Kirchner’s.

But as I’ve written before, this isn’t really about Argentina wanting the Falklands. It’s about looking big in front of your electorate. I hope the Argentinian people are clever enough to see through this transparent militaristic ruse, but I’m not all that hopeful: in general, transparent militaristic ruses seem to do quite well with voters.

Read more by Tom Chivers on Telegraph Blogs

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