Two Cheers for Democracy

It was recently reported that a referendum on the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands resulted in an unsurprising outcome: all but three of the islanders voted to remain “British.” It was not reported how many of the islanders were actually born in Britain or have any other legitimate claim to call themselves British.

It was equally unsurprising to learn that the British government supports the claim of the islanders. What is less clear is why; and who was behind the holding of this referendum, and why it was held.

Possibly the only bit of good to come out of the event known as the Falklands War was the superb example it provided of the cynicism of government in general and of the British government in particular. On 14 April 1982, twelve days after the war had started, Margaret Thatcher was voted the worst prime minister in British history, according to a poll in The Times1 – due no doubt to the three years of odious domestic policies by her government. By the end of the war, a mere couple of months later, and following the British victory, her fortunes had reversed and her popularity at the polls had more than doubled.2

Not that Thatcher was the only politician to use the Malvinas as a distraction from her disastrous domestic policies. In Argentina, General Galtieri, plagued by union unrest as a consequence of how he was handling the country’s dire economic situation (to which Britain actively contributed) saw an opportunity to divert the anger of his people towards the British. As everyone knows, he lost the war he started; Thatcher won. The price of their distraction politics: Galtieri’s instant political demise and a further eight long, long years of Thatcher’s reign; and, oh yes, I almost forgot, about a thousand dead soldiers and several thousand devastated families.

So the recent referendum in the Malvinas is moderately interesting. What’s it all about? Our trusted leaders would tell us it’s all about democracy and respecting the rights of the islanders to self-determination. Their concern would be truly touching… if it could be believed. But there are a few difficulties:

1. If we’re so concerned about respecting the rights of distant islanders to be British, if that’s what they want, what about the Chagos Islanders? The Chagossians have at least as much right to call themselves British as the people living in the Malvinas, but somehow their decades-long campaign to be allowed to return to the island paradise from which they were forcibly evicted in order to turn it into a monstrous US military base, is routinely rejected by the British government – despite various British court rulings in favour of the Chagossians. Fortunately (for Whitehall) the Chagossians happen to have brown skins, the people living in Malvinas are mostly white. Admittedly this is only a minor point, as the British government is truly colour blind in some matters and has a long and impressive history of brutality against its own white-skinned people too; but nevertheless, British TV audiences probably identify more with the distress of white-skinned people than the misery of those with dark skins which, after all, is pretty routine – its’ all very sad, obviously, but… ho hum, let’s watch football instead.

2. It costs the British taxpayer at least £61m a year to keep a military garrison on the Malvinas (there are other costs to the taxpayer too, such as maintaining a governor and his staff). That means that with a population of a mere 2,800 people, almost £22,000 a year is being spent on each occupant of the Malvinas. If these people have such a desperate desire to be British, it would make far more economic sense, in these times of “austerity,” to move them all to England, accommodate them, and pay each and every one of them an Income Support allowance. Possibly some of them would prefer to work and not claim Income Support – reducing the cost even more.

Another factor that’s excluded from our trusted leaders’ touching concern for democracy is that it’s reported that vast oil reserves may exist in the immediate vicinity of the Malvinas. It’s also overlooked that the islands are very conveniently located for the South Atlantic shipping lanes, and are an ideal base for the Royal Navy, experts in the shameful art of sanctions enforcement. The Malvinas are also extremely useful relative to the Antarctic – where the next great land-grabs are well and truly underway. These points are moderately well known, but it would be nice if our trusted leaders openly acknowledged their importance. It would be nice if, when asked about it by the toothless representatives of the corporate media, our trusted leaders openly admitted they want the Malvinas for its strategic importance to our “defence” forces, and because the place might be sitting on top of massive oil reserves their corporate bosses want to control. But no, they never say that, they tell us instead they’re supporting the democratic wishes of Malvinas Islanders to determine their own future (providing, obviously, they make the right choice). Well I say two cheers for democracy.

• See also “Falklands/Malvinas,” Dissident Voice, 18 June 2012.

  1. Richard Lance Keeble, “New Militarism, the Media and the Manufacture of Warfare 1982-1991: The Implications for Peace Journalism Theory and Practice,” GMJ: Mediterranean Edition 5(1/2) Spring/Fall 2010, p. 21. []
  2. Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein, p.138. []

John is a writer and political activist based in England. He can be contacted through his website. His main contribution comprises three free-to-use works-in-progress: The People’s Constitution, The School of Kindness, and EnMo Economics . Read other articles by John.