Francis Beckett


In 1946 and 1947, Clement Attlee’s government set out to bolster Britain’s shaky claim to an almost deserted little archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean.  Britain, said a Foreign Office memorandum, was to "take all possible steps to strengthen our title... The occupation upon which we have embarked should be such as to afford evidence of the exercise of sovereignty." 

A mapping exercise was devised, to strengthen a rather flimsy claim, and to pre-empt any similar venture by the Argentine or Chilean governments, despite unmistakable signals that Argentina considered the islands her territory. 

A task force was sent, and a haughty Foreign Office reply was given to a Chilean protest. 

Amid his other troubles – India and Palestine abroad, opposition to the emerging welfare state at home - Attlee may not even have known. I suspect - speaking as Attlee’s admirer as well as his biographer - that if he had, he would have put a stop to it, and saved the lives of 255 young men and women who were not even born in 1947.

As it was, the Foreign Office, under the most traditionalist Foreign Secretary of recent times, Ernest Bevin, instinctively bolstered any potential British claim to territory, however tenuous. And claims do not get much more tenuous than Britain’s claim to the Falklands in 1947.

Another chance to settle the business peaceably was missed in the 1960s, when Britain’s Foreign Office had come to the sensible conclusion that sooner or later the islands ought to be handed over to its near neighbour Argentina. One solution canvassed was an agreement whereby sovereignty would be transferred to Argentina while retaining British administration.

 But the residents, most of them of white British descent, would not hear of it, and negotiations petered out.

Since they were discovered by Dutch explorer Sebald de Weert in 1600, the islands have been variously claimed by Britain, Holland, Spain, France, Argentina and Chile. We are now told that the referendum the 1,650 islanders held recently, when all but three voted to stay with Britain, must be the end of the matter. The Prime Minister says Britain will always be there to defend the Falkland Islanders.

The islanders celebrated far into the night and sang Land of Hope and Glory, and Falklander Andrew Brownlee, resplendent in Union Jack bow tie, waistcoat, jacket and trousers, gave gleeful interviews to eager British reporters. Sybie Summers, owner of a gift shop, said of the three who voted “no”:  "I don't know who they are but if they're not standing up for our islands then they shouldn't be here...  If that is how they feel then they can have a one-way plane ticket out of here marked 'Do not return'." 

A representative of the island’s government went on the BBC news wearing a Union Jack tie to tell us that what they did with their taxes was entirely up to them, but he thought they might consider donating some of them to the cost of defending the islands, which was jolly decent of him since 50 per cent of them think of themselves as Falklanders, not British. 

Whatever they offer will be a drop in the ocean.  Costs of defending the island are £75 million a year, and many times that much as soon as there’s a credible threat. If they met it themselves, every single Falklander would have to find £44,856 every year. Of course, now there’s oil, those 1,650 islanders may be able to make themselves fabulously rich.  Depressing to think that, if we end up fighting for the Falklands again, it will be yet another war about oil.

Only Roddy Napier, 85, was heard calling for an accommodation with Argentina, and his fellow islanders call him a traitor. "In the long term, I still think that we have to come closer to Argentina” he said. “You cannot isolate yourself from your neighbour forever."

It’s time we got rid of these tiny vestiges of empire, like the Falklands and Gibraltar, with their selfish, jingoistic populations, relics of the days when Britain had an empire upon which the sun never set. If they’re so keen to be British, they can come and live here, and we should retain control of their islands long enough for them to do that, if they want to. 

But we should hand the Falklands over to Argentina as soon as possible.