Thirty years after Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, it seems the British maintain a warm fondness for the chilly colony that almost none of them will ever see. In a poll this week, an astounding 61 per cent of respondents said they would be willing to fight “at any cost” to save the wind-scoured, sheep-festooned islands whose main assets are squid and symbolism.
It’s more fuel for the political fire that’s been raging between Argentina and the U.K. in the weeks leading up to the April 2 anniversary of the war, an event that is a source of pride on one side of the Atlantic and humiliation on the other. But where the battle was fought three decades ago on sea and land, now the weapons are hot air. Argentina’s President, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, and Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, accuse each other of “colonialism” and “arrogance,” while actor Sean Penn and pop star Morrissey call for Britain to hand the islands over to Argentina.
At this point, the chance of the rhetoric escalating into something more deadly seems remote. “It’s probably the most unlikely scenario,” says Matt Ince of the British defence think tank RUSI. “Neither Argentina nor Britain has the stomach for a military conflict.”
Instead, this game of geopolitical chess remains symbolic: On Feb. 4, Prince William, an RAF search-and-rescue pilot, began a controversial six-week stint at Britain’s military base in the Falklands. In return, Argentina’s ally Peru suddenly decides it doesn’t want a Royal Navy ship docking in its harbour. The British announce plans to send a new warship, HMS Dauntless, to the south Atlantic, and, in retaliation, the Argentine government decides it will challenge the British right to explore for oil off the Falklands’ coast.
Why, you might wonder, would two governments spend so much energy fighting not once, but twice, over a rocky archipelago that’s not quite as big as Connecticut and is located 13,000 kilometres from the British motherland and 500 from the shores of the country that would like to annex it? “The Falklands were always an improbable cause for a 20th-century war,” wrote Margaret Thatcher, the woman who risked her political career on precisely that cause.
For Mrs. Thatcher, the sneak attack by the Argentine military junta on April 2, 1982, and the 11-week war that followed proved a political windfall, though one that came with a heavy loss of life. (There were 907 deaths, more than two-thirds on the Argentine side.) Before the conflict began, her government was deeply unpopular in the polls and was seeking to reverse what she called Britain’s “long decline” on the international stage. Suddenly the Falklands’ 1,800 inhabitants – whom the British had been trying to quietly unload for years – were symbols of the country’s lost pride. “Self-determination” became the awkward rallying cry for the islands, which have been under British control since 1833. A loss in the Falklands would likely have ended her career; instead she went on to be the longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century.
Now there are 3,100 people and a permanent British military base on the islands, and it looks like there may be oil reserves off its shores. Squid fishing has replaced sheep farming as the animal cash crop of choice, but the Falklanders’ desire to stay British is as unyielding as the south Atlantic winds. It would be a political nightmare for David Cameron to lose the islands that his Tory predecessor fought so hard to keep. “We will defend the Falkland Islands properly,” he said last month.
Mrs. Kirchner, whose Argentine government has complained to the United Nations about the “militarization of the South Atlantic,” has political and economic woes of her own. In fact, those woes might be the very reason she’s making so much noise about the Falklands (or Las Malvinas, as she would call them.) “It’s an attempt to exploit national grievances in Argentina and draw attention from her less popular policies,” Mr. Ince says. This is happening, unfortunately, at the same moment Britain is trying to strengthen its ties to Latin America.
Prince William, whose presence the Argentines found such a provocation, has returned to Britain. But that’s not likely to cool tempers. With famous anniversaries approaching in May – the sinking of the Belgrano and Sheffield warships, the Battle of Goose Green – it’s likely more missiles will be fired in the war, heat-seeking but not necessarily lethal.