January 15, 2001
In 1982 British forces took back the Falklands Islands from the Argentine armed forces. In many ways this was the one event that defined the Thatcher era. The view that became current was of a Boedicca who defended British interests tenaciously. This was not an entirely true picture. Before the invasion the Thatcher government had been negotiating with the Argentine government with a view to giving the islands over to Argentina on a "leaseback" scheme. There were other similar, and more successful attempts during Thatcherís premiership, Hong Kong, Belize and (arguably) the Anglo-Irish agreement were all elements in the global roll back that had slowly been going on since the Second World War.
So was it right to fight this war, as it went against Thatcherís long term policy? Undoubtedly the invasion was wrong. The Falkland Islanders were British citizens on British territory which was being invaded against their will. This was as clear a case as any of a just war. British territory had been invaded, the Argentine forces had not withdrawn and so therefore force was needed to eject them. But the idea that this was in the short term a just war tends to make people think that in the long run the Falklands should be kept. This is wrong.
The Falklands are a stunning tactical weak point. 8000 miles away from Britain the 2000 people necessitate a large army and navy presence. Furthermore the long range naval capability that is required to support this presence is a large diversion from what should be the primary purpose of any British navy, to protect the sea lanes around the British Isles. The cost of £77 million may seem small, but it would be enough to save jury trials in England. There is no strategic case for a European power to keep the Falklands, there wasnít even a case for a global power to keep it after the Panama Canal was built.
Two arguments come in play here. The first is that of sacrifice. Did the hundreds of British soldiers die in vain? Well, no, they died to protect British subjects on British territory Ė this is not in itself an argument for keeping the territory British once the immediate threat has been lifted. The second argument is that the people of the Falklands want to be British and should therefor should be British. Here we have the argument of double consent, do the British want to have the people of the Falklands as well? As I have argued above I donít believe that they should.
The case against the Falklands could equally be applied in the case of the Caribbean. Are tax havens like the Cayman Islands, Bermuda and the British Virgin Islands really vital British interests? Together with small islands like Monserrat, the Caribbean is the largest collection of remaining British overseas territory. Now, I have nothing against tax havens, Iím all for them in fact, but I just donít believe that Britain should be financing them or guaranteeing their defence. As American tax authorities are muttering dark things about these islands, wouldnít it be a good idea to just hand over all these islands (and the non tax havens and defensive guarantees in nominally independent countries like Belize) to America? If they really are such a big problem, and really are incapable of independent government, why not hand them over?
Of course there is a vast swathe of unpopulated land that the British hold, a large slice of the Antarctic. This is no tax haven, and despite its fabled natural wealth little of value has been extracted. This is another area that we can be rid of with no bother.
In 1878 Disraeli negotiated for Cyprus to come into the British Empire. It was vital, he reasoned, with the new Suez Canal dictating traffic with India and Australia, to have a presence nearby. With both India and Australia having gained their independence, the British are still there. Instead of occupying the whole of Cyprus the British are now in two large bases which have been put under perpetual sovereignty. But why? Suez may still be vital to world trade, but is it really any of our business? Is the prospect of being on the frontline of any flare up in the Greek-Turkish war on Cyprus really a good idea? Or should we just hand over the bases, either to the Cypriots or the Americans?
And then there is Ascension and St. Helena in the middle of the Atlantic. And what, precisely are the strategic values of these two islands? Well we have bases for an air corridor for protecting the Falklands and the Antarctic. We also have a handy place for keeping uppity French emperors under control. Apart from that these are another drain on our resources and should be dispatched with as painlessly as possible.
Then there is Gibraltar. The strategic case for keeping this is much stronger than for all the other dependencies. It boils down to three main components; (a) it provides a naval base with a wide sweep over the North Atlantic; (b) it can block access in to and out of the Mediterranean and; (c) it really, really annoys the Spanish. If we, reluctantly, discard the third component we have a case for keeping Gibraltar that although strong, is not compelling. Do we really face a naval threat from the Mediterranean? Is Gibraltar vital for protecting the Western Approaches to the British Isles? As there is no question of us being unwelcome occupiers (the Gibraltese overwhelmingly back the British, even if they are uneasy about nuclear submarines being repaired there) the case for keeping Gibraltar is in the balance, but by no means compelling. I am agnostic on keeping Gibraltar.
The Empire was in our past, there is really no need to keep up the remnant of it. It is flattering when people prefer to be ruled by us rather than by their neighbours, but that is all it is, flattering, it is not a strategic imperative. The majority of people under British rule live in the British Isles (indeed live in England) and any continued presence overseas should be on the sole prerequisite of "how does this help Englandís security. If our presence does not make us more security then it should be terminated, it really is as simple as that. If these territories are invaded, or if a minority tries to use terror to coerce the majority, then Britain should act Ė it is not only a moral duty to protect our citizens it is also a terrible precedent to override a democratic decision through force. But our duty goes no further than that. It is time that people who regard themselves as patriotic start to think in terms of the strategic survival of their country, rather than to clutch at the antique rags of empire.
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