By Peter Slowe
Both Britain and Argentina have had serious doubts at various times about their respective claims to the Falkland Islands. The islands were probably first sighted by a British sailor, 'Captain Davis', in 1592. In 1600, they were certainly seen by the Dutch. They were claimed by the French in 1764 but were transferred to Spain in 1767 for £24,000. The British meanwhile had claimed the islands for themselves in 1765. Spanish protests were made in London and this seems to have been the earliest precursor to the dispute over the islands' sovereignty.
Everybody abandoned the islands in 1773. In 1829 a Spanish Argentine settlement was established in West Falkland and four years later this was followed by a British settlement in East Falkland. No one had or claimed to have a legal right to the islands as a whole, but the (by now independent) Argentine settlement was abandoned in 1867 to be replaced by a British settlement a year later.
Argentina and Britain both feel they have a right to the Falklands based less on legal rights than on different concepts of natural justice. In the case of Argentina, it is a right derived from a sense of thwarted destiny on the South American continent where geopolitics stir strong sentiments. Argentina has a concept of itself as a country prevented from achieving greatness, mainly by the Americans (through the agency of Chile) and the British in the South Atlantic. Even expansion to the wild frozen South into 'Antlantártida' was blocked by the British.
For the British, there is a sense of right derived from the ethnic links between Britain and the Falklands — "our own people"" as Margaret Thatcher proclaimed in 1982 — and the islanders' right of self-determination.
Until war broke out, a solution was never far away. The Argentine and British views were on the verge of being reconciled in 1977 when a Foreign Office minister in the Jim Callaghan's Labour government, Ted Rowlands, recommended that there should be a compromise whereby the islands would become Argentine sovereign territory but with democratic self-rule and a British way of life. This compromise would not have been unlike the later agreement with China over Hong Kong.
Even when one of her most right-wing ministers took over, Nicholas Ridley, in Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government, the same kind of deal was on the cards. It is the basis of what should be done now.
On the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War, it is surely time for a compromise. Britain should cede sovereignty to Argentina while ensuring by treaty with the now-democratic government of Argentina that the tiny local population can continue to enjoy local democracy and a 'British' way of life. An agreement over oil and other resources could follow. Then 904 young servicemen, who should by now be old or middle-aged, will not have died in vain.
Peter Slowe is a former financial advisor to the Blair government and vice-president of the Labour finance and industry group. He is also founder and director of Projects Abroad, a leading global volunteer placement organisation.