Thatcher on Sovereignty

imagesA few days ago, the British government released a set of documents relating to the Falklands/Malvinas War under the thirty-years rule, by which government documents are made public after thirty years. At the risk of supplanting the role of this blog’s (almost) official Falklands correspondent, Klaus Dodds, I’d like to reflect on these released documents as they have been reported in the media.

From a media studies angle, the contrast between BBC and Guardian coverage is fascinating. The main BBC story, ‘Falklands Telegrams Reveal UK Response to Invasion,’ focuses on military logistics amidst an unyielding war effort: ‘Mrs Thatcher was in no mood to compromise,’ the BBC reported, as she boldly stood down a phone call from President Reagan wherein he pressed for a diplomatic solution. The BBC story focuses on the efforts to secure troop transport via requisitioned cruise ships, the scrambles by diplomatic offices in Stanley and Buenos Aires to burn classified papers and destroy equipment, and the attempts to dissuade France from shipping Exocet missiles to Peru (which, Britain assumed, would be transhipped to Argentina).

Much more interesting, for me at least, was the focus of the Guardian story: ‘Thatcher was Ready for Falkland Islands Deal, National Archives Papers Show’. The story reveals that key members of Thatcher’s cabinet and Thatcher herself were willing to pursue a long-term resolution to the crisis that would have fallen well short of the pre-invasion status quo in which the Falklands were part of the sovereign territory of the United Kingdom.  It is unclear whether this was due to pressure from the US (which, both stories report, sought to steer Britain away from a military solution), whether it was due to a sincere belief that British recapture of the island would just lead to another Argentine invasion at a later point and that a longer-term resolution was therefore needed, or whether it was due to concerns that the British invasion might not be successful (a point raised in the BBC story).

The details of a solution that would fall short of reestablishment of UK sovereignty are sketchy. One plan, pushed by the US at the UN, called for an Argentine troop withdrawal to be followed by the establishment of an interim council to determine the future of the islands, on which Argentina would have representation.  Cabinet Secretary Robert Armstrong urged Prime Minister Thatcher to consider ‘some kind of association with the UN – or some kind of Anglo-American trusteeship.’ There also were informal proposals for a Brazilian-American trusteeship. In any event, according to the documents, Argentina showed no interest in these potential compromises so they were not pursued.

While these proposals shed new light on UK (and US) machinations behind the war, they shed even more light on how policy makers think of sovereignty, not as an absolute right but as a rhetorical tool that is continually being reaffirmed, and in the process, renegotiated, to achieve other, more substantive (but, therefore, more flexible) ends. On 19 May, two days before British forces landed on the Falklands, the war cabinet noted, ‘In practical terms, administration mattered more than sovereignty.’ Ten days later, while the battle to retake the islands was raging, Thatcher stated that Britain was ‘willing to consider change and did not necessarily expect a return to the pre-invasion status quo. The future probably lay in a settlement which did not involve either British or Argentine sovereignty but provided for some form of independence or quasi-independence for the islands.’ Given the strong pro-British orientation of most of the islands’ settlers, it seems likely that if this route were pursued the British could have used references to self-determination (and plebiscites) to ensure that the resulting ‘independent’ or ‘quasi-independent’ political unit would continue to serve Britain’s ‘administrative’ needs. I would think that possible models here might be the US’ ‘freely associated states’ in the Pacific (the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, and the Marshall Islands), wherein formal sovereignty is tempered with substantial aid and military dependency, or, perhaps the slightly tighter bind between the US and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

According to international relations scholar Robert Keohane, sovereignty is ‘less a territorially defined barrier than a bargaining resource for a politics characterized by complex transnational networks.’ Keohane wasn’t writing about the Falklands, but he may as well have been. For these latest revelations reveal with more poignancy than ever how notions of territory, identity, sovereignty, and borders form a complex web that is manipulated to support underlying ends and that reflect and reproduce underlying conceptions of space, subjectivity, and political order, rather than fitting together into neat, stable packages. This is the case everywhere, but it is especially apparent on small islands with settler populations.

Phil S.

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2 thoughts on “Thatcher on Sovereignty

  1. Pingback: Sovereignty, Territorial Integrity and the Falklands/Las Malvinas | Progressive Geographies

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