Murdo Fraser: Dual identity crucial to Falkland Islanders and Scottish alike
The images of Exocet missiles and burning ships, of yomping marines and injured sailors, are as fresh in our minds today as they were 30 years ago.
It was therefore a real privilege to be able to stand at the Liberation Memorial in Stanley, shoulder to shoulder with veterans of the conflict, just ten days ago on the 30th anniversary of the Argentinian surrender. I was there on behalf of the Scotland Branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, along with other representatives of the British Isles attending as guests of the Falkland Islands’ Government.
In a bitter coincidence, at virtually the same time as we paraded in a howling blizzard in Stanley remembering those who gave their lives for the Falklanders’ right of self-determination, the Argentinian president Cristina Kirchner was addressing the United Nations, demanding the “return” of the islands.
The Falklanders view the Argentinian posturing as more of an irritation than a real threat. But in a calculated response, the Falklands Government, with the full backing of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, announced that they would be holding a referendum later this year to make it clear beyond doubt the islanders’ views on their constitutional future. Having travelled 8,000 miles to get away from endless referendum discussions in Scotland, I ruefully reflected that I had found myself at the heart of a parallel debate.
It is usually when identities are threatened that they are most ostentatiously celebrated. As in Gibraltar and parts of Northern Ireland, so in the Falkland Islands the locals enthusiastically proclaim their Britishness. There are Union flags everywhere. In the gift shops of Stanley, souvenirs are emblazoned with the defiant message “Keep the Falklands British”.
Looking at all this, an outsider might assume the Falklands are no more than a quaint historical anomaly, full of people nostalgic for the mother country – a sort of Shankill in the South Atlantic. But talk to the Falklanders and a more interesting story emerges. For this is a prosperous, successful nation that is growing in self-confidence. The Falklands’ economy is booming. Traditionally based on agriculture, it is now supported by the careful and sustainable exploitation of lucrative squid fisheries. Oil has been discovered in territorial waters, and with new licences being granted for exploration there are high hopes for a North Sea-style boom. This would bring extensive future revenues, and helps explain the renewed Argentinian interest.
Tourism – particularly that involving day trippers from cruise ships interested in wildlife or military history – is increasingly important. The Falklanders are industrious people, many holding down a variety of jobs, and unemployment among the tiny population of around 3,200 is an alien concept.
The Falkland Islands Government is self-sufficient in all areas except defence, where it relies on the UK. In a situation which makes it the envy of every Western government, it runs a healthy budget surplus. No one pays income tax until they earn £14,000 per year and the top rate is 26 per cent. There is universal health care funded by a special medical tax. Those requiring operations or treatments not available locally travel either to Chile or the UK and have their full costs, including travel and accommodation, paid for by the Government, subject to a maximum personal contribution of £300. State pensions are more generous than in Britain.
The population is booming with a rising birth rate; the schools are bursting at the seams. Unlike their counterparts in most Scottish islands, of those young Falklanders who leave the islands to pursue their education in the UK (there is no post-15 provision locally), the great majority return home, many having acquired a spouse or partner. Life in the remote Falkland Islands might seem challenging to us, but those who grew up there clearly have a great affection for the place.
And whilst the older generation regard themselves as only British (many referring to the UK as “home”), younger people would describe themselves as first and foremost Falklanders. That does not mean that they disown their British heritage – far from it. They are aware that it is the British military umbrella that protects them against possible future Argentinian aggression, but it is not that alone which keeps them valuing their ties to the UK.
When it comes to the referendum in the Falklands that is being planned for later this year, few expect the outcome to be anything other than an overwhelming majority for retaining British sovereignty. When faced with a similar question in 2002, 97 per cent of Gibraltarians voted against the UK discussing sovereignty with Spain, and an equally emphatic result is anticipated in the Falklands.
But the younger generation of Falkland Islanders are comfortable with their dual identity, delighted to have the British link, but fiercely loyal to the islands of their birth. They are both Falklanders and British – if asked, probably Falklanders first – and the two identities are not in competition.
A small nation, increasingly self-confident, awaiting a referendum on its future – this all sounds very familiar to us. In Scotland we may not have the external threat that the Falklanders face, and our referendum result may in the end be less clear cut than theirs, but the parallels are there nonetheless. And I have no doubt that the concept of dual identity, whether Falklander and British, or Scottish and British, will play a crucial role in determining our respective constitutional futures. «
• Murdo Fraser is Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife