Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Institute for Free Trade.
“Yo soy así, soy argentino, Ingleses putos de Malvinas no me olvido…”
It has become the most popular song on Argentina’s Spotify, boosted by a viral clip of the squad belting it out in the changing room after their semi-final against Croatia.
The lyrics translate roughly as: “This is me, I’m Argentine, I don’t forget the Malvinas English bastards.”
Odd, you might think, to define your national identity with reference to a war you lost – especially a war you lost when you were a fascistic dictatorship. But, as they say in Buenos Aires, “sobre gustos no hay nada escrito”: there’s no accounting for taste.
Of course, we Brits remember wars too – though we generally celebrate the ones where we were the goodies.
The Falklands conflict is close to the top of that list, the only war I backed without hesitation.
I supported the liberation of Kuwait, but not the second Iraq war. I could see a case for toppling Mullah Omar after 9/11, but not for the prolongation of our mission in Afghanistan. I had doubts about the way we carried out our interventions in Syria and Libya. Even in Bosnia and Kosovo, where the moral case was strong, I couldn’t help wondering what it had to do with us.
With the Falklands, I never had any doubt. British territory had been invaded without provocation by an authoritarian regime that wanted to distract attention from its domestic woes. Our fellow subjects were under military occupation. As Margaret Thatcher put it the day after the invasion, in words carved under her bust in Stanley:
“They are few in number, but they have the right to live in peace, to choose their own way of life and to determine their own allegiance. Their way of life is British; their allegiance is to the Crown.”
I was living in Lima when the invasion happened, and Peruvians overwhelmingly took the Argentine side. So did most Latin Americans outside Chile, but it went further in Peru. Peruvians had long seen Argentina as their ally in the anti-Chilean cause – a sentiment that, as far as I can tell, was wholly unreciprocated.
At any rate, Lima was full of Argentine tricolours, and conversations, even with old friends, could become strained. It all changed after the liberation of Stanley. Overnight, Brits were in fashion again. As Toby says in The West Wing, “they’ll like us when we win”.
The war was the first historical event that I followed in the news. I was ten, and I think it had a similar impact on everyone my age.
I had wanted to visit the islands ever since, and finally did so last month with the APPG. We were belatedly marking the fortieth anniversary of the liberation (the Falklands avoided lockdown by imposing a stringent quarantine that was not lifted until May 2022).
I couldn’t help noticing that the MPs were of my generation: James Sunderland, a colonel with a 27-year service history; Daniel Kawczinski, the tallest man in Parliament; Sarah Atherton, a former NCO and district nurse who turned Wrexham blue for the first time; Julie Smith, a Cambridge academic and LibDem peer.
All of us (if it is not indelicate to say so about the ladies) were the same age to within a year or two. All of us, in other words, watched the Falklands War as children. The only exception was Stephen Doughty, the clever and impressive shadow minister for (among other things) Britain’s overseas territories.
What we saw convinced us that the Falklands War is one of the handful of conflicts which produced good outcomes. As well as tramping around the battlefields and laying wreaths at memorials (I suppose the “Ingleses putos” include the Welsh and Scots Guards; most Latin Americans use “inglés” for British), we spent our time experiencing island life – seeing the school and hospital, dining with islanders and so on.
The war was the making of the Falkland Islands. Before 1982, the economy and the population had been declining precipitately. The last regular sea connection to the UK had been lost, and islanders worked on sheep farms owned by absentee landlords.
Since the war, the population has doubled, with 60 nationalities recorded in the recent census. Liberation meant a permanent and powerful British garrison, as well as an air connection to the UK.
Fishing licences brought wealth: when you munch your way through a dish of calamari in a Greek taverna, gazing across the aquamarine shallows of the Aegean, the chances are they were caught in Falklands waters. Hydrocarbons could bring a further bonanza (Boris Johnson held up drilling on green grounds, but Liz Truss was in favour and, given the international situation, her decision is likely to stand).
The Falklands conflict, in short, is a model of the Christian definition of a just war. It was lawful, defensive and proportionate. The UK made no attempt to extend the fighting to Argentina. Victory meant a better future, not only for the islands, but for Argentina, whose junta fell in disgrace.
Who, outside Argentina, would want to associate with the aggressor? You guessed it. Here is Dmitri Medvedev, Vladimir Putin’s erstwhile stand-in, after the world cup final: “Congrats to Argentina on its victory. Britain, give the Malvinas Islands back to Argentina!”
Never mind the absurdity of the “back”. Never mind, either, the hypocrisy. Russia justifies its invasion through rigged referendums in southern and eastern Ukraine (including Crimea), yet ignores the genuine Falklands referendum of 2013, which saw 99.8 per cent support for British sovereignty on a 92 per cent turnout.
No, what is telling here is that that the Kremlin, itself involved in an unprovoked war against a democratic neighbour, wants to align itself with Argentina.
Despite everything, the parallel flatters Russia. Although the Falklands war was a crime, its conduct was relatively correct. The islanders I spoke to, though shocked at the way some Argentine officers treated their conscripts, recalled no direct abuse (beyond, obviously, the fact of the occupation itself). A Falklands Bucha was unthinkable.
Unlike Russia’s troops, Argentina’s soldiers knew how armies are supposed to behave. On 28 May 1982, Sqn Ldr Mario Jorge Caffaratti was ordered to attack the SS Uganda, a cruise liner that had been pressed into service as a hospital ship. Seeing her red crosses, he refused two direct orders to open fire, telling his superiors “Perhaps you’d like to fuck yourselves”.
Such episodes made re-establishing good relations easier. Although Peronist politicians (and, it seems, footballers) make heated statements, most Argentine public iconography stresses reconciliation over revanchism. Only a decade after the war, British and Argentine soldiers were serving alongside each other in Cyprus.
Earlier this year, a mechanic in Argentina’s second city, Córdoba, made a point of telling me about his brother, who had been captured after the Battle of Tumbledown:
“He’d had nothing to eat for days except a cup of rice that he mixed some margarine into with his fingers. He was homesick, soaked through and freezing. He thought he was going to be gutted by one of those Indians you have, you know, the ones with the knives. Then, next thing, he’s a prisoner and a Scottish sergeant is giving him tea and soup. It was the first warm meal he’d had. He won’t hear a word against you English [sic] now.”
It did not take long after General Galtieri’s removal to normalise Anglo-Argentine relations. Yes, some Argentines obsess about the Falklands (including the party currently in office). Others have no interest in trying to assimilate a British population, and see the whole issue as a distraction from their real problems.
Most are in between, maintaining a claim, but not wanting it to stand in the way of good relations.
Russia is, I’m afraid, in a very different place. There is no liberal opposition there, no readiness to disown aggression. It will take far longer for Russia to be readmitted into the comity of nations. But the first step is to remove Putin – and Medvedev and the rest of the robber barons – and sue for peace.