THE BLOG

Margaret Thatcher and the Falkland Islands

09/04/2013 11:17 BST | Updated 09/06/2013 10:12 BST

Margaret Thatcher's personal commitment to the Falkland Islands was widely acknowledged in the aftermath of the 1982 conflict with Argentina. She was granted the Freedom of the Falkland Islands and, if you ever visit Stanley, you will see come upon a 'Thatcher Drive'. Even before her death, it was common to hear Mrs T being described in highly appreciative terms. And for good reasons.

Sending the task force was of course a major factor for such an assessment. She might, as confidential papers reveal, have done a deal. And it was well known that sovereignty discussions were part of Anglo-Argentine relations since the early 1970s. UK governments, even her one, were not always so up front in their support of the Islanders.

For me, one of the most important things she did was grounded in legislation. The 1983 British Nationality (Falkland Islands) Act is her most important legacy to the Falkland Islands community. It meant that Falkland Islanders were granted full citizenship and were no longer classed as a British Dependent Territories Citizen. The latter had restricted rights to enter and stay in the UK. In January 1983, Falkland Islanders enjoyed similar rights to the people of Gibraltar but not the people of Hong Kong. That act reinforced a sea-change in the position of the Falklands community.

After this shift in citizenship status, the decision to build Mount Pleasant Airbase was critical in ensuring the longer term security of the Islands. For all the recent talk about the eroding of naval capabilities, this investment was critical and created an air-bridge with Ascension Island and thereafter the UK. While post-war democratic governments in Argentina were nervous about reinvesting in their militaries, the British fortified their hold on the Islands and increased funding for British Antarctic Survey. The wider South Atlantic and Antarctic region was re-imagined in far more geopolitical/strategic terms. Royal Marines were kept stationed on South Georgia.

Another aspect of Thatcher's legacy was diplomatic. She ensured that sovereignty was taken off the negotiating table. She helped to ensure that the US never forced the UK to change its basic stance that sovereignty was not to be discussed with Argentina, and she managed to keep any suggestion that a hand-over (in Hong Kong style) was likely. She also maintained a cordial relationship with Chile (governed by the dictator, General Pinochet) and recognized the vital support the Chileans had offered in 1982. Some of which was to come back to haunt the UK in 1998 following the General's detention in London.

The Falklands Referendum of March 2013 owes much to Margaret Thatcher. She created and maintained a political orthodoxy which remains unchallenged today. Every subsequent British government has publicly reaffirmed the right of the Falklands community to self-determine their future. And with the help of the UK, they have created a local economy and society that would have seemed unimaginable in the late 1970s.

It has, however, brought costs to the UK - diplomatic, military, and political-economic. But there is also evidence that South American neighbors are more accepting of the UK position (often privately). And without the Falklands legacy, complex thought it is for British society more generally, we might not have seen the recent reversal of proposals to reduce the role of British Antarctic Survey in the wider region.

I suspect 8th April will henceforth be commemorated as Margaret Thatcher Day in the Falkland Islands. And to be honest, from the perspective of the Falklands community, there are good reasons to do so. So much of what the community has achieved owes not only to decisions made in April 1982 but throughout her administrations.