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Friday 8 December 2023 Dublin: 9°C
David Cheskin/PA Wire Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, right, with the British PM David Cameron.

Column The British government is facing separation anxiety

But this isn’t about Ireland for a change as the Falklands and Scotland look to upcoming referendums on their future, writes David McCann from the University of Ulster.

IT APPEARS THAT battles over self-determination are now not just confined to Ireland these days. Both Scotland and the Falkland Islands are embarking upon a referendum to decide their nation’s future.

Yet it appears from polling that neither of these referenda will result in a change of constitutional status; so even the humblest student of politics could be forgiven for asking: what the point is of holding a ballot when there appears to be no appetite for change?

It is important to state from the outset that we are dealing with two very different cases. The government of the Falklands is seeking to hold a referendum to reaffirm its connection with Britain while its counterpart in Scotland is seeking the exact opposite. Yet both have much in common as they are provoking what can only be called a separation anxiety in some quarters.

Take the case of Falkland Islands, a place with just 3,000 residents and more 7,000 miles away from Britain yet still the issue of sovereignty is re-emerging in the British media thirty years after the Falklands War. Why is it that relations in the fifthteen years immediately following the war
were better between the islands and Argentines than they have been in the last decade?

Well it’s important to look at the internal politics of Argentina, since its economic collapse in 2002, the nation led by Néstor Kirchner, who took over as president in 2003 embarked upon a programme of economic and national resurgence. An important part of this was reinforcing Argentina’s claim to the Islas Malvinas (Falkland Islands) going so far as to ban energy companies who were active on the islands from doing business in Argentina. This same policy is being followed up by Kirchner’s wife and current president, Cristina Fernández, who has succeeded in getting other Latin American countries namely, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay to restrict access of ships using the flag of the Falkland Islands.

“There is of course the power of oil”

There is more to this story than just fervent nationalism being driven from Buenos Aires; there is of course the power of oil. Since 2008 exploration around the islands began with between 8 to 60 billion barrels of oil to be found which to put a price tag on it would mean a tax windfall of $180 billion for either the Falkland Islands or if they get their way Argentina. When they found oil off the coast of Brazil, the then president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, described it as ‘gift from god.’

Now Argentina hopes that similar good fortune will land on its shores. Do not be fooled by the narrative being portrayed by the Argentine government, this recent saber-rattling is about getting a share of the profits that are likely to be found off the coast of the Falklands and an attempt by a president desperate to bolster her sinking approval ratings. When Falkland Islanders deliver their verdict next year; it is unlikely to receive a sympathetic hearing from Buenos Aires but the remarkable thing is that I suspect it won’t care as it continues garnering support among its neighbours for a push towards sovereignty over the islands.

Closer to home there is the issue of Scotland which, unlike Argentina, is having a referendum being led by a government that recent polls have said 71 per cent of the Scottish people say they trust and by a party whose avowed goal is the independence of Scotland from the United Kingdom. Since he was re-elected with an overall majority last year, First Minister Alex Salmond began preparing the ground for a referendum on independence seeking out Hollywood stars like Sean Connery and Brian Cox to come to Scotland to help launch his campaign for independence.

The only remarkable thing about the campaign launch was that many of the people arguing for independence don’t actually live in Scotland anymore.

Yet despite Salmond’s popularity and the famous ex-pats who are trying to help him, recent polls show 55 per cent of Scots planning to vote no to independence. Similarly to the Argentina/Falklands dispute, oil and gas have a lot to do with this debate. Since oil started coming on shore in the late Seventies, the Scottish National Party (SNP) had begun gaining electoral support using terms that are still used by Salmond today such as ‘Scottish Oil’ and ‘Our natural resources.’ The economic case for independence rests largely on the oil and gas revenues that would be needed by Scotland to rebalance its economy and provide much-needed money for the new state starting off.

“It is no wonder that the British government appears to be suffering from separation anxiety”

Also what of the British government? Would it be prepared to give up the billions of pounds that are still due to flow in its coffers if the referendum succeeds?

It is no wonder that the British government appears to be suffering from separation anxiety as it attempts to deal with on the one hand a referendum in the Falkland Islands with a near-assured favourable outcome and a prospective aggressor nation who is winning the public relations battle for its case. Then in Scotland, we have a similar case of a solid lead on the side opposing independence and a British government seemly incapable of making the case for staying in the United Kingdom.

In this, Britain needs to be wary as the example of the Quebec referendum on sovereignty in 1995 illustrate that a popular leader can revive a movement towards independence. The British government could do well to remember that Salmond and Fernández only have to win their political battles on these issues once, while the British government will have to be prepared to argue their case always.

David McCann is a PhD researcher in Irish politics at the University of Ulster.

Read previous columns by David McCann>

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