On 18 January 2013 the government of the Falkland Islands announced a date for the referendum on whether to retain the Islands’ status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom. It will take place on 10-11 March.
Not long afterwards, the Argentine vice president Amado Boudou came out against the referendum, arguing that the electorate largely consists of ‘colonists’ – “the descendants of those who evicted the true inhabitants of those islands.” I agree with Mr Boudou that the referendum is an outrage. But my reasons are the mirror image of his. The purpose of the referendum is to rebut Argentina’s claim on the Islands by affirming the ‘right to self-determination’ of the Islanders. David Cameron likes to put the case this way, and the right to self-determination for peoples is even enshrined in the UN charter. Yet it is a gravely misconceived idea.
To understand why, let’s look at what this principle means in practice. Imagine a nation that has a large ethnic minority which is a majority in a particular region. The group claims to be a ‘people’ and demands independence on this basis. In other words, their claim is based on the ideal of majority rule, or on the notion that ‘peoples’ should be demarcated by states. But what if our group is one of religious fundamentalists who will impose draconian laws on the now outvoted people of the original nation? Or what if, as the philosopher Sir Karl Popper warned in one of his last speeches, they are the Sudeten Germans who demanded secession from Czechoslovakia in service of the Nazi regime? Because the principle of self-determination had almost total moral authority in much of Europe, and because the existence of the Czechoslovakian state had itself been justified with this principle by its founders, there was no moral defense available, either logically or psychologically, against the German demand for the Sudetenland.
The supposed right to self-determination, then, can be used to justify virtually any form of political oppression—paradoxically, it can be (and has been) used even in the service of imperial conquest. So it is a mistake to defend the Falklands on these grounds. The Islands would still be British even if for some reason a majority were ethnically Argentinian (for example if Luis Vernet’s settlement had been successful, or simply via immigration). Only racism can justify a demand for independence based on ethnic differences alone. The real reason the Falklands should remain British is that Britain has peacefully and effectively administered them for nearly two centuries. The British claim in 1833 was legitimate and unchallenged by any other claim to sovereignty.
In general, there is only a case for independence when it is motivated by a wish for genuine political progress. The idea that one is being oppressed unless one votes with people of the same culture or outlook is just as mistaken as the racist interpretation of self-determination. Oppression is committed via policies. I might feel freer as a religious radical who sides with the majority in my support for draconian restrictions on, say, free speech—but I am much less free than a person with the same views who is part of a minority in a liberal democracy. Political freedom is not morally arbitrary; it is not determined by popular whim.
Questions of race or ethnicity are hence irrelevant, and majority opinion is not a sufficient motivation for change. Libertarians will likely agree with J.S. Mill’s ethical hypothesis:
If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.
But self-determination is not only contrary to liberalism; it is also profoundly at odds with other conservative values, for it demands the use of force and the overriding of individual rights for political change––and it does this not for the sake of progress, but in sheer obedience to a principle.
The right to self-determination is not so much a right as a glorification of tribalism and mob rule. It is a shame that our Government feels obliged to give such a perverse justification for what is in fact the moral imperative of protecting the rights and institutions of the Falklanders.