Regarding the matter I wish to talk about this week, I am not certain in my own mind, which is hardly the thing for a polemicist. Take a view and hit it hard, that’s generally the form in this column. Still, we’re all friends here, so let’s try something different. I’ll put forward my concerns as briefly as I can, and if you think I’m getting it completely wrong, I’d be very interested to learn more about the subject. Grateful, even.
There’s an adage about the future, something along the lines of, if you want to see what Britain will look like in ten years, just look at America now. I think in many ways you can scale that down, and apply it to the Falkland Islands. If you want to see our direction of travel for the coming decades, just look at Britain now. Well, I come from Britain, and I think this is a terrifying thought.
Eternal economic growth as a pure and undiluted positive is pretty much holy scripture for most of the world. There are dissenting arguments, mostly on environmental grounds, but not solely. Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, a husband and wife team who teach at MIT and won the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics, argue that pursuing an ever-growing GDP can be counterproductive because it so often feeds inequality. In their book on the subject, they wrote: “Nothing in either our theory or the data proves the highest GDP per capita is generally desirable.”
Rather, they say, governments should focus on specific measures that advantage the most vulnerable. Otherwise the powerful simply reap further benefits, leading to social breakdown, polarisation and rises in inequality and mortality rates.
So maybe there are broad lessons to learn there, but let’s zero in on what’s good for the Falklands specifically. The point has been made that capital projects like the port, and the hoped-for attendant economic growth they will provide, are necessary not only to uphold living standards, but vital if the economy is ever going to stop depending too much on fishing. There must be fallback positions, should that industry suffer failure or hardship.
This seems to me inarguable and correct. And yet, I have perhaps old-mannish concerns coming from a place of conservatism. I don’t mean Conservative in the modern sense, mendacious and rapacious and entirely for the benefit of the rich. I mean old-school conservatism, which looks to preserve value and ensure that the things we lose are not worth more than the changes we make.
This is a touchy subject, and it can be easy to fall into contradiction. I’ve observed people who consider themselves real Falkland Islanders, the true stewards of the Islands, argue that their right to off-road is more important than the ancient natural environment of their home. I’ve watched debates over oil exploration and salmon farming, where people who are the first in line to extol the virtues of Falklands traditions turn on a penny to fight for unfettered industries that would irrevocably shatter those ways.
But then, this is an area where I can be educated. There is a very clear social strata here, a clear and separate group of people who make the decisions and take canapes from trays at Government House receptions about once a month. Was it always this way? Or did there used to be more of a community mix, more of a sense of all being in it together? I’m relatively new, so I can’t speak to this.
I’m an outsider, not steeped in Falklands life, but I can see the value of that life. An ease with remoteness and solitude, but a strong sense of being part of a diverse community. Stopping to chat to at least three people every time you go shopping. Sharing an environment with a rich panoply of wildlife. Opportunities in work and education that are almost unrivalled. You have much here that is worth preserving. Everybody would love superfast limitless broadband, and reliable flights, and more TV channels, and, I don’t know, a John Lewis. But are those necessarily the things we should be pushing towards? Because none of it comes without a price.
I’m suggesting, I guess, that we approach these issues with extreme caution. It seems silly to be arguing in favour of economic stagnation, but if not that, slow growth at least and definitely a reordering of priorities. In the six years I’ve lived here I’ve seen food bank usage rise, a housing crisis gradually worsen, the cost of living become unmanageable for many. You might feel that a growing economy is the only way to combat these ills, though I hope you wouldn’t insult our intelligence with the notion that those benefits are ever distributed with equality.
Worst of all, I’ve seen this happen before, in the UK. Perhaps this is why I worry about what you’re losing. Before you go barrelling down that road, give a thought to how you think your day-to-day life, for all its remoteness and technological shortcomings, compares to how things would be for you, should these Islands continue to echo British trends.