Letters to the Editor - March 2013

A selection of readers' correspondence with the editor, Paul Lay.

Share your thoughts with the readers of History Today.

Email p.lay@historytoday.com, or send to

History Today
25 Bedford Avenue
United Kingdom

Borges and I

Can I write a few words in support of the balanced editorial on the British-Argentine connections in history and its relevance to the current storm brewing in politics (From the Editor, February 2013)? We can only hope there are History Today readers in the corridors of power. The warnings of history in whatever form they come are ignored at one’s peril.

The reference to Jorge Luis Borges struck a chord with me and I was slightly disappointed that you missed out the influence of Tennyson on him. Borges’ most famous poem in English is Brunanburh, which he wrote long after reading Tennyson as a child. It is ironic that he knew so much about a battle most British people have never heard of and that he wrote his poem in the style of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and in Spanish.

If you have never read his poem, it is available on my website.

David Anson
Rotherham, South Yorkshire

Not So Simple

The editorial in the February issue raised the vexed issue of British and Argentine claims over the Falklands/Malvinas, ending with a plea that the result of a forthcoming referendum ‘should be respected’. On the face of it this seems a reasonable position: however the island inhabitants vote, that should resolve the matter for all parties.

I suggest that the issue is not quite so straightforward. First, experience (might I write ‘history’?) indicates that a referendum is not always the vehicle to determine accurately the popular will, even less to resolve a long-standing conflict. For example, it is unlikely that a referendum in the Occupied Territories of the Middle East would be respected by the major contenders. Second, the wording of a referendum has a major impact on the outcome. 

Consider two apparently simple questions: ‘Do you favour the present relationship of the Falklands with the United Kingdom’, and ‘Do you favour a change in the present relationship of the Falklands with the United Kingdom?’ Because neither question indicates what an altered arrangement might be, I strongly suspect that a rational voter would say ‘yes’ to the first and ‘no’ to the second.

The probable referendum in Scotland indicates a path towards resolution of the problem of a question pre-judging the outcome. The contending parties should negotiate the wording of the referendum, which in the case of the Falklands/Malvinas would include the governments of Britain and Argentina, and representatives of the residents. This procedure would have the great advantage of legitimising the vote for all three parties, facilitating the outcome sought in the editorial, namely to respect the views of the residents of the islands.

Professor John Weeks
University of London

Words Matter

As someone who has studied and written about the history of the Falkland Islands for many years the From the Editor in the February edition was of great interest. A very fair and even-handed piece is concluded by two sentences which are eminently sensible and ought to point the way to anyone who holds an interest in that area.

I would merely like to query one word and one phrase in the editorial. You use the word ‘colonisation’ in connection with the British re-assertion of sovereignty in 1832. I have always taken this word as applying to the assumption of power over a territory with an indigenous population. There was no such population on the islands in 1832 and no archaeological evidence that there had ever been such a population. From time to time bases were set up but none with the intention of permanent settlement. Argentina has claimed that the British evicted such a population in 1832, but this is not supported by any records. There is, of course, now an indigenous population on the Falkland Islands: the present Falkland Islanders.

The phrase I wish to comment on is ‘neither side can appeal to history’ and in the sense that the problems that exist in that area should be solved only in connection to the ‘here and now’ you are totally correct in your judgement. Unfortunately history is being misused and deformed by one side in the dispute, who have created a folk myth of injustice and legitimacy that is used to ‘educate’ its own people and ‘inform’ world opinion. Would it be better to ignore these crude misrepresentations or should the other side use history clinically and logically to dispose of them?

This dispute has in fact already been resolved once: the Convention of Settlement of 1850 between the British government and the Republic of Argentina settled all differences, without any exception or reservation, between the two countries and established ‘perfect friendship’ between them. It has never officially been rescinded and was the basis of relations for the next 90 years.

Bill Featherstone
via email

Madness for Power

I was very interested in A Curse and a Blessing (February 2013). May I put a slightly different twist on the matter? As someone who has worked in the field of mental health for a number of years, I see the matter from a rather different perspective.

Since the Second World War there has been a growing medicalisation of human nature. Much of that process has been in the area of mental health and this has increased over the past 20 years. Now almost every facet of human behaviour is subject to labelling. For example, if you work constantly you are considered, or likely to be considered, as suffering from some kind of disorder. If you don’t work, your behaviour is labelled as a different disorder. Grief, part of the natural human experience, is treated with drugs and considered similarly malign. Each condition is accompanied by an expert sooner or later. All human behaviour is now subject to medical analysis.

Not only is this process colonising the present, it is also now colonising the past. Although neither of the writers intended it, the article conveys the notion that Churchill’s immense character traits were the product of a bipolar condition. I would firstly strongly contest that he had such a condition but also point out that this is how the medicalisation juggernaut works: Churchill’s exceptional qualities are subject to medical scrutiny. Also, although Lincoln’s wife was difficult and neurotic, there is no evidence she suffered from schizophrenia. This juggernaut seeks to reconstitute exceptional behaviour and ability into mental health issues, imposing increasing conformity.

What would have been the fate of these exceptional people had they lived today? They would have been classified, prescribed drugs that would have altered their behaviour and swamped their judgement and creativity. I am afraid stigma against mental illness is there for a reason; to provide credibility and greater influence for the medical profession and more money for the pharmaceutical companies. I have worked in the psychiatric field for over 20 years and I strongly hold that it is largely charlatanism, based on the acquisition of professional power, status and money.

Stanley Wilkin
Greenwich, London

The History Today Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly email