Protesters in favour of UK sovereignty of the Falkland Islands in London. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Over the next few days, around 1,600 inhabitants of the Falkland Islands will be asked whether they wish to "retain their current political status as an overseas territory of the United Kingdom".
Never before in British history has the outcome of a referendum been so predictable, its purpose so provocative. The referendum, to be held on Sunday and Monday, will solve nothing. It will exacerbate tired and anachronistic arguments about sovereignty.
The question will be accompanied by an explanation: "Under the Falkland Islands constitution the people of the Falklands Islands have the right to self-determination, which they can exercise at any time".
Explain that to the inhabitants of the Chagos Islands, expelled so that Britain could establish its "Indian Ocean territory" and allow the US to build a base on the archipelago's biggest island, Diego Garcia, from where aircraft have bombed targets in Iraq and Afghanistan, and refuelled CIA aircraft rendering individuals to Guantánamo Bay.
The Falklands executive council, made up of three legislative assembly members, insists the islands are not a "colony" even though the governor is appointed by London and has the power to impose laws on the inhabitants. It describes the islands as "entirely self-governing, except for defence and foreign affairs". It also says that the council "can review its status at any time. This could include full independence."
The referendum, of course, is a device to strengthen the British and Falklands governments' hand as Argentina steps up its calls for negotiations over the sovereignty over the islands.
The dispute over sovereignty has been going on for centuries, and Britain has never been really confident over its claim to the islands. In 1929, the Duke of Wellington observed: "I have perused the papers respecting the Falkland Islands. It is not clear to me that we have ever possessed the sovereignty of all these islands."
"If I may be very frank and rather rude, you had to keep the ball in the air with the Argentines. That was the object. We did not have any cards in our hands."
Carrington added: "There were all sorts of reasons why a settlement was to the advantage of everybody. If you cannot afford to defend a place … the only conceivable thing that you can do is to keep negotiations going as long as possible whether or not you think they are going to be successful."
Referring to a lease-back plan suggested by the Foreign Office a year earlier, he said: "As I recollect, the Argentine conversations did not go too badly and to begin with the Falklands Islanders did not react too strongly, but the House of Commons reacted very strongly." The papers reveal that Thatcher herself was prepared to negotiate with Argentina even after the invasion as the British taskforce was heading for the islands.
Argentina questions the right to self-determination for the inhabitants of the islands as demanded by Britain. They should not have that right, Argentina says, but would continue to enjoy all their human, civil, political, and cultural rights, their way of living, as minorities do in other countries around the world.
UN resolutions on the dispute, of which there have been 40, do not refer to self-determination but to the "interests" of the islanders. Attempts by Britain at the UN to include the phrase have proved unsuccessful. The UN says the dispute over sovereignty must be settled through bilateral negotiations, between Argentina and Britain, not with the islanders.
According to recent figures, the majority of inhabitants were not born on the Falklands. For the first time last year, says Argentina, the census did not provide information about people born on the islands. However, the inhabitants were asked what they considered their national identity to be. A majority said "Falklanders". On his visit to London last month, Hector Timerman, the Argentinian foreign minister, said there was no such thing as a "Falklander".
The inhabitants of the islands are British, says Argentina, but the territory is not. It is a matter of territorial integrity. A visitor from Mars would be astonished if anyone argued otherwise. A settlement that enshrined fundamental rights – political, human, social, economic, cultural – protected by law, would bring much healthier and more practical benefits for the inhabitants of the Falklands than a sterile dispute over sovereignty. This is a concept that in any case has been eroded over the years as nations – including Britain – agreed to be bound by the rules and obligations, as well as the benefits, of international military, economic and trading alliances.
So, as the countries of the region, through their Union of South American Nations (Unasur), have already made clear, the coming Falklands referendum is all but meaningless .